Most people accept that the nature of God is a mystery. But these same people believe that they understand the nature of themselves, the being who confidently declares “The nature of God is a mystery.”
Yet what evidence is there that we are any less mysterious than God? Do we know our essence? Can we identify from where our acts of creation emanate? Are we justified in saying anything definitive about ourselves other than, as God said to Moses, “I am who I am”?
These questions are sensitively explored by Luther Askeland in his essay, “Final Duties, Old Bones,” which I’m pleased to be able to share with Church of the Churchless visitors.
As I mentioned in a recent post, Luther and I have exchanged several emails recently. In one of them he sent along this unpublished essay and said that it would be fine if I put it up on my weblog.
I’m a big fan of Luther Askeland’s writing, which is the same as saying that I’m a big fan of Luther, even though we’ve never met or even talked on the phone. Some people write so honestly, you come to feel like you know them as well as anyone you’ve ever known.
I’ve read Luther’s book, Ways in Mystery, several times, just as I have his “Final Duties, Old Bones” essay. I love Luther’s dedication to digging ever deeper into the mystery that lies at the heart of both the cosmos and of us. He suggests that it is the same mystery. That rings true for me.
If the mystery we call “God” is omnipresent, the hidden essence of the smallest atom and the largest galaxy, then it also is within us—or is us. Yet Luther observes that while over the span of thousands of years we Homo sapiens have steadily disabused ourselves of the anthropomorphic notion that God can be described in human terms, we still cling to the fiction that we can be so described.
For remarkably, and in fact: that we as conceived beings—as apparent topics of conversation, as seeming objects of thought—are pure myth is a truth more readily accessible to us than is the mythical nature of any conceived god…The “I” as talked and thought about—the “I” as conceived—is fiction.
Luther’s writing often makes me stop and think. He has a knack for taking familiar ideas and looking upon them in a fresh way. I’ve read most of the books that Luther refers to. Like him, I’ve poured through the message of Meister Eckhart, other Christian mystics, Plotinus, Buddhist sages, Zen masters, many others.
I’ve said “Yes!” to all of these paeans to mystery, urgings to leave aside all that can be said or thought about God so that the unknowable can be approached in the only way that is possible: as unknown.
Yet I’ve never exclaimed the same exuberant “Yes!” in reference to my own purported self-knowledge. For somehow I still believe that my own life is comprehensible, even though God’s nature is not. As Luther says:
We demythologize the gods, with comparative ease, long before it even occurs to us to demythologize ourselves.
This is the final duty, he suggests, of these “old bones.”
Within our own unthinkable reality we will be unidentified, edgeless, neither “many” nor “one.” It will not occur to us to dream that “we” can relate to, observe, ponder, or conceive “ourselves”—to ask how “I” really feel about “myself” or “my life” will seem as odd as asking in all seriousness how Zeus really feels about his. Instead of looking at the inconceivable exclusively from the outside, and theologically, we will now, just like the gods, be it.