Friday, October 15, 2010

Watching Eat, Pray, Love with the unexpected company of Stanley Hauerwas's article 'Naming God' while thinking about the notion of 'balance in life'

Stanley Hauerwas wrote on ABC Religion & Ethics website that it took Robert Jenson a lifetime of critical reflection to come out with a concise and articulate prose to describe the Christian God:
""God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead, having before raised Israel from Egypt." This is the hallmark sentence [...] is an elegantly simple but dauntingly deep sentence, which took Jenson a lifetime of theological reflection to write."
In Eat, Pray, Love, while the protagonist Liz Gilbert travelled across three different countries--Italy, India, and Indonesia--to find balance in her life, she discovered God:
"So the holy truth of the whole adventure here in India, is in one line: "God dwells within you... as you." God's not interested in watching a performance of how a spiritual person looks and behaves. [...] God dwells within me... as me."
She found God by the way; almost like how I picked up a copy of free-newspaper at MRT station while on my way to attend a meeting.

Seating there in the cinema, I was unexpectedly holding two pictures of God in my mind. One of Jenson, the other one of Gilbert. And I tried to see if there is similarity.

On the side of Jenson, God is the one who was inextricably involved in the beginning of the creation, and in the story of the Israelites before climatically culminating the involvement through Jesus Christ, and finally in the consummation of the creation.

While for Gilbert, God is the one who entered into her consciousness while she was on her way to discover herself. And it was through this story that God is understood. Gilbert's God seems more easily approachable and less intimidating than the one described by Jenson. Or, so it seems.

The most distinct difference between the two Gods has to do with their own relation with us. Jenson's God is one who initiated the relationship with his people. This initiation reveals that God is an apocalyptic God; He reaches into history from beyond. Every identification of this God cannot neglect this central characteristic even though cannot be exhaustively comprehended. Christian theologians like Jenson identify this as the Trinity.

Gilbert's God is one who emerged into our being as ourselves. This God remains distinct from us but also became us. Not resembling us, but became you and me. This God is one whose intimacy as us is a multi-faceted existence and so assumed various characteristics and also beyond description. This is known as pantheism by some.

I don't reconcile the God Liz discovered with the one described by Jenson and admitted by Hauerwas. It took me a while to realize that any attempt to do that, like I have tried, is like reconciling apple and orange. Recognizing the irreconcilable nature of this relationship is all right.

As a side note, during one of our lecture, the topic on balance in life came up. One of my classmates asked the lecturer for her opinion over contemporary hectic and multi-functional life in Singapore. How does one decide how should we focus in one area (such as youth ministry) more than other areas (such as social life)?

The lecturer told him that it is about striking the balance in life. A wise advice, I must say, even though I think the notion of "balance life" is too subjective an axiom that earned itself the status of being a myth that helps to sell self-help books. I saw this paradoxical point clearest in Eat, Pray, Love when Gilbert was advised by her life coach Ketut, "To lose balance sometimes for love is part of living a balanced life."

I could sensed that my friend was not really satisfied with the reply given by the lecturer. So I told my friend that I am also skeptical over the idea of "balance life." Then he asked me, "Did Jesus teach about "balance life"?"

And here's my tongue-in-cheek reply, "You mean that guy who went into the temple, meddled with people's daily business, created riot, and then got himself crucified?"

That is the basic difference between Jenson's and Gilbert's God, isn't it?

There is no need to apologize if the Christian God does not provide the "balance in life" to soothe the existential need of some. The Trinity is just not a God that one picks up by the way, perhaps. The Trinity came all the way to pick us up.
"God refuses to let the people of Israel - or us - assume that we can name the One who will raise Israel from Egypt. Only God can name God. That, moreover, is what God does. [...] The God we worship is not a vague "more" that exists to make our lives meaningful. The God we worship is not "the biggest thing around." The God we worship is not "something had to start it all." The God we worship is not a God that insures that we will somehow get out of life alive. The God we worship is not a God whose ways correspond to our presumptions about how God should be God." (Stanley Hauerwas)


Trigger said...

Well said! This article appeared in my RSS feed for things written by or about Stanley Hauerwas. Living in America, people here tend to assume that we all mean the same thing by the word "god," but that clearly is not the case as analysis like yours points out. Like the end of your article suggests, a life may not so importantly be measured by balance, but by faithfulness. Cheers!

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Trigger,

Thank you for your comment. I'm glad to hear from someone from America about the situation there. Take care.