A Difficult Worship
For the last several years, my husband and I have done something I would once have found quite improbable: attending an evangelical Korean church. Improbable because we are neither evangelical—or not in the sense that I understood it when we first went--nor Korean. Our adopted son is, and we knew several church members, who invited us so warmly we thought we could park our Catholic rear ends on the seats without offending God or human too much. I had a liberal Catholic suspicion of the word evangelical at the time, a holier-than-they-because-less-obviously-holy attitude. Too, the language barrier seemed absurd. Ultimately, though, I could write this about our church experience:
To be where we are feels more like prayer than prayer, and makes language seem an adding on your fingers, something to be used in order to be put out of the way. St John of the Cross wrote of God that ultimately, “even the act of prayer and communion, which was once carried on by reflections and other methods, is now wholly an act of loving.” It’s not new to think of mystical knowing and language as apart. It’s a strange premise to take to a church, with its sermon and print bulletins and writing on the wall. Still, if we understood the woman rising in her pleated skirt prayed for her job, it would still give little beyond the prayer of recognizing prayer: the face she hides behind her rounded oxblood nails, and her shaking shoulders.1
The whole thing has gotten me rethinking evangelism, a doubly difficult thing as I work, some of the time, in a West Coast academic setting, where to be Marxist is to be hip and to be Christian, an object of suspicion. The first evangelists were the apostles. And though to be “evangelical” has come to refer to the act of witnessing your faith to others, the first acts of the evangelists were following and listening--listening with the radical patience that takes you through years of struggle with words shaped by forces outside the squeeze of time and materiality that is our linguistics. Witnessing, preaching, came later, even after betrayal. Evangelism meant to be one of those who have lived the Gospels and come out the other side, and only then to tell the story. Though we struggle with our Korean and more and more comes through—let us pray and hints of the crucifixion—most goes through the ear darkly. It may be the most true evangelism we could strive for, this eager and bewildered listening.
Science, I think, can be understood as an evangelical stance toward the given world: listening, stumbling, and finally, an attempt to share a bit of the dim message this is what we are. I am not a scientist, but a passionate science student, and the paradoxes—parables perhaps more accurately—of science fascinate. As a child I was obsessed with the story of the coelacanth, the fish believed extinct for 65 million years found alive, and still Cretaceous after all these years, off the coast of Africa. Physicists argue the cosmos may be illusory.. A silky jellyfish, turritopsis nutricula, is effectively immortal, aging out and reverting to its polyp state ad infinitum through a process called transdifferentiation.
Writer Karen Armstrong claims that modern religious conservatism—often also called “evangelical”--has tended to separate logos, rational knowing, from mythos, the psychological and intuitive way of understanding the world by telling ourselves its story. Myth has its equal and valid truth—the fruit of knowledge may not have literally existed, but its bite carries a burden, as the J. Robert Oppenheimers among us would tell you. In denying the validity mythos carries in its own right, believers can force faith into fact: creation in six days, human-dinosaur cavorting a few thousand years ago, the solemn beauty of our planet’s forming itself converted to The Flintstones. I imagine science, like language, participates in both the realms of logos and of mythos and cannot be known fully any other way.
If our church services were translated into English, the act of translation would provide only a reflection--in a systematically different way of thinking--of meaning: a sort of mime. Yet poetry is translation, too. I wrote a poem spoken by an Italian beata, Ludovica Albertoni, whose statue I had admired in Italy. My Ludovica is obsessed with the fact of nuclear radiation and declares “I am myself/atomic.” She calls half-lives “the language of immortality & judgment/& purgatorial fire.” Like my beloved coelacanth, or the turritopsis, Ludovica sees half-lives dancing for us a world in which time is continuously shaken out, refreshed, all one. Her science is a glowing prism shedding light in many different directions at once.
Oppenheimer recognized the mythos inherent in the logos of his work, naming a test bomb Trinity and hailing nuclear success with a line from the Bhagavad-Gita: “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” In his case, it was an erroneous mythos of power. Oppenheimer lived to regret his work; he had gone beyond evangelism—beyond the eager and bewildered listening to a perilous focus on that personal pronoun and what it could do.
Science and faith walk the same path, balancing knowing and not-knowing and remaining committed to listening, even when our God and our world breathe paradox and mystery. As it was for the apostles to wander, often bewildered, through their evangelism, ours is a difficult worship: information flowing in like a stream of language, and the near-impossible call to be still and let it form. Kitohamnida: let us pray.
1. "Hosts” Image. Vol. 65, 2010: 1, p.103