So Much More: An Invitation to Christian Spiritualityby Debra Rienstra
What are the mysteries at the heart of Christian faith? Why do they matter? How can they transform our lives? Debra Rienstra answers these questions and many more in her evocative exploration of Christian life and faith. So Much More is a gesture of welcoming friendship for people who are new or newly returned to Christianity—those who are/i>
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What are the mysteries at the heart of Christian faith? Why do they matter? How can they transform our lives? Debra Rienstra answers these questions and many more in her evocative exploration of Christian life and faith. So Much More is a gesture of welcoming friendship for people who are new or newly returned to Christianity—those who are searching, lurking, longing, or learning. Anyone who wishes to understand Christianity better will welcome this genuine, heartfelt account of basic Christian beliefs and practices. Readers will find fresh explorations of Christianity’s foundational themes, such as incarnation, grace, suffering, and hope. Throughout this encouraging and passionate book, Debra Rienstra connects ancient articles of faith to contemporary concerns: our longing for transcendence, our desire for integrity, and our hope for intimacy with God.
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So Much More
By Debra Reinstra
John Wiley & SonsISBN: 0-7879-6887-0
Chapter OneSomething More
YOU HAVE SET YOUR GLORY ABOVE THE HEAVENS. -Psalm 8:1
There must be something more. More than the material universe with its frenetic subatomic particles and unfathomably vast, cold space. More than the pines whispering to the stolid mountains. More than the morning commute, the coffee in paper cups, the lady at the newsstand, the half-lies we tell to get by. More than the evening news routine of crime and war, embroidered with empty banter and car advertisements. More than our fragments of longing, our tattered and fleeting gladness.
In simple dailiness something more whispers to us. We hear it in the jaunty fretting of the chickadee at the feeder, see it in the creases around an old woman's eyes or in the sunlight warming the curves of a vase-wherever ordinary things become luminous. And in the joy that bursts out the edges of life, something more cries out, as the newborn the moment after birth, or the apple blossoms fallen like confetti in modest celebration of spring, or the symphonies and sonatas and all the genius of art. And in our desolations, something more roars. At the graveside of the child, the scene of the accident, the arenas of war. In all our tableaus of anguish, when our hearts crack or our civilizations, in the blackness between the jagged edges, we perceive this something more. For many of us, the suspicion that there is something more is the beginning of faith.
Such a delicate beginning. Do we perceive it? We are not always sure. We live in the wake of a distrustful age. In the West at least, we have learned to regard with skepticism any sense of that which is beyond, any sort of reality we cannot see and touch and measure. Such skepticism is nothing new; every age has its own form of it. But with the magnificent rise of science, industry, and technology in the last several centuries, skepticism found its legs and strutted about with great arrogance. Skepticism is still fashionable, if somewhat chastened, and it finds expression these days in the form of a kind of melancholy aesthetic commitment. Because I teach literature for a living, I'm most familiar with the beautiful, hopeless novels, the poems full of absence, the essays with glitter on the surface and sadness at the core. In literature, song, film, and many other domains, this fashionable angle on the world pays homage to the enduring human spirit, acknowledges the mysteries of existence-but remains ironic. In other words, it wishes there were something more but, in an attempt to be heroic and relentlessly honest, ruefully concludes that there is not. Much of our art and public discourse throws a kiss of admiration to transcendence as a concept or psychological phenomenon, but it is a kiss of betrayal: "You are lovely," we say to transcendence, "but you are not really there." A devastating rejection.
Skepticism may earn nods of agreement at parties, but perhaps, like me, you have suspected that it is a needless heroism. Ultimately skepticism capitulates to the cold universe as the end of the question and resolves merely to suffer it in style. It may seem brave to lean your body against the subzero winds of the cosmos in chic little chiffon scarves, but why? Must cold be the truth, and the means to warmth merely an illusion? Perhaps the hat, the boots, the very long coat hanging in the vestibule are also real and exactly your size. Those who endure Minnesota winters know enough to muss their hair with a big, warm hat, no matter how silly or unfashionable it seems. To believe there is indeed something more is to admit that the wise thing in this existence is to put on the available gear.
