The Forgotten Adventures of God by Robert Steiner

The Forgotten Adventures of God by Robert Steiner

The French philosopher Jacques Derrida once argued that ‘All our secret is in survival’. Enigmatic as the statement sounds, it immediately rings true in the light of the struggles for survival I have witnessed over the last few months. There is so much that needs to be survived: the sudden death of a beloved son, the painful break-up of a relationship, the ongoing search for work, the unending stories of violence in our community, the shattering news of abuse in Catholic institutions. The list goes on and on, and even though one might not be affected personally, one’s mind and spirit and heart battle to survive the continual onslaught of maddening news. The New Testament scholar Gerd Theissen describes our terrible efficiency at destroying and disturbing powerlessness at constructing as a ‘frightening asymmetry’. How easy and quick our attempts to break down. How difficult and laborious our response to rebuild.

The struggle to survive is not only physical and emotional but spiritual and existential. It is the struggle to feel like we belong, to survive the chaos and bring wholeness to the fragments of our existence. As we try find ways to cope with the constant attack on meaning we turn again to the words of poets. In a collection of essays entitled A Way of Being Free, the Nigerian author Ben Okri introduces us to the unique calling of poets (a passage too beautiful not to quote in full length, and included here in the epilogue), describing them as ‘people who continually extend the boundaries of the possible, people who ceaselessly redream the world and reinvent existence; those frontiers people of the unknown and the uncharted’. I have not come across a better way of describing the poets and prophets of our sacred Scriptures than this. The author of Luke undoubtedly belongs to this group of people, who are as much inspired as they inspire. His portrayal of the resurrection story of ‘The Road to Emmaus’, in which the disciples encounter the risen Christ, offers us some intriguing clues for survival.

Whereas we, like the disciples on the road, seem to be caught in our closed worlds, in an endless cycle which leaves us despairing or cynical, the poet is able to re-enchant our lives. We therefore continuously need to allow ourselves to be charmed by the story into two fundamental survival strategies: sensitivity to the ‘marvellous’ and openness to constant ‘movement’. I would like to explore the contemporary relevance of these themes in our Biblical story in conversation with Breyten Breytenbach and in relation to the modern genre of magical realism.

In his Notes from the Middle Word Breytenbach emphasises that ‘truth lies in the road’. According to a tenet of Tibetan wisdom physical movement is always seen to precede thinking. Building on those insights Breytenbach maintains: ‘It is, in my limited experience, a physical imperative to move if you want to think. We have to be in motion for the thinking to take shape and not the other way around. Static thinking (plotting, cogitating) before implementing the ideas normally denotes another process – rather, a different hierarchy of intentions. When thinking precedes movement it is usually informed by control, by the intended search for given solutions – and this can lead to the establishment of dogma’ (p. 5). Thinking initiated by movement therefore opens us up to ‘the possible advent of the unknown’ and enables us to engage ‘in a humble or learning relationship … the knowledge and experience of others’ (p. 5). Such movement includes artistic creativity as ‘the movement of perceptions, of bringing about new combinations of past and present, of realising how new the old can be (and sometimes how prematurely old and static the purportedly new is)’ (pp. 5–6).

Our biblical story echoes the need for such movement, both physical and in terms of perception. As the disciples are wiping the sand out of their eyes two of them find themselves on their way home to Emmaus. One of the travellers is named Cleopas, the other remains anonymous. Their journey is the journey back home of defeated revolutionaries. Their leader has been brutally executed. His sudden death is also the death of their future. At least they managed to save their own skins, and they are in good company with generations of idealists and activists who dared to take great risks which cost them everything. As they make their way back home they are not numbered among the blessed few revolutionaries who are driven to protest in the streets and witness the change it effects. From their perspective, as from ours, history remains an endless repetition of violence and justice.

The road from Jerusalem to Emmaus is only 11 kilometres long, but it is haunted by raw power, lined with terror, broken spirits and dashed hopes for a different world. Love has once again been crucified. As the day nears its end, they walk on, without an Easter faith in resurrection and new life. But at least they are moving, no longer paralysed by fear and uncertainty, and at least they have a home to which they can return. Even though they must feel broken and dejected, and even though they find themselves going back to what Jorge Luis Borges would describe as ‘their commonplace habits and the places of their everyday existence’, with their movement comes ‘the possible advent of the unknown’ (Breytenbach).

At this point a stranger joins them. He seems rather ignorant and out of touch with the recent political events, but he is a good listener and they pour out their hearts to him. To meet someone who listens without fear can be such a gift, for being a survivor is a difficult journey, marked by profound grief and mourning. Speaking of the crucified Christ they declare: ‘We had hoped that he was the one who would redeem Israel’. The stranger listens and responds ‘“How dull you are!” … “How slow to believe all that the prophets said! Was not the Messiah bound to suffer in this way before entering upon his glory?” (Luke 24:25–27). Then, starting from Moses and all the prophets, he explained to them in the whole of scripture the things that referred to himself.’

With these words he evokes a crisis of interpretation which is both ‘criticising and energising’ – a characteristic feature of prophetic critique, according to Walter Brueggeman.

The disciples listen and engage in what Breytenbach calls a ‘humble or learning relationship’, not threatened by but attracted to the knowledge and experience of a stranger. So it all had to happen! But is it because of some kind of divine plan or is it because of the kind of world we live in? A world where prophets sooner or later are sent into the desert or killed?

