I’ve just started reading David Bentley Hart’s The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss. The purpose of this book is stated in the first chapter like this:
“…I also believe there are certain common forms of experience so fundamental to human rationality that, without them, we could not think or speak at all….All I want to do in the pages that follow is to attempt to explain, as lucidly as I can, how traditional understandings of God illuminate and are illuminated by those experiences.”
I heard Hart talking about his book on the Mars Hill Audio Journal, and it thrilled my philosopher’s soul. Because the man can be a little hard to follow when he’s speaking quickly and extemporaneously — and I am not a good auditory learner — I am even more delighted in the book.
I can’t wait to share one gem of a thought from the introduction:
“God is not only the ultimate reality that the intellect and the will seek but is also the primordial reality with which all of us are always engaged in every moment of existence and consciousness, apart from which we have no experience of anything whatsoever.”
Last week was filled with historical talk and images – even theology. First there was the cemetery where we had buried my father-in-law in January. We checked to make sure that the gravestone had been cut and set properly, and then we visited the graves of Mr. Glad’s great-grandparents and grandparents on both sides of the family, and several aunts and uncles.
Above is a photo of one set of the great-grandparents whose graves we visited, people born in Cornwall in the mid-19th century. They came to California to work in the New Almaden quicksilver (mercury) mines near San Jose, where the wife Eliza gave birth to my husband’s grandmother and several other children.
When I look into the bright eyes of that face I just wish I could hug her. Why do you focus on her and not him, my husband asked? Because she’s a woman and I’m a woman, I answered. I feel strangely connected to her across the years and in spite of the fact that I never knew her nor are we even related by blood. I wonder if she is praying for her descendants, including my children and grandchildren? I can’t see and touch her right now, but (Matthew 22) “God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.” She is a real living person, not an idea.
New Almaden Englishtown
The novel Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner tells the story of a miner and his wife who lived for a time there in Englishtown, with tales involving Mexican miners in the camp’s “Spanishtown.” The Cornish people attended the Methodist Episcopal Church on the hill and Eliza is remembered as loving to read her Bible.
When her children were grown and the parents had moved into San Jose, she still prepared a large spread every Sunday afternoon and expected all the children and their families to come for Sunday dinner. She was especially fond of her grandsons.
Many of the women those days kept chickens and cows but Eliza was the only one in her family who had the gumption to kill a chicken. When any of the others wanted chicken for dinner they would take their bird to Eliza to chop off its head.
A mother and father not ours
On the first night of our trip to these forbears’ old stomping grounds we had dinner with a dear cousin who also is linked and indebted to them. We came bearing gifts of photographs of some relations who have passed on, and we talked about our family — and of course, our own childhoods.
Next day the Mister and I ate a picnic next to the Felton Covered Bridge in the Santa Cruz mountains. It’s the tallest known covered bridge in the country, built of redwood in 1892 to span the San Lorenzo River. No one knows why the builders made it so high.
I started thinking about bridges as a metaphor, as in “Bridges to the Past”….What would be the thing to be bridged, the gulf over which we can meet on a bridge? If we are on this side of the bridge, what or who is on the other side?
Burned redwoods at Henry Cowell.
The bridge lies near the Mt. Hermon Christian conference center, where my husband from his earliest days enjoyed the creeks and paths, and sleeping on the porch of his grandmother’s cabin.
He and I spent our brief honeymoon in that cabin, and strolled dreamily around the redwoods of Henry Cowell park nearby. It was drizzling that day in March 41 years ago and we had the park to ourselves, no doubt breathing the same woodsy, cold and moist air that we drank up on this trip.
Our marriage has endured to the present; it’s a continuing thing, so the bridge idea doesn’t exactly fit in that case, but it was pressed back into my mind a few more times anyway.
From the covered bridge and the park we drove up a hill to the neighborhood of the old cabin where we’d spent so many happy times with several generations sleeping in nooks and corners and beds tucked into closets. Another cousin and his wife live around the corner in a cabin that’s been in his family for many decades, too.
We two couples walked up and down all over the place remembering the fun and family going back 60 years. Mr. Glad and I hadn’t visited “his” cabin since 23 years ago it passed from our family. We saw that trees and ferns and birdbath have been taken away, to make space for parking trucks.
That’s too bad. Well, let’s keep going downhill toward the kind of landmarks that don’t change so easily.
Two Cousins on New Swinging Bridge
The natural beauty endures – some of these redwood trees have been around for hundreds or thousands of years. The unnamed tall tree above looked to us as large as The Giant we had seen a few hours before in the state park. We were gazing up at it from the Swinging Bridge, a suspension bridge that still sways when you walk on it, though it has been improved from what it was in Mr. Glad’s younger years.
Cabin Cousin named this scene “Stumphenge.” People are always making structures and arrangements that are symbolic of the most meaningful things in their lives. Some of those structures, as I was to reminded the next morning, are intangible.
It’s obvious I love a good bridge — some of them are majestic works of art, and even the less dramatic show the human need and desire to go from here to there on the earth, to interact with the natural landscape in practical and artistic, and sometimes playful, ways.
I am often more comfortable on a sturdy bridge than I am down in the canyon or river below. Two creeks come together on the Mt. Hermon property. This confluence of Bean and Zayante Creeks is just about The Most Favorite Spot from the Mr. Glad history files. I have waded in the creek here too, with our children, and have sat picnicking on lovely warm summer days. We looked down from the swinging bridge and sighed our contented memories.
At this time of year we didn’t want to be down there in the chilly water. From the bridge, wearing our cozy jackets, we could get a wide view. You feel that you know where you are, and there are no sand or pebbles scratching between your toes.
The next day as we drove home Mr. Glad and I listened to a discussion about a famous theologian who is now acknowledged to be a BRIDGE between East and West, Pentecostals and non-Pentecostals, and other disparate groupings. If I tell you his name many of you will feel an immediate urge to click away to another blog, because the Unitarians have done that to you.
When they controlled the educational system of this nation Unitarians worked hard to steer young people away from the Puritans, and one small tactic in this program was to inoculate them against a man who preached a lot on themes like humility, beauty, and the sweetness of the Love of God. They did this by making sure that schoolchildren had in their curriculum one of his worst and least representative sermons.
In our usual intellectually focused condition we search for these rational bridges to connect us to our roots and to each other. I’m afraid the Unitarians were trying to keep us on a platform without even a good view of the life-giving stream. If I stay in my mind and only think about God, it is like looking down from a bridge at the river, when what I am dying of thirst to do is splash and drink and be refreshed by the Living Water.
But in the presence of God, living our theology by prayer and love to one another, we can be part of a continuum, like the earthly water that over the millennia constantly comes back to us as rain into the streams and snow on the mountains, evaporates from the oceans to make clouds that float inland again….
If Jonathan Edwards and I both live in Christ, who said, “Except you eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, you have no life in you,” then we are in the same vital current. And that’s the important thing.
One of my dearest and most influential friends, Anne, gave me a copy of Edwards’s Religious Affections more than twenty years ago, and I spent a while this morning becoming re-acquainted. But I don’t think it’s likely that I will read much more of the works of this brilliant thinker who is for some people a bridge. I already spend too much time standing on and studying bridges and platforms.
Instead I want to live in communion with God and with His people — including my distant-but-near relations from the 19th century, the 18th century — even the Holy Apostles, and all of that Cloud of Witnesses who (I Corinthians) “did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ.”