Collective wisdom is not always true, but it's certainly worth pondering. And some notion of a transcendent reality appears everywhere in every age. The very recent phenomenon sometimes called scientific naturalism or scientism is among the few exceptions. Put together Eastern thought and Western thought, northern and southern thought, jungle, desert, whatever variety of thought; and what emerges from the sweep of it all is the recognition that human beings have a physical, a psychological, and a spiritual nature. We participate in a material world, in the world of our individual perceptions and mind, and in the something more. There is plenty of argument about what the nature of that transcendent reality might be. But for now let's define transcendence as some dimension of existence that is not contained within the material world or within the human mind, collective or individual. This dimension of what it is may be intertwined with the other two, but it is not the same thing. In short, something exists beyond space dust and brains.
When you give your assent to intimations of a dimension of existence exceeding both the material and the human mind, you place yourself in agreement with all the great wisdom traditions of history. You choose not to shrug resignedly at the whispers, the cries, and the roars but instead to admit that some of your experiences cannot be truly explored or explained unless you say yes to the something more.
Perhaps you are a woman who has studied all the pregnancy books thoroughly, followed every detail of conception, fetal development, and labor equipped with well-researched information. But when through pain and ecstasy you push that strange, slippery creature out of your body and you look into his eyes, you meet a new being altogether, a presence, a consciousness. And you know this is a mystery that all your information can only lap against like little waves.
Or maybe you are a graduate student, completely committed to science, who has spent years of your life peering at instruments in labs and scribbling equations into notebooks. You used to be rather arrogant about scientific method and about empiricism; but now that you have worked with some of the best people in your field, you are beginning to realize that the cutting edge of science is where knowledge is not most powerful but most humble. Why is there something rather than nothing? How did the universe achieve the exact density necessary for existence as we know it? Why are things this way and not some other way? You love science and the pursuit of knowledge as much as ever. But you now believe that the very questions science by definition cannot answer are the most, well, beautiful.
Or perhaps you were once a young girl who loved to visit the zoo. You loved the giraffe with his handsome spots and his rhythmically swaying tower of a neck; the elephant poking around with her preposterous nose; the lion shaking his mane and licking his enormous paws; the otter making her quick, lithe undulations through the water. You read the placards with their cheerful comments on the evolutionary usefulness of this and that physical adaptation. But you wondered. Is the penguin's waddle merely useful? His black-and-white tuxedo? And the stunning amber color of the owl's eyes? Why are all the animals so funny and gorgeous? And you knew that somehow, in this world, it's not all about getting through the next day or the next eon. At the center of nature's utility you found, most naturally, delight.
Perhaps you have lived less than twenty years, but already certain peculiar things have fallen into place for you in ways no one could have engineered. A stranger said something to you unknowingly that steered you away from danger or toward something you love. A little incident here, a feeling there. Could there be some design to all this, some purpose?
Or perhaps you are a man still living in the shadow of your father's death, still picturing his body in the coffin, emaciated from the cancer and looking fake anyway with the makeup and the sewn-shut lips. It was not him at all. You feel a profound separation from your father now but also a heavy, dusky love. Although you have never thought much about it all before, having been busy making your own place in the world, now you have questions. Why should you insist that this ordinary man's life has some value beyond the slender perimeters of his first breath and his last? Why should you long for an existence after death, if there is no such thing? What good would such a longing serve?
Human personality, the incredibly intricate structures of the universe, the delights of other living creatures, odd sequences of events, the profound connections between people that urge us to protest death and insist that such an obvious and common thing simply cannot be right: let us grant that these are realities that require explanation beyond a usefulness for survival or the bizarre sparklings of our neurons. Maybe it's other things for you-a Mahler symphony that seems to press your heart into your throat; the ocean's ancient, ceaseless roar; the frescoes on the ceiling of St. Peter's; the way your two-year-old lays her head on your shoulder. Maybe it's the simple observation- this is what seals it for me-that human beings can feel wonder and love and ask why.