Sometimes even the most powerful theological arguments do not bear immediate fruit. Not even Christ’s own thorough bible study managed to awaken their faith right away. What a comfort to theologians and ministers! Only later would the disciples confess that their hearts started to burn as they listened to the stranger’s sermonette. This is what Breytenbach would describe as ‘the movement of perceptions, of bringing about new combinations of past and present’ in retrospect. But what exactly is it that awakens new faith and hope and helps us to survive? In the gospel story physical movement gives way to a movement of perception, to the imagining of new theological possibilities, and culminates in the discovery of the ‘marvellous’.
Sensitivity to the ‘marvellous’, the second survival strategy, is something magical realists like Ben Okri are so good at. In their novels and in movies from this genre a rational view of reality is woven together with the fantastic or irrational, resisting the modern dominance of natural or physical laws. The supernatural and the natural shape one and the same reality. Gabriel García Márquez, author of One Hundred Years of Solitude, one of the most important novels of magical realism, has been quoted as saying: ‘My most important problem was destroying the line of demarcation that separates what seems real from what seems fantastic’. Roberto Benigni’s profound yet controversial movie Life is Beautiful, another example of magical realism, undermines the distinction between what is real and what is unreal in a similar vein, by contrasting the horror of a Nazi death camp with the innocence of a child. The imagination of a father is portrayed as powerful enough to re-create a death camp as a competitive game so that his son is blinded to the daily humiliation and terror – and in the end survives! The unbearable reality of such a camp suddenly seems so unreal and impossible. It cannot but be a game! We are forced to behold the horror from the innocent perspective of a little boy while being confronted with a reality which defies the available categories of our understanding and scope of our language. And we identify with and suffer the desperate passion of a parent who plays the clown to protect his son from the cruelty of the surrounding world. His foolish acts and wild imagination unmask our helpless acceptance of the daily terror we ourselves are aware of. We know it is real, but we fail to respond to it with determination. I am reminded of a saying that has stuck with me: ‘If they come for the innocent without crossing over your bodies, cursed be your religion’. The limits of our reason and the rawness of power are dramatically exposed while there is no divine intervention in its traditional understanding. It is the father’s bold imagination that has redemptive character and saves the son, even though the father himself does not survive.

The genre of magical realism echoes elements with which biblical readers are very familiar. Maybe too familiar, for we tend to miss how our biblical writings dare to imagine the extraordinary in the ordinary, the unusual in the usual, the divine in the mundane, waiting to be revealed at unexpected moments, breaking through not from above in some form of spectacular divine intervention, but rather from below and from in between, concentrated in encounters which imbue our reality with deep mystery.

The disciples, who know how unsafe it is to travel by night, urge the stranger: ‘Stay with us, for evening approaches, and the day is almost over’ (Luke 24:29). They invite the stranger to join them for supper. I am struck by their innocence and hospitality in an age where we dare not invite strangers into our house at night. As they sit around the table their guest becomes their host. ‘When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them’ (v. 30). As he blesses and breaks the bread their ‘movement of perception’ leads them to discover the ‘marvellous’: ‘Then their eyes were opened, and they recognised him’ (v. 31). What happened in that moment? It is clear that what changed was the disciples’ perception, not the physical appearance of the stranger. He remains a stranger, but they are able to see in him the presence of the risen Christ. How, we might ask, if not by his appearance? Theologians would say: Of course, it was during the celebration of Holy Communion that they recognised him. It is during the Lord’s Supper that we experience the risen Christ as being present among us. But Manfred Josuttis is right to maintain that such an answer is too simplistic, reflects our own particular interests and does not do justice to the actual story. For what they are celebrating is not Holy Communion – they are simply saying their prayer of blessing for the meal and breaking the bread. It was the moment of breaking and sharing the bread that turned the stranger into the living Christ. It was a gesture that reached deep down into the pool of their past experiences, bringing back the most precious memories of intimate community and fellowship they had experienced during Christ’s ministry: the night of his arrest, the meal at Zacchaeus’ home, the many meals with those classified as outcasts and sinners by society, the feeding of the 5,000 and the wedding at Cana.
This simple gesture reflects the profound connection between ‘deep memory and exuberant hope’ (Walter Brueggemann). It is a scene that invites us to ponder the power of good memories to awaken faith and enable an encounter with the living Christ. This power of deep memory highlights the importance of healthy religious early childhood formation. A good Sunday School experience goes a long way. We all know the power of simple gestures, of well-loved music, familiar faces, special places, certain smells and sounds! Tom Waits captures this sentiment so well when he sings: ‘You can never hold back spring’. In that moment of a sudden memory, a simple gesture, we know that we are not forgotten or alone. Christ’s promise of ‘I will be with you always’ comes true in those moments and we know that someone notices our pain and struggle. These moments seem so commonplace and yet they sparkle with the promise of something ‘marvellous’. It is true that those with deep memories dream new dreams, see visions, sense power and receive courage. Are we surprised that such a marvellous encounter gives way to yet another new movement? ‘Without a moment’s delay they set out and returned to Jerusalem’ (v. 33) – back into the lion’s den! And the journey does not end here. The movement initiated on the road to Emmaus and their subsequent experience of the risen Christ continues all the way to Rome, and reaches down to us through the ages.

The plot of the Road to Emmaus story steers us between a naïve supernaturalism that expects dramatic moments of divine intervention and an arrogant rationalism that knows no mystery and no surprise. In this way the author of Luke simultaneously shatters the closed worlds of fundamentalism, liberalism and atheism.

Okri quotes Elias Canetti, who writes: ‘The inklings of poets are the forgotten adventures of God’. The resurrection story, as captured in the gospel of Luke, is probably the most extraordinary ‘adventure of God’, as it traces the movement of God from death to life. The story of the Road to Emmaus demonstrates how without movement there is no encounter with God. And it is not only us who move, but God who moves us by opening our eyes to see something extraordinary in the ordinary. The disciples encounter Christ not in Word and Sacrament, but in the simple act of sharing, rich in memory, and vast in promise.