Part 1: The Strangeness of the Particular
“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation
For by Him all things were created, both in heaven and on earth“
– Colossians 1:15-16
The Christian faith is deeply strange. And certainly, given that it is an outpouring of human imagination and hope reaching out of a finite historical context towards some infinite horizon, this is to some extent unavoidable. Christianity invests very specific particulars – one man, one collection of texts, one people’s history – with infinite significance, and the resulting contrast can be experienced as bizarre. This juxtaposition is what Walter Brueggemann, an Old Testament scholar and theologian, called “the scandal of the particular”.
Many contemporary spiritual options circumvent this kind of scandalous proposition by electing some transpersonal, transcultural concept as their window into the sacred. Pantheism, for example, venerates the infinite universe as such. Meanwhile, many other contemporary spiritualities venerate the concept of “Consciousness” – a sufficiently vague and mysterious idea that one’s mind does not immediately balk at the suggestion of its infinite significance. It is no wonder that these spiritual paths have grown so popular in our secular, pluralistic, and rationalist age – in avoiding particularity they avoid stepping on anyone’s toes, and they provide a universally accessible medium through which, or towards which, one can channel one’s spiritual feeling.
But for me, as I grow older and come to terms with the faith I was raised in, deconstructing and reconstructing it, transmuting what was once toxic to me into a medicine that now serves as a balm for my spirit, I find that I revel in the bizarre particularity of this ancient faith. I find that filtering the infinite through the bottleneck of the finite gives those same finite narratives and symbols that much more power, pressure, and concentrated beauty. The limited forms, in attempting to contain the unlimited mystery of the divine, seem about to burst at the edges, glowing from within, pregnant with such a depth of meaning that I could spend all my time plumbing their furthest reaches and not arrive at the bottom.
Of course, this investment in finite and time-bound forms as a reliable means of disclosing the infinite also runs into snags. It’s beautiful when some ancient story glows from within, but what about when another one of those stories concerns genocide, misogyny, violence, or some other very clearly non-divine topic? This is where maxims about “wrestling with faith” or “wrestling with the text” come into play. Thankfully, the Christian tradition, particularly insofar as it owes its existence to its Hebraic heritage, has no qualms with questions and struggles and doubts. Indeed, the very name Israel, the nation from which Jesus emerged, means “One who struggles with God”. The fact that this idea shows up so early in the Biblical narrative (Genesis 28) suggests that the struggle itself is an important part of the faith.
I personally appreciate the challenge of struggling with the more difficult, ugly, or incomprehensible aspects of one’s culture-bound religious heritage. For the deepest relationships in our lives – including our relationship to life itself – always contain some aspect of struggle, and so when our relationship to a religious narrative also contains some friction, our life and our faith mirror one another.
One can, for example, endeavour to believe in and to love a good God and a good Creation, but then run into the standard problems – disease, loss, betrayal, oppression, disaster, or suffering. Should these experiences cause one to lose faith in the goodness of God or the meaning of life? Or, going the opposite direction, should the pain they cause somehow be ignored, swept under the rug, or explained away in an effort to retain a faith of naivete, wherein belief in a good God or a beautiful Creation are totally unproblematic? Neither option is truly productive or authentic in my estimation. Instead, these things must be wrestled with, as Jacob wrestled with the angel. Then we might discover, somehow, that our stairway to heaven begins with the very same God-forsaken rock we had the displeasure to use as a pillow!
Indeed, it is through processing the difficulties of our life and our relationships, in drawing on the positive in order to give us strength to integrate the negative, that we come to embody a truly mature love which does not exclude difficulty but instead embraces it, treating it as valuable compost which contributes to a fertile and generative relationality.
This same issue can be illustrated in the context of a monogamous marriage. However one begins, one inevitably discovers that one’s partner is not in fact the idealized image one believed them to be. As it turns out, a lifelong relationship of love with this person will have its fair share of disagreements, ugly moments, annoying smells, painful missteps, and frustrating mistakes. But do we discover the true meaning of love by fleeing from this imperfection? Do we discover it by retreating into fantasy or refusing to face the reality of our difficulties? Or is the love we desire actually made manifest through the struggle to process and integrate these incongruities, so that one can live with one’s partner in greater wholeness and harmony? Might it be that the very same frustrating particularities which break into our idealized world and force us to address the reality of our Other – that person who, as it turns out, we have not fully figured out and who will always be a mystery to us – could draw us into such a depth of listening, understanding, appreciation, and growth, that we could appropriately refer to ourselves as being in-love?
This is the challenge, and the power, of channeling the infinite through the finite. And what an appropriate challenge it is. For if we as finite beings have any hope of discerning the infinite in this life, it will have to be through the lens of the finite, the lens of the particular. I may love the idea of a woman or a partner in the abstract, but the concrete expression of my love will occur in the context of my relationship with one particular person. I may love the idea of life in the abstract, but the concrete expression of my love will happen within the container of my particular life. Just so, I may love the idea of God in the abstract, but perhaps the context and the container within which that love can become most concrete is within the narrative of a particular religious tradition.
In pursuing this mystery of seeing the infinite within the finite, we will find that some portions of our particular religious narratives will glow from within, resonating with the light of the divine. Meanwhile, the contours of other portions of these same narratives will appear distorted, misshapen, or grotesque in contrast to that light which we are attempting to see shine through them. When this happens, may we have the wisdom to allow the glowing portions of these narratives, and the light which itself illumines them, to inform and transform the way we perceive those less ideal portions and particulars. May we thus be able to integrate those less ideal portions into our narrative in a manner befitting the brilliance of the light.
With this all in mind, then, let us turn to that man who serves at once as both the glowing portion and the shining light of the Christian narrative. Let us begin with the subject of that scandalously particular proposition – that “homeless dead Jew” 1, executed by the Roman imperial state and the elite religious authorities of his time, who was, as the New Testament author Paul wrote, the image of the invisible God.
1 Credit to theologian Tripp Fuller, host of the “Homebrewed Christianity” podcast, for this provocative turn-of-phrase