As with our lives in the natural world, theology is grounded in everyday reality — which includes both our normal experiences in time and space, and those caesural moments when something elemental breaks into consciousness. Moreover, as with the aesthetic imagination, theology is a symbolic form which takes our experiences in the natural world and reshapes them, so that their special qualities and depths may be brought to mind. We have noted that poetry in particular is a deliberate attempt to refocus our attention on daily happenings and their extraordinary dimensions or character. Theology tries to do this as well, but in an altogether unique and intensified manner.
I would put it this way. If in our ordinary experience caesural moments seem to happen against our will or expectation, and artwork tries, both willfully and expectantly, to create experiences of an elemental character, intentionally disrupting our normal habitude and common perceptions, theology tries to transform this perception of elementariness into a sustained way of life and thought. This does not mean living at some abnormal edge of experience, out of touch with our regular sense of things. It rather means taking a particular stand where the elemental and the everyday intersect. In ordinary life, the everyday is generally habitual, and when the elemental breaks through it overwhelms one totally; thus their crossing point is not so much an element of consciousness as the place of a radical opening of awareness. By contrast, the artwork tries to create a fabrication of the crossing point so that one may experience the sights and sounds of existence in a more primary way, and thus allow the elemental to cleanse our rudimentary perceptions for the sake of life. The artist therefore tries to jolt one into perceptions of the elemental so that it will challenge casual consciousness. Artwork is a response to ordinariness, and to the sealing of the abysses through routine mindlessness.
The ideal of theology is different. It tries to stand in the natural world where we live our everyday lives, and to experience all its happenings as points of crossing, where the elemental depths come to some phenomenal perception. Theology thus seeks to orient the self to a twofold dimension: to the numinous qualities of unsayable origin inhering in every moment of existence. So understood, all our worldly experiences are prismatic revelations of a deeper elementariness, the worldly shapes of primal forces received as sensations on our bodies and stimulations in our minds. It is thus through a wholly natural attitude toward the world that a deeper phenomenality is disclosed. A task of theology is therefore to attune the self to the unfolding occurrence of things in all their particularities and conjunctions, and help one remain steadfast at each new crossing point where raw elementariness, radically given, becomes human experience.
Theology is thus situated at the border of the known and unknown, of the manifest and the concealed. It is at this nexus that the self seeks God. For just here there is both a sense of happening and the excess of all happening, extending to the utmost depths of Being and beyond. Theology gathers the import of this awareness and attunes the heart to it, directing one’s attention beyond the perceived appearance of things to the intuited and imagined vastness of all existence, ever generated from the ultimate Source of all things (and actuality). This most primal Depth (beyond the Beyond of all conception), so infinitely disposing, is what we haltingly bring to mind by the word God. We thus gesture the thought-image of a supernal Font of Being; and with it also this more paradoxical, corollary notion: that if all existence is not God as such, it is also not other than God, Life of all life.
It was with such matters in mind that I spoke earlier of theology as a spiritual practice, whose principal task is to guide human thought and sensibility toward God. As the exercise of theological thinking unfolds, it directs the human spirit toward an increasingly focused awareness of God as the heart and breath of all existence, and tries to sustain that focus throughout the course of life. Put differently, theology seeks to cultivate an abiding consciousness of God’s informing presence in all the realities of existence, the infinite modalities of divine effectivity. Hence the world is both what we “take” it to be, in all the moments of ordinary experience, and what we must “untake” it to be, when we relate all things back to their ontological and primordial ground in God.
I have been trying for decades now to convince religious and mystical friends and acquaintances that my primary form of religious practice is thinking. This is inconceivable to many spiritual temperaments whose relationship to thought is different from mine. They conceive thought as something that stands apart from reality, and thinks about things, over and against. For such people, thinking as participation within reality is itself a remote idea that is hard to think about, and with such things we are often tempted to dismiss them as nonexistent. For someone whose existence is oriented to this mode of thinking, this kind of dismissal can feel personal, and when I was younger I did take spiritual anti-intellectualism, however benevolently intended, very personally, as the deepest inhospitality: “there is no room in my world for you, except as a deluded and arrogant fool.”
I’ve long since stopped trying to argue with inhospitality. The thoughts I love are ones who must be invited in and entertained as possible. They are not equipped with argumentative battering rams. They cannot debate their way into consideration. But when someone does invite these ideas into their souls, even as a guest whose stay is temporary, I feel grateful.
Fishbane also gives me a feeling of home. By giving voice to how I exist, proclaiming that this is a way to be — a good way — I feel enworlded with my own kind. I have a place here. I do not have to wander, homeless, seeking hospitality.
With a place of our own, a home, hospitality is something that we can give as well as receive.