An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith
Barbara Brown Taylor (2009, HarperOne)
For those of us with some ambivalence about religious matters, Barbara Brown Taylor brings a welcome message, framed as a paradox: If we go to church to be nearer to God, does that mean we get farther from God when we leave? Surely not, but then, what was the point of going? Taylor is an Episcopal priest, now working mainly as a teacher and writer*. In An Altar in the World, she does not deny or refute all the good that church can do, and be; but she argues against the tendency to look for God only there. Where, in the world, is the holy to be found?
Happily, another paradox answers the first. The stories of our holy traditions point the way: “God shows up in whirlwinds, starry skies, burning bushes and complete strangers. When people want to know more about God, the son of God tells them to pay attention to the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, to women kneading bread and workers lining up for their pay.”
In other words, if we imagine we’d like to be more spiritual, maybe we need to start by being more embodied. Maybe it’s not so much about what we believe as what we do, after all; or at least, the two are not so separable as we’ve been led to believe. “The daily practice of incarnation--of being in the body with full confidence that God speaks the language of flesh--is to discover a pedagogy that is as old as the gospels. Why else did Jesus spend his last night on earth teaching his disciples to wash feet and share supper?”
This is heartening, and, naturally, frightening as well. We don’t have to wait for Sunday to wash our neighbors’ feet, in whatever way presents itself, and share our supper with them. “Reverence for creation comes fairly easily for most people. Reverence for other people presents more of a challenge, especially if those people’s lives happen to impinge upon your own.” Seeking the holy presence in all the others in the market or on the bus sounds like an inexhaustible practice.
Another simplest-and-most-difficult practice Taylor recommends is keeping the Sabbath. Can we really slow down enough to let the Holy catch up with us? These days, it’s a challenge. It’s also, she points out, a commandment. If the thought of a whole day of rest makes you intolerably nervous, she suggests, start however you can. “You could resolve not to add anything more to your calendar without subtracting something from it. You could practice praising yourself for saying no as lavishly as you do when you say yes.”
Brown writes unapologetically from a Christian perspective, but she’s entirely sensitive to the inadequacy of language, which is so often a way of distancing ourselves from the material realities she commends to our attention. What language does a snowflake speak, or a sunrise? And she knows plenty of people who are reverent without being particularly religious: “They do not want to debate anyone. The longer they stand before the holy of holies, the less adequate their formulations of faith seem to them. Angels reach down and shut their mouths.”
Reverence, rest, work, prayer; all good things, but they come with no guarantees, no promises. If we know anything, we know that we are not in charge. We don’t control when and where God knocks, but maybe we could get a little better at opening the door when it happens.
Hallelujah, and amen.