I saw that phenomenon at work in my time immersed in predominantly African American contexts. For four years, I was a professor at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. Later, I spent one of my years as a divinity school student at Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, North Carolina. Both Fisk and Shaw are HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities), and both continue to have student bodies that are entirely or almost entirely African American. In both those settings I had repeated exposure to Black Church worship and culture. One of the things I often heard, especially at the divinity school, like a mantra of affirmation and hope, was: “God is good all the time; all the time, God is good.”
These were people that were not oblivious to, nor in denial about the very real pain, suffering, injustice, and oppression in life. For most of them, they or their families had directly seen and felt the worst effects of prejudice and bigotry. They were not retreating into escapism from that reality, nor were they complacent about the need for the very hard ongoing work for social justice. When they greeted each other, and me, with a bounce in their step, a broad smile on their face, and an outstretched hand if not two outstretched arms, and the buoyant words, “God is good all the time; all the time, God is good,” they were expressing a deep sense of the joy of possibility in the very midst of the pain and oppression of which they were so keenly aware.
Transcendence is contact with the wider context of our lives. It is the felt sense, more than words can say, that the tragedy and unfairness and pain exists always within a wider context deeply affirmable, a context of wonder and of joy. From this kind of acceptance comes equanimity but not complacency. And without the calm, abiding equanimity to leaven the energy of anger that so often arises when working for social justice, activists burn out. Repeatedly reconnecting with the vast beauty of life and the world does not make questions about fairness go away. It just lets us see everything that’s wrong, that we are working to fix, against a context of deep, deep goodness.
This universe is not mechanically moral. Mountains and rivers and the great wide Earth, the sun and the moon and the stars – they don’t care what we think we deserve. The legal model of rights and faults simply does not apply to the grand scale of all of nature. Job's starting point is inadequate. Transcendent awareness helps our suffering weigh less heavily upon us. It prepares us to do what we can for fairness and social justice, and let go of attachment to results.
The liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez emphasizes social justice, emphasizes solidarity with the poor, the oppressed, the downtrodden, the ones that Jesus called, “the least of these.” Gutierrez is a theologian of deep commitment to advocacy for social justice. At the same time, Gutierrez writes,
“emphasis on the practice of justice and on solidarity with the poor must never become an obsession and prevent our seeing that this commitment reveals its value and ultimate meaning only within the vast and mysterious horizon of God's gratuitous love” (On Job: God-Talk and the Suffering of the Innocent 96).Gutierrez is speaking Christian, and what he’s talking about is transcendence – for when we experience the wonder of creation deeply and personally, it feels like an awesome gratuitous love. It feels like what poet Annie Dillard called, "a universal love which has never broken faith with us and never will." (Dillard's words were affirmed often by Rev. Bill Sinkford during his Presidency of the Unitarian Universalist Association -- for example: HERE.)
"If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve (or save) the world and a desire to enjoy (or savor) the world. This makes it hard to plan the day." (New York Times, 1969 Jul 11)We cannot get too caught up in saving the world and neglect to savor it, neglect to experience the wonder of being alive. Also: we cannot get too caught up in savoring the world and neglect the work of building a more fair and just world. This is not about "balance" - as in, so much time spent experiencing awe, and so much time spent in compassionate service to others - as if they were entirely distinct activities. Instead, it's about the saving work being encompassed and surrounded and embedded within a background of constant savoring.
Let awe -- an awe such as Job experienced when he heard the voice of God speak from a whirlwind -- be always with you. Walk each moment in awe of the glory of lungs that breathe and a heart that beats. As you do so, turn toward service.
Let every single moment be a moment of simultaneously savoring and saving. If we lose that savoring, if we aren't connected with wonder, if our saving work is joyless, then the world no longer has anything to be saved for.
God's speech to Job reminds us of that which transcends our blaming, judging, self-blaming, self-judging mind: the vast system of goats and deer and ostriches and stars and cosmos. We must strive for justice, yes – and we must also understand that our efforts to construct a just order take place within a much grander natural order that is ours to love and savor and stand in awe of – beauty and harshness, triumph and pain, and all.
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This is part 3 of 3 of "Job and Transcendence"
Part 1: "Mechanically Moral Universe?"
Part 2: "Why Does Job Suffer?"