With all this wack Christianity stuff, I guess we make the same mistake my students make with almost every piece of literature we read. They fail to recognize the figurative meaning, or worse yet, they convert the figurative into literal. So religion in general is like my less-than-bright students: it takes symbols and makes them literal…But it’s weird. I think all humans at least subconsciously understand all kinds of symbols…so what’s the deal? Is it that we’re all just morons? Or is it that it’s easier to stay at surface level. Yep, that’s it. My students suck at seeing figurative meaning because they don’t want to exercise their higher level thinking skills. They also care too much about their own lives to put themselves in a book and truly empathize with a character… It’s when we neglect the figurative that everything in Christianity gets really weird. But still, why do all the symbols of Christianity seem so flippin’ esoteric and require all kinds of explanation? They shouldn’t, right? They’re intrinsic enough to the human spirit, are they not? You tell me…
As I thought about this, my mind flashed back to a phrase: “confusion of face”. It took me a little while to figure out the source, but eventually I remembered an essay of that title by Frederick Buechner, included in his collection called The Hungering Dark.
Buechner quotes from a passage of scripture in Daniel 9 of the King James Version, which uses the phrase in two places:
To thee, O Lord, belongs righteousness, but to us confusion of face, as at this day, to the men of Judah, to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to all Israel, those that are near and those that are far away, in all the lands to which thou hast driven them, because of the treachery which they have committed against thee. To us, O Lord, belongs confusion of face, to our kings, to our princes, and to our fathers, because we have sinned against thee. (Daniel 9:7,8, emphasis added)
You gotta love the good old King James for those “flippin’ esoteric” statements. Most other translations replace confusion of face with shame. Interesting.
To us belongs confusion of face, or shame, because of our treachery against God. How is confusion of face related to shame? When we cover our shame with layers of culture, heritage, self-righteousness, fear, hatred, selfishness, bravado, false-modesty, education, drugs, cynicism, wealth, vanity, and so forth, we get confusion of face. We forget who we are.
Remember the line about Adam and Eve in the garden before sin? They were naked and they were not ashamed. After sin? They were naked and they were ashamed. So they covered up and hid from God.
The esoteric elements of Christianity are naked and not ashamed. They are counterintuitive to minds and hearts that are buried beneath layers of filters which allow only enough light to pass to sustain the most primitive form of life.
Buechner says it so well that I have to stop squirming to try and say this and let him have his say:
Fathoms down into the mystery of yourself you go – into the darkness of guilt and beyond, into the darkness of loneliness and need and beyond. Deeper and deeper you go until at last the darkness begins to be tinged with gold, as the poem says, which is the gold of light…Words like these are in many ways unpopular and distasteful in our culture; they deal with introspection and self-examination, and we tend to shy away from such enterprises because they seem somehow unhealthy and morbid, because they lead us away from action, and we are all activists…We shy away from introspection because, however fearful the surface seems, we fear the depths still more. And we are right; there is much to fear there.
The voyage into the self is long and dark and full of peril, but I believe it is a voyage that all of us will have to make before we are through…if we search ourselves deeply enough, we will begin to see, very dimly at first, our own true faces.
The esoteric is home. We have gone to great lengths to run away and in the process we’ve forgotten the way back. There is no place like home, though, so we keep the ideals close…and locked up, like treasure in a chest.