dance of the hopeful agnostic

We live in a world—a culture
in which certainty is not only valued,
but is also treated as a measure of truth—
as if listeners associate
the surety with which someone speaks
more with the truth of what is said
than with the belief of the speaker.

We speak appreciatively of confidence—
all too easily forgetting or even ignoring
what we mean when we speak of a confidence game
in which it’s precisely someone’s confidence
that’s the means by which to take advantage of others.

Our admiration of certainty and confidence though,
is part and parcel of the individualism
that appropriates the self as locus of truth,

and these days, far fewer
name their perspectives on reality
perspectives,
as they do assume them to be
simply their clear, accurate view of what’s real.

Such inappropriation has infected even our faith,
and language of assurance, belief, trust—even strong conviction,
has taken on the hard, rigid contours of certainty—
in pulpits, in the public arena,
and in conversations
that have more the tenor of arguments.

But it’s obvious, is it not?
that those who speak
with certainty of mystery—
of what cannot be known,
speak more to their own need/s
than to truth.

When Paul stood before the altar to an unknown god in Athens,
and claimed to know what the Athenians did not—
when he proclaimed the God
in whom we live and move and have our being,
who does not live in shrines made by human hands (Acts 17:16-34),
there was deep truth to where he stood,
as well as in what he said.
For while he proclaimed what he knew of God,
he proclaimed the God who also does not live
in shrines made by human minds,
and Paul knew only (as does anyone)—
Paul knew only what had been revealed of God
who while revealed clearly, we believe,
is never and cannot ever be, known fully.

And we both affirm and appreciate the irony
of the God who reveals self to each of us,
only and always, in our own personal experience—
so that to speak of God is to necessarily speak only subjectively—
and thus, if with integrity, humbly.

This an affirmation that Paul,
who so often comes across as so very certain—
this an affirmation that Paul
so carefully wove through his writing—
acknowledging amidst all he knew,
and knew with such surety,
that we see darkly (1 Corinthians 13:12),
that we are stewards of mystery (1 Corinthians 4:1),
and that maturity is not having reached the goal,
but pressing ever on (Philippians 3:12, 13-15).

So while what we don’t know—and can’t know
apparently represents weakness in our culture—
an indecisiveness, an unprofessional lack
of preparedness or expertise,
what we don’t know—and can’t know
is acknowledged, claimed, and celebrated in Scripture
as truth and as faith affirmation.

In one of God’s clearest expressions of expectation,
we are told to walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8)—
which is, at least in part, a rejection of certainty
to walk in mystery—
with mystery—
through mystery.

And in the story as relayed in and through the gospel of Mark,
the father, longing for his boy to be healed,
when told by Jesus that all is possible for those who believe,
exclaimed, “I believe, help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24)

Then the disciples—
those specifically called by Jesus—taught by Jesus—
the disciples, in the story
as relayed in and through the gospel of Mark,
asked Jesus questions—
lots and lots of questions.
They asked about the parables—
more than once not understanding (Mark 4:10, 7:17).
They asked him about their faith heritage—
for clarification of what they had been taught (Mark 9:11).
They asked him why they couldn’t accomplish
what he could—why they couldn’t do what he did (Mark 9:28).
They asked him about his teaching;
because they had obviously not understood (Mark 10:10).
They asked him about the future (Mark 13:1-4).
They asked Jesus questions
representing not just what they wanted to know,
but also, and equally importantly, what they knew they didn’t.

“Lord this we know,” we might hear them saying.
“Help us with what we don’t.”
And here’s the thing:
that didn’t always mean to help them know what they didn’t.
It was also a cry for help in the not-knowing
a prayer for God’s help embracing the uncertainty,
God’s help in accepting mystery as partner.
For to walk, with God’s help,
in mystery—
with mystery—
through mystery.
is, in truth, to dance
with God—
to live and move,
being with the God with us—
to the rhythm of the great story—
full of contradiction and inconsistency
and the great harmonies and the absolute consistency
of surprising joy
all to the powerful music of love.
It’s to dance as testimony to the music heard—
to what cannot be known and that yet demands expression
in movement and in grace.

So the dance of the hopeful agnostic
(the one who affirms what cannot be known
and does so not just with hope,
but as an expression of hope)
unfolds in often flagrant,
though sometimes subtle,
defiance of the way things are.
Sometimes angry.
Sometimes joyful.
Rattling taken for granted assumptions of the status quo.

The dance is, in part, disregard of convention,
in part, mockery—
in part though, celebration of it—
even within disregard and mockery.
But it’s mainly a not settling for convention—
an ever looking for something else—something more—
in anticipation—in affirmation.

For the dance of the hopeful agnostic
is not a dance of uncertainty.
Nor is it, ultimately, a dance of rejection,
but rather the choreography of a dancer partnered
with an assurance—
with trust—
just not grounded only on the solid certainty of what we know
(or think we do),
but also on the excited expectation of ongoing discovery,
ongoing growth and ongoing revelation—
the wondrous possibility of what we will yet know,

and the grateful acceptance of the mystery
of what we do not and cannot know.

So the dance of not knowing—
the dance of the agnostic, in its honesty and in its integrity,
is truly, if ironically, a dance of faith—
of what is believed and what is hoped for.

