“All things are from God, through God, and in God.”—Romans 11:36
In every moment I can awaken trustfully to a dialogical, continually renewing communion* with the all-inclusively real,** that wherein we and all others “live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).
I began to awaken to this when as a preadolescent I first started questioning everything I had been taught to believe. It encouraged me not to be afraid of questioning everything—even the awakening itself. I’m not sure how I would have tried to articulate it then. I knew it was difficult to articulate. And I found it both somewhat supportive of, yet somewhat challenging to, the intimately interpersonal God-talk of my Southern Baptist upbringing. So when I started speaking enthusiastically with my high school youth group of my “close, personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” this more elusive sense of communion was always hovering in the background, encouraging me to embrace this phrase as pointing evocatively to something most real, while reminding me that I was still pointing evocatively, not describing definitively.
Nowadays, as one peculiar sort of Anglo-Catholic Christian, I can rightfully continue to name this as communion with the God whose life Jesus radically embodies, without forbidding or discounting other namings. (What do I mean when I say that Jesus’ life radically embodies God’s life? This: in a way that was immeasurably more than the general fact that God is always lovingly within and beyond us all, God actually came to us in the life, death, and risen life of Jesus of Nazareth, and still comes to all of us in this particular way that is immeasurably more than any general fact, including this general fact. I have more to say about that here & here.)
Maybe I would not take this dialogical communion seriously if this awakening were not shared by noteworthy others. But there are noteworthy others, ancient and contemporary, who seem to share this awakening. (This is where I find Karen Armstrong’s work immensely helpful for the general reader.)
Maybe I would not take this dialogical communion seriously if there were not credible ways to articulate how it could be ever-present in a world aptly described through the anonymous, abstract formulas and concepts of the natural sciences. But there are credible ways to articulate this, especially those informed by process philosophy and theology. These again confirm the easily overlooked fact that the natural sciences, by their very nature, confine themselves to anonymous, abstract formulas and concepts. What these formulas and concepts describe are real enough as far as they go. But our concrete experience*** of ourselves, of our surroundings, and of the all-inclusively real is constantly transcending any anonymous, abstract formulas and concepts and has as much claim to reality as any abstraction.**** (In this interpretation I also follow the lead of philosophers of science representing the “Stanford School,” e.g., Nancy Cartwright and John Dupre, as well as the earlier work of Stephen Toulmin, one of my Ph.D. advisers.)
Note, however: my reliance on this dialogical communion began and persisted before I had ever heard of any of these movements. They help me continue to take this communion seriously. But while they have their own merits, awakening to this communion is a major part of why I take them seriously.
Thus in terms of my own adaptations of process thought, I also rightfully name this communion as newly interacting with uniquely all-inclusive way of newly interacting (or alternatively, interacting with the wholly interactive). But I don’t consider these namings “truer” than the namings of my Anglican faith community. They’re intentionally more generic, but that doesn’t make them “truer.” They’re all “true enough” in their own contexts. (Likewise, “dialogical, continually renewing communion with the all-inclusively real” is intentionally more generic than the namings of my faith community, but again, “more generic” doesn’t mean “truer.”)
Dialogical communion is neither controlling nor controlled, does not prevent differences from clashing, and thus will not protect me or those I love from incalculable degrees of suffering.
Yet even when life’s occurrences devastate, I can, without minimizing devastation, still awaken to this dialogical, continually renewing communion, and at least begin to move on with an ever-deepening compassion. It’s gotten me through every loss so far, even when grief seemed overwhelming. I’m wagering it will continue doing that.
What about death? Process thought allows me to wager further that my whole life up to my death will remain a living presence in God’s ongoing present even more intimately than my whole life up to now remains a living presence in my ongoing present (as well as God’s). The same is true of your life and the lives of all “whom we love but see no longer” (BCP, p. 498). What ends at death is not my life in and with God but my life’s present tendency to diverge from God’s. God’s endless life reconcilingly continues the differing projects of every ended life, which means that no life is ever totally ended. What that would be like, God alone knows. I’m OK with that.
I awaken to this communion, somewhat, simply by writing this down, and then reading it. It’s part of my premodern/modern/postmodern spiritual practice.
But I also awaken to this communion, somewhat, when its all-inclusive mutuality prompts me to stand with all who are marginalized by our less mutually inclusive forms of togetherness.
And of course I awaken to this communion, somewhat, whenever I participate contemplatively in ancient and current forms of Christian worshiping. I sing songs, chant psalms and canticles, engage canonized readings and contemporary reflections, recite a credo and prayers, share a meal, none of which I would have written or designed myself, but all of which I can readily see as pointing evocatively to this dialogical, continually renewing communion with the God whose life Jesus radically embodies.
Pointing evocatively to this communion is the best any of us can do, and what I am writing and reading right now is simply another way of evocative pointing that seems to suffice for the moment.
*Communion is intimately sharing others’ distinctive reality. It’s not total absorption—“communion” means “union-with,” and the “with” is just as crucial as the “union.” Differences don’t disappear but enhance the sharing. (Questions don’t disappear either!) Communion is dialogical when the sharing is mutual. At its most exceedingly inclusive this dialogical communion is oddly “I/You-ish,” even “I/Me-ish,” not just “I/It-ish,” as Martin Buber might say, and it is the oddly dialogical, interpersonal-like character of this communion, more than any other characteristic (like alleged omnipotence), that makes using the term “God” eminently fitting.
**I am using “real” in the everyday sense of what turns out to involve us, like it or not, noticed or not. That’s how we often use the word in everyday parlance, and that’s enough to justify its usage here. This is close to the definition of reality given by pragmatist William James, which he in turn stole from (non-pragmatist) British idealist A. E. Taylor: “anything is real of which we find ourselves obliged to take account in any way”—William James, Some Problems of Philosophy (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1996 ), p. 101. Again, my usage is close, but not identical. There are more technical discussions of what “real“ means, and they can be very informative, but I am not counting on any of them.
***Some people object to starting with experience because, they point out, we can’t really isolate experiences from the culturally shaped languages we use to speak of them or even think about them. Point taken, but with others who grant this point, I’m not trying to isolate anything or place it beyond question, as I argued at length several decades ago, and I still see experience, however linguistically permeated, as a good place to start from and return to, again and again. In other words, I’m happy to grant that my experiences are already “cultural-linguistic” interpretations, but they are interpretations that form me anew, before, during and after any interpretations I intentionally devise, and I want all these interpretations to get along with one another. Maybe, as Jacques Derrida famously said, there is no world outside the text, or as Wilfred Sellars said, all awareness is a linguistic affair, but in either case there is still a textually involved world, or a linguistic affair, happening to us in ways that we cannot fully anticipate. I call this happening “experience.”
****I am proceeding here by the “principle of sufficiency” formalized by Immanuel Kant: “the variety of entities should not be rashly diminished”—or as I would phrase it more empirically (i.e., experientially), don’t deny what’s experienced as real without a compelling reason. It’s the flip-side of William of Ockham’s “principle of parsimony” (“Occam’s Razor”): “entities are not to be multiplied beyond necessity.” The two principles, parsimony and sufficiency, are actually compatible (more here). So we can combine them into one principle: the variety of entities should neither be diminished nor multiplied beyond necessity.