Thin places


Marcus Borg, in his book The Heart of Christianity, writes about what he calls "thin places". These he describes as "anywhere our hearts are opened." A thin place can be a geographical location, or it can be an activity. I view a thin place as any moment in time in which the boundary between the mundane and the divine for an individual is so thin as to be porous.

Thin places can manifest themselves through those means that humans utilize for mediating the numinous. Perhaps it is often the case that humans cannot directly experience the divine, and thus must rely on means of mediation as their conduit through which the divine is approach; thus they conceive of rituals, modes of worship, meditations, scriptural readings, music, and so on. A thin place can also be a place--a church, a riverbank, a mountaintop.

According to the New Testament, Jesus used the wilderness as a thin place, spending 40 days and nights there. This account also states that Jesus was tempted by Satan in the wilderness, thus experiencing not just the divine but its very antithesis. The story of Jesus in the wilderness may be mythic, but like many myths it contains certain truths that go beyond the literal description of events. According to this myth, he fasted while he was in the wilderness; perhaps it was a toss up as to whether he was brought closer to God or more distant from the physical suffering that this deprivation caused. The biblical account ultimately assigns Jesus a triumphal role in the wilderness, defeating the temptations brought on during his experience.

Clearly, that New Testament story was meant to illustrate how perfectly Jesus manifested the divine presence within him--a presence that was so strong that he rejected all temptations in favor of living according to that of God within him fully. For most of us ordinary people, though, it is questionable as to whether it is such a good idea to make thin places so difficult. I once hiked alone on a Colorado mountain and wrote my thoughts about God in a notebook; that is as close as I will ever get to the wilderness experience as a thin place.

Perhaps mystics can be defined as simply those who practice the art of nurturing those thin places. Some people can find themselves in the presence of God almost continually in their daily lives. This kind of deep and continuous mysticism is difficult for most of us to achieve.

Borg writes about various forms of worship experience as thin places. Some of the thin places that he lists are "participation in the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist", "sermons", "the Bible", "liturgical words", and praying the Lord's prayer. These are clearly Christian thin places. As a religious pluralist, I certainly believe that non-Christian rituals and practices also serve as thin places for the practitioners of other faiths. Borg, as a self-identified Christian, naturally focuses on those that are meaningful to him in his own faith. All of this makes sense to me.

Where I cannot accept Borg's perspective, however, is when he goes so far as to say that "saying the creed together can be a thin place." Borg acknowledges that this is problematic for liberal religionists. Borg admits, "if one thinks that saying the creed commits one's intellect to the propositional (literal?) truth of all its statements, it is impossible for a modern person to do so." Borg, however, claims "affirming all of these to be literally true propositions is not the purpose of saying the creed in the context of worship." In fact, Borg claims that "its primary purpose in worship is not propositional but sacramental: through these clunky words that stumble in the presence of Mystery, God is mediated."

And this is, perhaps, why I cannot, as Borg does, participate in Christian religious services. Borg, as an Episcopalian, somehow manages to reconcile his nonliteral interpretation of the Christian faith with an ability to recite creeds that he admits he does not believe in.

Certainly I understand that one can appreciate, for example, the mythical value of biblical stories without taking them literally. But biblical stories are narratives, and humans have a natural inclination for appreciating the mythical component of narratives. But creeds are not narratives; they are not stories. They are instead affirmations, and affirmations are meant to be taken literally. Their purpose is to state literally a theological doctrine. They exist as a litmus test of orthodoxy. It is one thing to appreciate the Bible on a mythical level; it is another thing altogether to find value in a creed that rings hollow in comparison to one's inner core of belief. I would feel intellectually dishonest in reciting creeds that I didn't believe in.

I am certainly not saying that Borg is intellectually dishonest. He finds value in the creeds in exactly the way that he states--as a means of mediating God, and as a tool by which we "join ourselves with a community that transcends time, all of those centuries of Christians who have heard and said these words."

But I would never choose to restrict myself to joining only with those of a particular faith who recited some set of creedal formulas throughout history--formulas that I reject anyway. I would rather join with the people of all religious faiths throughout history who have striven in their all too human way to understand God or some Ultimate Reality by another name--Christians, Jews, Muslims, Bahais, Hindus, Buddhists, and others. I would also prefer to join not just with the historical community of orthodox Christians, but those early Christian heretics--the Gnostics, the Ebionites, the Marcionites--who rejected the very dogmas of these same creeds, but who nevertheless had just as much right to call themselves Christians. By associating myself with these creeds, I am associating myself with the intolerance that characterized orthodoxy in the early years of Christianity--an intolerance that silenced these alternative Christian voices to the point where only one brand of Christianity got to call itself "orthodox".

I am certainly in favor of appreciating the Christian tradition as the one with which we are the most comfortable, and thus using the Christian myths as a starting point for mediating the numinous. But, in my religious expression, I can only do so if I fully recognize at all times that these are myths. Reciting creeds that I don't accept as literally true for one second crosses a line from recognition of myths towards acceptance of creeds. And given that these same creeds are the basis from which so much intolerance and hostility towards religious pluralism emanates--it is simply impossible for me to incorporate them into my own thin places.

This explains a great deal of the difference between my own perspective and that of Marcus Borg. While I think that his ideas are extremely valuable as a means of incorporating a modern sensibility into a Western religious tradition, from my own perspective Borg ultimately blinks when it comes to the point of making a leap into the unknown. He prefers to remain in his own Christian religious community while hoping to reform it. Certainly that is his right; as a person of faith he is justified in participating in a religous community that works best for his needs, and as a religious pluralist I would never take that away from him. But I would rather make that bold leap into something new. What I refer to as a "post-Christian" religious tradition may have to make the same sort of break from Christianity that Christianity made from Judaism. Trying to shoehorn a new paradigm into an old theology can only go so far. Just as Christianity used the scriptures and some of the concepts of Judaism as a starting point for its own theology and practices, a post-Christian religion can use the Christian scriptures and some of its concepts as its own starting point.

I can only break free from the old paradigm, I believe, if I break free from the old religion entirely. Unlike Christianity a post-Christian paradigm makes no claims to having discovered a kind of absolute truth; rather it claims only to offer a new approach to understanding the same basic Ultimate reality that other religions have also sought to understand. Because it is grounded in a pluralistic and universalist theology, it doesn't see other religions as wrong, but as merely other parts of the great human endeavor to discover God; and this paradigm accepts that even its own understanding is necessarily incomplete. That means, of course, that the old Christian paradigms are also incomplete, just as our own new post-Christian paradigm is incomplete. But that isn't the point. I don't criticize Christianity (or any other religion), but rather simply find it inadequate for my own spiritual needs and my modern understanding of the world, and am thus unable to experience it and its creeds honestly. I wish those well who find solace and comfort in the Christian creeds--or in Jewish practices, or the Five Pillars of Islam. The point is that none of those old methods work for me now, and I believe that we have achieved a level of spiritual understanding that requires something different.


ms. kitty said...

Thanks for your comment, M. S.

Where did you attend a UU church in Colorado?