It is thus not a discomforting dance for those who watch,
even in its dissatisfaction with the status quo—
its anger at it.
At least it’s not discomforting
for those who remain open to possibility.

For even without apparent, formal expectations—
without rules or order,
the dance of the agnostic,
while not a dance expressed in the hard frozen lines of the known
with absolute positions held—clung to—
rigidly isolating extensions,
neither is the dance of not knowing, when risked,
experienced just as ceaseless, random movement,
without any semblance of form or structure.

It is rather fluid extension flowing
in vulnerable honesty
beautifully from one pose to another.
Not locking into any stance—
not settling—ever,
though returning (watch carefully)
to poses previously explored—
familiar yet now different,
and even flowing through the poses
held so tightly by the certain,
though never held as rigidly.

The dancer exhibiting a control
not manifest in being able to freeze
and hold the pose of any given moment.
A control that is, yes, surely, sometimes,
the beauty of a pose—fully held,
but that is also sometimes surely
commitment to the movement
from the balance that was,
through the unbalance to the balance that will be—
so commitment not just to where and how the dancer is,
but also to where and how the dancer will be.

And the gift of the expertise, the skill,
and the discipline of the art
encourages the observer to relax—non-anxiously.
Not to worry about what the dancer can do or can’t do,
but, absorbed in the dancing,
to invest in what the dancer will do.

This a dancing neither defined nor limited by any one style,
incorporating the fullness of what is possible—
full of the recognizable, the familiar,
but differently presented—
strangely configured—
one position leading to another seamlessly,
but not in some expected order.
Not defined by any one style.
In unexpected discovery, rather.
In joyful witness.
Because observers are not just appreciating what they see,
but anticipating what will be—
invited into an awareness of what is now and not yet—
of what is and what is becoming

in and through the soaring, gliding, spiraling, diving, rolling,
spinning, whirling, isolating, incorporating,
extending, posing of the dance—
that all wraps itself around truth that cannot be contained
inviting the very soul of an observer
to soar and glide
to spiral and dive and roll
spin and whirl
isolate and incorporate
extend and pose
and to wrap itself around truth as well—
knowing it, all the while, to be uncontainable.

And so to chassé,
pirouette,
fouetté,
sauté,
jeté—
to know the flowing glide of a waltz,
the intricacy of a quickstep,
the sensual heat of a rumba,
the pure fun of a cha-cha,
the rhythms of primitive traditions
rooted in all the various ethnicities,
the low center of gravity and splayed limbs of a jazz number,
the narrative quality of a broadway routine—
but to also pop and lock,
incorporating elements of tutting and krumping—

because, again, it’s so much not a matter of style (or styles),
but the matter of a strong identity
yet questing.
An identity strong enough to look beyond itself—

with a love of dance
permeating every moment—
in, through, and behind every move.
Never a particular kind of dance,
but dance.

An embodiment of grace—
soft and so very strong,
powerful—
with all the sass not just of dissidence but of confidence,
balanced—centered—
and also a deeper affirmation of hope—

celebration of the movement
that is joy and life
and growth,
and not settling—ever.

For the dance of not knowing,
when it’s not a lazy giving up,
is not easy, but ever so demanding—
requiring ever more of a dancer (and observers)—

less the isometric strain of positions rigidly held
well past any possibility of comfort,
as the heat and burn of muscles shaking
with the strain of the work of ever-changing—

expending energy,
then resting in stillness—
the rest as much a part of the choreography
as anything else—
even the stillness
alive—
emanating energy, passion, and potential.

Hard work.

Hard work,
ever pushing against what’s possible—
not what’s humanly possible though,
but personally.
So, different for each individual—
dancing not defined or measured
by what anyone could do (or someone),
but by what one person does—
the dancer.

Hard work that acknowledges the persistent risk of injury,
pushing the limits,
but deems it well worth the joy.

Hard work that requires the hopeful agnostic to commit
to the rigorous training and conditioning
of a regular questioning routine—
to the ever stretching of assumptions and possible answers,
and the consistent practice of mindful awareness.
What do I know? What do I know now? What do I not?
What do I know that I didn’t? What did I know that I don’t?

Taking time after every dance
to reflect and consider,
to revise and reclaim—
to dance never the same—
as many of the same moves as are incorporated—
receiving a different weight each time
part of a different order—a different whole—
a different affirmation—growth.

Yet the freedom of such dance
remains subordinate always to the integrity of the dancer

who’s thoughtful not dogmatic,
invested not apathetic,
hopeful not cynical,
vulnerable not defensive,
honest not deluded,
excited not angry,
anticipating not scared.

And the dance remains ever affirmation and celebration
that nonetheless,
within affirmation and celebration,
constitutes challenge—
challenge to what is—
challenge to who we are—
as dancers
and as observant participants in the dance.

And satisfaction is not just what has been accomplished,
but also what having accomplished allows a dancer
to envision accomplishing.

This is the work of faith; this is the discipline of hope.

For, named such or not,
the dance of the hopeful agnostic—
the joyful dance in the embrace of uncertainty,
partnered with mystery,
leaning into the support and strength of a partner
assuredly present though not always obviously so,
this dancing with God,
is an unceasing,
ever-unfolding,
ever-developing
prayer.

Amen.

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