During a time span of nearly sixty years my theological orientation has moved from a childhood inheritance of evangelical Wesleyanism to a position I describe as agnostic Christian mysticism. YDS is a significant milepost on this journey. For most of my life poetry has been an important vehicle for the expression of my contemplative theological meanderings. Thus, a few poems from my most recent book, Making A Life, are incorporated into this narrative.
Having just completed my B.D. degree at Nazarene Theological Seminary in Kansas City, I arrived at Y.D.S. in the fall of 1960. I completed the S.T.M degree that academic year, thus becoming a member of the 1961 graduating class. Well before coming to New Haven, I knew I was no longer an evangelical Wesleyan, as that theological stance was expressed in the Church of the Nazarene. I knew what I wasn’t, but I didn’t know to what theological persuasion I belonged. Nor did I know in what denominational family I might find a home. By the end of the academic year I had received a pastoral call to the Eliot Church in Newton, Massachusetts, found an ecclesiastical home in the United Church of Christ and was growing in my appreciation for the Reformed theological tradition, particularly as H. Richard Niebuhr interpreted it. Following is the first verse of a poem in which I reflect on this extraordinary teacher.
Were I, from a choice list, to choose one teacher
who through the years has been a companion
helping me to chart the course in which lies
the path toward richest comprehension,
where poles remain apart – yet reconcile,
then I name you as the one I most trust.
How would Niebuhr respond to my current self-definition of agnostic Christian mystic? I expect it would prompt some sympathetic and challenging dialogue as I tried to explain my position. (1) Agnostic: the human mind can reflect on the possibility of Sacred Transcendence, but it is incapable of persuading us that this is more than a fanciful idea. (2) Christian: I am a practicing member of a congregation that employs classical Christian metaphors to speak of the Sacred. These metaphors are also the primary, though not exclusive, language by which I speak of the Holy. (3) Mystic: four powerful encounters with the Holy, along with an ongoing, though frequently interrupted, sense of Sacred Transcendence, persuade me that far more is going on in us and around us than can be empirically verified. I am a Theist who relies heavily on his sixth sense – intuitive imagination.
Sacred Presence manifests itself to me primarily in silence, absence, darkness, light and bliss – classical modes of Mysticism. Here are two poems that reflect these mystical sensibilities.
Ode To Darkness
No difference between these two, the soul
and God, except in name? The unvoiced song
that echoes in the far-flung voids of space
and in the human breast – within the coo
of mourning dove also is hid, and in
the chirp of common wren. Silent surgings
in me stir the blood and bone when Earth booms
her thunderous warnings, moans her searing wounds
or hymns the splendor of her matchless forms.
Torrents of joy and sorrow vibrating
in deepest caverns of my finite self
pulse outward (oh, sing it!) past farthest stars
to mystery no less dark than this within.
Is Darkness, then, where wisdom must begin?
Count me among companions who will hymn
our awe outward beyond the blaze of stars,
far into the dark unknown – and soul-ward
into psyche’s deep caves impervious
to our probing beams. Outward/Inward seem
about the same. Look for me with those who,
eschewing hoary answers, will repeat
the old queries. Find me in company
of those who rummage wizened texts and bones,
travel paths of DNA, gather rocks
from Mars, photograph light seconds this side
of the Big Bang – and just short of the soul.
Specks of astral dust, we spin in dazzling
light – hymn mystery on rim of great black Whole
Earlier I asked how Professor Niebuhr might have reacted to my current self-definition of agnostic Christian mystic. I believe he, in his typical generous manner, would have seen my particular expression of faith as having ample historical precedence within the broad spectrum of Christian tradition. I have vivid memories of his lectures in which the term, “comprehension,” so often appeared. I can still see his chalkboard diagram of an ellipse revolving around a small globe. The globe represented the Truth to which we aspire. On the revolving ellipse are numerous small dots. Each dot represents a particular tradition or school of thought with its unique slant on the Central Truth. The expression of faith represented in each individual dot is partial, finite, limited and in various ways erroneous. Yet, insofar as the small dots engage with each other, they will change, grow and move closer to the Central Truth – though none of us, in history, will ever arrive at the Core around which we revolve.
Mid-spring, 1961, a few weeks before graduation, I sought Niebuhr out in order to discuss my pending decision to change my denominational affiliation from the Church of the Nazarene to the United Church of Christ. At one point in this conversation he said, “Chuck, I believe this is a good move for you – but I urge you to never forget, or fail to be grateful for the gifts you have received from the church of your youth.”
This small moment of faculty-student exchange fifty years ago is as alive for me now as it was then – perhaps more so today as I reflect back on our teacher whose thought and life was so generously whole/comprehensive. And I have heeded his counsel about not forgetting my roots in the Church of the Nazarene. Over the years I have come to believe that my mysticism is to some extent rooted in the mid-Twentieth Century Nazarene emphasis on the experiential presence of the Holy Spirit.
For thirty-nine years I worked in a variety of pastoral setting with the United Church of Christ, all of them within the Metropolitan Boston Association. During most of this time I thought of myself as a Christian mystic. Occasionally, when it seemed appropriate, I spoke of this to others. As far as I was concerned this self-description was not a big deal, but neither was it a secret. The Agnostic part of me did not come into the foreground for many years. Yet it had flitted in and out of the shadows ever since my undergraduate studies in Philosophy. It was a 1998 conversation with my pastoral colleague, Len Warner, which finally pushed the agnostic in me forward. Len said, “The older I get and the longer I am in this pastoral business, the less I know and the more I am at peace.” Len’s wisdom continues to fit me to a tea. Ironically, it is in the dark “cloud of unknowing” where Transcendence most brilliantly shines for me.
Nevertheless, I am not settled. Half way through the eighth decade of my life I continue to explore the landscape of the human spirit. This essay now concludes with two more poems. The first consists of a dialogue between two people about religious belief. The narrative is set on Long Beach, about six miles from my home. It invokes the ancient Greek myth of Proteus, the malleable character who can alter his shape to fit shifting circumstances. The second poem addresses the way we continually strive to find new symbols and signs adequate to speak of the shifts in religious consciousness taking place in our culture – and in our individual selves.
“Like an outdated map, my borders are changing” (Henri Cole)
The rising tide
for no reason
I can see –
perhaps still stirred
by last night’s storm
What do you believe? –
I mean religion-wise
not yet engulfed
by lifting waters
hosts a hundred sanderlings –
at least. They quick-step and stab
their long beaks in-and-out
in-and-out of wet sand
as each receding wave leaves
a micro-feast of mollusks
and crustaceans to be retrieved
It depends on the day,
I reply, no two are quite the same
The crowd of sanderlings
becomes a cloud
swirling into the air
as waves wash over
their feeding ground.
They settle near us
on the beach and begin again
their routine, quick-step-stab-eat
I don’t settle,
my mind shifts,
I am Proteus
What I affirm today
will be some new spark
ignited by the friction
of ancient stories rubbing
against this conversation
We scan the horizon
December sky bends
down to kiss dark water
I like the Creed, its constancy
through centuries and millennia,
you say. It struggles
toward something older and more
magnetic, even, than the ocean’s pull
on us today.
We go further
Late morning sun
spreads a rippling sheet of gold
across Plymouth’s restless bay
metaphor alone will do
our highest form of stammering
about this inner fire
around which circle creeds
hymns and sacred texts
until, exhausted by the dance,
into the sacred burning –
dim to cinder sink to ash
new metaphors’ rise
from name-defying flame