Tuesday 15 October 2013

Christian Thought and Living in and as the Middle

Mythic conventions of one culture after another imagine human life as in the middle of things. The Edda stories of the ancient Germanic peoples spoke of Middle Earth (midgaard). Tolkein was an academic expert in the philology of ancient Germanic literatures. It shows in his fantasy fiction; Middle Earth, indeed. The traditional Chinese culture spoke of the Middle Kingdom. The symbolics of the Middle Kingdom were so embedded in Chinese understanding that Mao Tse Tung, that inveterate revolutionary, developed a symbolics of political legitimacy for his modern socialist People’s Republic that the old Emperors would have recognized without a moment’s hesitation. Even philosophical cosmologies carry echoes of this bone-deep intuition. In reformational philosophy, our lives are spoken of as lived and available to thought in time. Time, in turn, is spoken of as a kind of dynamic structural condition for the meaning redolent in and available to human living and thinking, the sense of our lives, we could say. Time and the life-sense it makes possible too can be thought of as “between”: between that high and exceeding mystery one can call “religion” in which we live already here and now in the dynamic ever-presence of the Creator, on the one hand, and the evacuation of mean and resulting fall into meaninglessness we fear in and around us and identify with the presence of sin, on the other. Time in this metaphor is not so much a “what” as a “when”, a middle-when or Middle Age in which “to wait” and “to work” for God’s reign are one and the same joy.

In our ordinary habits of thinking and imagining, extremes are where we look for opposites to meet, but in the middle-thinking of mythic and cosmological thought opposites meet in the middle. Nik Ansell, for example, in developing an intuition of Herman Dooyeweerd, speaks of time moving ever in two directions simultaneously. There is a transcendental direction in which thinking and imagining are borne as it were upwards toward that limit of time constituted by encounter with our transcendent Maker, encounter pointed to in time by our time-bound acts of believing and worshipping. At the same time there is a foundational direction that burrows ever deeper into the available recesses of creaturely meaning, that immerses us in the God-spoken richness of our living in time. Of course, this too is in the end to encounter God, not as the One who lies beyond time so much as the One who is ever to be found immanent to what he has made at its absolute heart.

In the middle of things—in the between spaces—on the slash (to cite Jim Olthuis’ inadvertently hilarious coinage)—with-ing away for all we’re worth—all these pictures are attempts to mark where we live our lives and have our being. It is something that human beings have ever known deep in their bones. And this too: middle existence is never separated from the divine. Even were we to travel to the deepest bottom of the ocean (the symbol of primordial chaotic world stuff in ancient near eastern mythic imagination) there be the Creator-God, says the Psalmist, as if she were a reformational philosopher avant le fait bringing out the God-encounter hiding in even the most secret places of and in time. The ancient Germanic warriors and alewives but also traditional Chinese mandarins and courtesans were not impervious to this bit of wisdom, each in their own way. One could pass from midgaard to Valhalla and back—or so the stories told. One could with due attention espy the Will of T’ien (Heaven) and so the rightful Emperor could ever be known.

It is an occasion of gratitude, a matter of joy, to live in a God-spoken middle place. It is the task of middle places like the Institute for Christian Studies to think the world in such gratitude and out of such joy. It will do so enabled by the waves of time in both their dynamic directions, pointing to God ever more than and beyond but also deep within the Middle Earth and Middle Age that we, quite as much as Frodo and Galadriel, Gawain and Guinevere inhabit and struggle to do right by. It’s worth a thought and a prayer this month. Won’t you join me?

Bob Sweetman