The Unexpected


I take it as reasonable to assume that an encounter with the divine takes place in those areas of life my Celtic forbears spoke of as the borderlands, the thin place where life, the universe, time and experience, reason and temporal reality can wind back just  far enough to allow the divine to be recognized.

There is underlying this the question, of course, of the veracity of religious epistemology. How true can a non-temporal understanding or experience be validated within the temporal reality. Ultimately the ratification of such a claim or experience can not be allowed to rest on an epistemal primitive. That is where the person makes a claim that can not be validated in any way and simply uses a faith requirement as an excuse for not being prepared to have the question hung.

One of the recurring themes in the encounter narratives we find in the New and Old Testaments is the sense of the unexpected. In the Adam and Eve narrative we find them wandering around in the nick just chatting with God. As we move through the time line getting closer into history we find the exceptional and the unexpected becomes a feature of the encounter.

Noah sends a bird from the ark, and when it returns with a twig they know the waters are receding. God is no longer chatting, but rather expecting us to work some things out for ourselves.

The repeated journey motif of salvation seems always to begin with a sense of conviction or encounter. Sometimes the destination has to be taken on trust, sometimes the journey as the destination is in some sense conceived already. The Abraham journey is a call to the place that I will show you, the Moses journey is a call to return despite the ardors of the journey.

The narrative of the Transfiguration, sitting as it does at the point of juncture in the Gospel narratives between the rabbinic teaching mission, and the headlong assault on Jerusalem seems to suggest that this theophany was an essential impetus to the journey, just as Moses encounter at the burning bush.

I guess there is a sense in which each of these encounters has a sense of the Black Swan. Moses was not looking for a burning bush, Abraham was comfortable in Ur of the Chaldees, and Jesus rabbinic teaching mission was going gangbusters, and if social media had been in place twitter would have gone off the radar.

Clearly it seems that not every Black Swan is an encounter with the divine. Most of us would not see the felling of the twin towers, the rise of the internet or the Global Financial Crisis in the same breath. However is every encounter a Black Swan?

Fingers fumbling through the rosary looking for solace and consolation, the faithful reaching out for the Eucharist, the earnest christian devouring scriptures like sharks in a feeding frenzy, are all looking for the encounter in all the usual places. It would seem to suggest an absurdity if the encounter with God was not possible, yeah even probable in these instances, the condition being that the heart was set in the right place. I am inclined to think that God does not intend us to use prayer to bend the divine will, nor the Eucharist to gain some power, nor scripture to prop up our own misguided opinions.

The thing I find interesting is that the encounter with the divine in these circumstances is not memorable.

A dear friend of mine who was wrestling with the notion of the Body of Christ as the Eucharist and as the Community of Faithful Believers. As he traveled by train each day they passed a Billboard with an image of a large fluffy cream bun. He is fond of cream buns so he was aware of it. One morning a vandal had sprayed across it the well know quote from the European Atheist Feuerbach – “You are what you eat”. This my friend believes was a Black Swan, and he had his answer. I suspect the Feuerbach would not have seen it that way, nor the rogue who defaced the sign, and I am sure the diet police would have preferred my friend to be off Cream Buns for life. (didn’t happen!)

So if memorable encounters happen in unusual places such as the fiery bush, wanton vandalism, high mountains, the words of dead atheists, etc why do we seek God in the familiar and the known? And why when the encounter happens is it not memorable. Is it simply that these events do not have the quality of the Black Swan.

Is it simply that prayer, sacrament and scripture are in the borderlands where we are on the lookout for the divine, where as walking up a mountain, catching a train, are more mundane and not where you look for the divine, so life has a quality of the known and the unknown, the predictable and the surprise.

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