Sunday, October 28, 2007

ECSTASY AND INTIMACY by Edith Humphrey

I’ve been reading Edith Humphrey’s book Ecstasy and Intimacy the past few days—a masterful work on grounding Christian spirituality in the biblical story, particularly in the doctrines of Trinity and Incarnation.

I first heard of Edith Humphrey many years ago when J. I. Packer pointed me to some excellent position papers on human sexuality that she had helped write for the embattled Anglican Diocese of New Westminster in Canada. Thus, I couldn’t help skipping over some chapters to get directly to “the good stuff,” namely her chapter on human relationships as “Icons of Love.” I was particularly interested in her reflections on marriage and on the use of feminine language for God in worship.

Here’s some of what she has to say about the effects of calling God “Mother.” (Warning: R-rated stuff ahead.)

It is not that God is not motherly, but turning “Mother” into a proper name for God “tends to foster an unchristian kind of ... view that God is in everything ... because in using womb language, we are apt to confuse Creator with creature.” She cites a prayer that “throws caution to the wind” and “sexualiz[es] the image of God in a bizarre manner.”
Elder woman, from the wine of your womb-love, You create the universe and bring healing.... Pour out upon us the elixir of your divine mercy: that, touched in the innermost parts of ourselves, we are restored as your beloved.... One whose splendour gave birth to the angels, Eye of wisdom, Holy Sophia, Goddess Three in One. Amen.
Humphrey’s astute observation? “What worshiping body would accept a parallel prayer that used masculine terminology (e.g., “the seed of your penis-strength”) as blatant as the feminine imagery used here?”

When you put it that way, you don’t need to add an argument, but (of course) she does. Humphrey reminds us that we are Trinitarian Christians and that (as Pannenberg observed) on the lips of Jesus, “Father” becomes a proper name for God. In the Hebrew Scriptures, Father is one name among many. But with Jesus, it becomes the name by which we know God—Abba, Father.

As we are called to live into what it means to be made in the image of God, the life of the Trinity models many things for us. That leads us to think about family life, because the persons of the Trinity have eternally been in relationship, involving mutuality, cooperation, submission, and sacrifice. The mission of God is at every point the mission of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—all of them, all the time, not just one or another.

The Incarnation helps us understand that embodiment is not optional for us. It is not something to be regretted (as in some ascetic spiritualities). For Christ to be for us the icon of God (see Colossians 1:15; cf. Hebrews 1:3), he had to take on human flesh. And God did not make us in his image apart from making us embodied creatures. When he made us his icons, he made us flesh. Spiritualities that try to deny the importance of our bodily existence to our spiritual calling miss something foundational.

Early in her chapter “Icons of Love,” Edith inserts an old photo of her daughter Alexandra that illustrates the title of her book: ecstasy and intimacy. The snapshot shows her young daughter playing her violin in a jaunty pose and with a magnificent smile on her face. Ecstasy. Little Alexandra is clad only in her underpants and socks, and her posture and facial expression demonstrate a total transparency to the parent behind the camera. She is holding nothing back. Intimacy.

Refracting the divine nature
Edith spends the rest of the chapter exploring how our human relationships—being friends, siblings, parents and children, husbands and wives—refract something of the divine nature. She says, for example, that the things we experience as friends—“mutuality, equality, exclusivity, inclusivity and absorption in something shared”—help “to enlighten our understanding of God” and are “capable of mediating God’s love and light to us.” This is also true of the particular things we experience in our other human relationships.

Here are a few key ideas from her reflections on marriage:

While the Old Testament uses marriage as “a simple pictorial reminder of God’s desired intimacy with his people,” in the New Testament “it takes on a ‘sacramental’ or iconic significance.”
The Incarnation, the coming of God himself as one of us into our world, has made what was only metaphor a living reality. Similarly, the relationship between believing husband and wife tangibly indicates the life of Christ with his beloved Church; indeed, each marriage relationship that is in Christ itself partakes of this divine mystery....

[B]elievers commend marriage as a special state that is conducive to repentance, healing, growth, and glorification for the couple involved. Precisely here, we say, one can see a refracted picture of the wholeness, the holiness, the love of God in human form, and the glory of humanity....

The married couple will be surprised to find how it is that their growing intimacy, yieldedness, and vulnerability to each other indeed transfers to their relationship with God, the lover of all. ... There is, therefore, a crossover between our embodied condition and our spiritual life that we might never have expected.
Our choice-crazy culture
One further thought. In commenting on both the parent-child and the husband-wife relationship, Edith looks at how these contrast with our culture of choice.

In the case of marriage, contemporary society is historically out of step because we have the privilege of choosing our own spouses. The upside of that is that spousal friendship and romance are far more likely to occur here than in societies where other people make that choice for the couple. But the culture of choice also undermines commitment. Because our society tells us sixteen times every day that we should be exercising choice—and sometimes it communicates that our choices make us who we are—we need reminding that marriage is not a lifestyle choice. It is a window into the divine love and a school for growing more like God.

In the case of parents and children, the “givenness” of the relationship reminds us that, despite “the choice-crazy climate of our day,” some things are for keeps. That “choice-crazy climate” may magnify the difficulties parents and children encounter. The lasting nature of the parent-child relationship (though it grows and changes) reminds us that our culture of choice is not normal.

In her reflections on human relationships, Edith does not ignore the pain and hurt we experience. Because these relationships, as icons of love, reflect the ultimate, they also are the contexts in which we can be most deeply damaged. Families and marriages are dangerous things. And for that very reason, they need to be nurtured and tended with the care due to the icons of ultimate love.

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