Spiritual but Not Religious
If we are willing to agree that a transcendent reality exists and that human beings can, one way or another, perceive it, then we find ourselves in the position of trying to name this reality. Is there an impersonal life force? A God? Many gods? If you go so far as to concede the existence of a personal deity, you are still faced with many alternatives. Some have the force of major religious traditions behind them: Allah of Islam, the God of the Jews, the Trinitarian God of Christians, the variety of Hindu deities. Other possibilities, with less force of the masses behind them, are nonetheless available. There is probably a Web site, for example, for worshipers of the Egyptian sungod Ra. We are keenly aware in our age of a colorful marketplace of explanations, a kind of worldview bazaar. Somehow we have to cope with this confusion.
One mode of coping these days is to call oneself spiritual but not religious. I've heard this formula so often that I was actually pleased when my friend Jeff, a self-defined "indifferent, agnostic Jew," wrote me a letter in which he admitted, "I've grown comfortable with the idea that I'm just not a very spiritual person." How refreshing, I thought, to hear from someone who's not insisting how spiritual he is!
"Spiritual but not religious" often means that a person acknowledges a transcendent dimension to existence but prefers to keep its nature undefined, nebulous, and usually impersonal. A very understandable impulse. The options for defining transcendent realities are maddeningly diverse. More ominously, no one can deny that firm convictions can be dangerous. We have looked over our shoulders at the landscape of the previous century, at the charred trenches, smashed buildings, shattered bodies, at the gaping, smoking holes in the foundations of modernist optimism about human nature and progress. We are suffering from collective traumatic stress disorder. We know only too well that the lust for power, when combined with convictions about race, forms of government-and yes, religion-creates the most lethal alchemy on earth. Never mind that the Stalins, Hitlers, and Husseins of the last century followed Nietzsche as their prophet more than anyone else. They draped themselves with some other ideology to cover their arrogant nihilism, so that we are now quite suspicious of drapes.
So to be spiritual but not religious seems the humane, peace-loving thing to do. It doesn't quite follow that the antidote for bad convictions is to have very few or very fuzzy or very contradictory ones. But the desires behind nonreligious spirituality are among the noblest humanity has to offer: peaceful coexistence, personal bliss, human well-being (and often animal and tree well-being too). On a more individual level, indefinite beliefs about the transcendent avoid the troubles of a God with personality. The minute you move from a life force to a personal God, you are dealing with an other who could potentially make demands on you that you would rather not conform to, like giving up sex or giving away money or explaining to people that you routinely talk to invisible beings. Better to meditate rather than pray, mix beliefs as they seem pleasant and helpful to your own happiness, keep your options open, and stick with what works. It's a gesture of humility to say, "I mean, it's true for me." It may also be an admission of defeat.
Somewhere along the line, we all make two choices. The first is to decide whether some perceptions of a transcendent God are closer to the truth than others or not. Perhaps, you might propose, all notions of the transcendent are equally far from an astoundingly incomprehensible truth. In that case you could indeed say that all religions lead to God or are equally mistaken about God. The other viable possibility is this: no matter how astoundingly incomprehensible the truth, some notions represent a more accurate perception than others. I live by this latter option, because it seems to me that the minute you grant any notion of truth at all, it follows as a matter of human dignity that we ought to pursue this truth as ardently as we can. Perhaps we will stumble; perhaps we are limited in our perceptions; but we ought to try. After all, we live by various notions of truth whether we attend to them or not; better therefore to attend. If this makes sense, then the questions that follow are the most difficult yet: Which beliefs come the closest to the truth? How do we weigh different beliefs against one another?
