Fellow Passengers: This week’s Poetry Passage* (Psalm 107) transports me back almost 250 years to the Duchy of Württemberg in southwestern Germany, where a good Lutheran boy named Georg entered Stuttgart’s Gymnasium Illustre, which was what they called the k-12 prep school back in the day. Georg didn’t have a lot of time for gym there in the illustrious gymnasium; from early on he devoted himself to the reading of poetry and philosophy. His graduation speech was a real stemwinder on “The abortive state of art and scholarship in Turkey.” From there he went to seminary at Tübingen, after which he wrote Life of Jesus and The Positivity of the Christian Religion and The Spirit of Christianity and Its Fate. He would gain fame not for his theology, though, but for his philosophy, in later works such as The Science of Logic and The Philosophy of Right. Students of political science know him primarily through an extremely condensed paraphrase of his system of logic; the boy Georg of Württemberg is none other than Georg Wilhelm Friederich Hegel, known for giving the world of philosophy Hegel’s Dialectic. This dialectic is popularly misunderstood to be a progression of history that moves from a thesis to an opposing antithesis to a final synthesis. Hegel himself did not see history this way; his works show him to believe that everything and everyone and every society is composed of inherent internal contradictions – the thesis and antithesis exist at the same time, and it is in holding these opposites together in tension that we have the possibility of coming up with something new, a higher-level synthesis. It all might sound as interesting and noteworthy as the abortive state of art and scholarship in Turkey, but in reality, Hegel’s philosophy profoundly influenced our world, in an odd way contributing to the rise of both marxism and fascism, those contradictory world views whose tensions defined our 20th century world.
It would be a stretch to claim that the poetry of the Psalms are lyrical versions of Georg W.F. Hegel’s philosophy, but today’s Passage certainly reveals some basic contradictions inherent in the nature of God. The dialectical Almighty both afflicts and comforts, troubles and soothes, turns rivers into deserts and turns deserts into pools of water, stirs up tempests and calms storms. God brings the hungry into a fruitful land where they sow and reap and are filled with good things, and then these satisfied and fulfilled folk inevitably forget where they came from and sow seeds of oppression and injustice, leading God to pour contempt on the nobility and send them empty away. What is clear here is that the Psalmist, like Hegel, is not talking about two opposing forces of people receiving these contradictory experiences of God. This is not a war between Jews and Muslims or marxists and fascists; these are all covenant people described in the Psalm, people who have within them both the deep longing and hunger for God’s mercy, and the shallow sense of self-agency and trust in their own powers. Somehow, when we understand that this tension exists within us, that we have deserts within our hearts that the Spirit is transforming into rivers and we also have rivers within our hearts that the Spirit is transforming into deserts, then we can access a higher-level concept of God at work in our world, and we can sing the lines the poet repeats several times throughout this Psalm - let us give thanks for God’s steadfast love and wondrous deeds among humanity.
Hegel’s triads are making something of a comeback these days in some of the circles I travel in. I recently finished attending a series of workshops led by my friend Jeanine Siler Jones, connecting the work of the enneagram with the practice of centering prayer. I was interested to see that practitioners from both these wisdom traditions focus on the “law of three.” This law is basic to understanding the personality typing system of the enneagram. And one of the more widely read advocates and teachers of centering prayer, Cynthia Bourgeault, uses the triad of affirming, denying, and reconciling in her new book, The Holy Trinity and the Law of Three. Speaking to the contemporary reality of a traditional church finding more people outside its doors than within, she says: Rather than simply digging in our heels and sticking ferociously to old formulas. . . we might instead position ourselves to see that in all these situations there exists a possibility for making a new and deeper connection between old and new, inner and outer, in a way that neither trashes tradition nor trashes human beings standing on the outside, yearning to be invited deeper within. That’s the kind of holding in tension and seeking the third way of reconciliation that I think would have made Hegel, and the Psalmist, proud.
How about you? Where does this Poetry Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.