Ladders and Leaps
When C. S. Lewis wrote Mere Christianity in the middle of the last century, he made his argument for the Christian faith as the best account of the truth by beginning with universal moral law and reasoning his way from there, with ingenious congeniality, to Christian doctrine. The only drawback of this strategy today is that reason has since suffered some bruising blows. We have lost confidence in reason as the all-in-one tool of truth. Excessive optimism that reason, science, technology, and capitalism could at last solve humanity's age-old problems was exploded by the great wars and other moral disasters of the twentieth century. Reason, we have had to concede, is neither the social savior nor the ultimate arbiter that the West has believed it to be. And only rarely has reason been the path to religious faith.
Reason must be satisfied, nevertheless, in order for faith to endure. As the medieval European allegorists might put it, Reason is a beautiful and imperious figure. She wears a crown. One of the last century's greatest philosophers, Alvin Plantinga, who has taught for many years at the University of Notre Dame, has spent much of his career thinking and writing about knowledge and belief. In his recent works, he demonstrates with utmost philosophical rigor that belief in God is rationally warranted: that it is as "properly basic" to believe in God as it is to believe that other minds exist, that we can remember events, or that our senses can provide reliable information under the right circumstances. He has provided such a convincing case for the rationality of theism in general and Christianity in particular that even his secular colleagues have had to relinquish the "knockout punch of the sheerly logical objection" to belief.
Still, although rationality can be compatible with belief in a God, rational structures do not typically get a person from no faith to faith, like a ladder. One gets to this kind of belief through other means. As the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard pointed out, one reaches faith by a leap. For some it is a little hop, and for some it is a gigantic death-defying half-flight. For some a leap is not the right metaphor at all, and faith feels more like a repeated turning or stepping or even just a leaning. But something other than reason nudges a person in that faith direction. One great advantage, then, in our coming to terms with transcendent reality these days is that reason is less of an obsession. We are more ready to give equal or even superior weight to particular experience over complex latticeworks of reason.
Lewis himself did not come to the Christian faith through reason, although he came as close as anyone by the rational road. I think he understood that rational argumentation functions mostly as a brush-clearing exercise, removing branches and stumps to make a space for belief to grow or to free a belief already planted for further growth. Those little nudges in the faith direction come instead by experience. I use the word here to mean an individual's alchemy of perceptions, understanding, and memory. We are always trying to find names for our experiences and build an understanding of them; and to do this we depend on hearing how other people describe their experiences, on their witness to what they have seen and heard. We change our ways of thinking and living when something awakens us to experiences we have had but not understood, when something finally gives a name to our experiences that fits so well it sticks. Other people witness to their own experiences of the transcendent; we have a swirl of these accounts in our heads; and we keep trying to grasp some of these possible explanations and test whether they fit our own experiences of the transcendent. When events and perceptions accumulate and certain names for describing those experiences keep sticking, a shape begins to emerge; and our jumble of understanding slowly transforms into faith.
Excerpted from So Much More by Debra Reinstra Excerpted by permission.
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What People are saying about this
Carol Zaleski, professor of religion, Smith College
"Unlike many introductions to the Christian faith, which seem to be driven by a barely suppressed anxiety, as if the writer was trying to convince himself by answering every conceivable objection, Debra Rienstra's So Much More radiates a serene confidence that is persuasive precisely because it is willing to acknowledge unsettled questions. All we absolutely need to know, she's convinced, is given to us with assurance as trustworthy as the hand of a loving father or mother."
John Wilson, editor, Books & Culture, and series editor, The Best Christian Writing
"So Much More is indeed so much moremore than your typical book on apologetics or theology or spirituality. Debra Rienstra is a gifted writer who imparts much wisdom in all of these areas—and more. This is a fine book for a person who is beginning a Christian pilgrimage. But it is also gives much guidance and encouragement to those of us who are well along in the journey."
Richard J. Mouw, president and Professor of Christian Philosophy, Fuller Theological Seminary
Meet the Author
Debra Rienstra is professor of English at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and the author of Great with Child: Reflections on Faith, Fullness, and Becoming a Mother.
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