The Sacred Act of Pole-Vaulting and Other Leaping Conceits
‘Donne” While Surveying and Surviving the Tragic and Absurd Conundrum Called History and the Human Condition
When a young teen in P.E. one year, I jumped the pole vault a few times. The anticipation for and mild fear of the run and leap, tensed us up. The vault didn’t rank with the sheer frighted fearfulness of the high dive in swimming, but it sure beat the dickens out of pushups. As difficult as it was to run and leap up balancing on the wobbly rise of the limber pole, in its back arch and then its swinging forward, up, and over the cross bar, I did manage to clear the bar at low levels.
The eventual goal aimed toward was to set the cross bar higher and higher and yet still achieve the swinging leap up and over. But the higher the bar the more difficult the leap with the rise of the pole and the more dangerous the fall, even if one succeeded in clearing the cross.
Fortunately, pole vaulting lasted only a week or two for us P.E. students, was not required on a regular basis like for the athletic superstars of track and field. Still, isn’t this all intriguing that after many years of hectic adult life with career and family-raising, a few minutes of pole-vaulting still comes back to me so vividly?
Rather conceited wasn’t that opening paragraph? Not proud like a rooster, not like a guy who acts brazenly self-centered, always leaping into the center of any discussion. No, in this short article, we are talking about the extended over-reach of a long-winded, leaping metaphor, in the manner of the metaphysical poet John Donne (you know the 17th century English writer who spent a whole poem comparing his love for his wife to a geometric compass!).
Anyway, such a conceit, an extended metaphor of track and field makes a powerful analogy for the spiritual ‘pole-vaulting’ of faith in the sacred. Consider Christian history.
The bar of belief and action was set very low when Jesus first called his disciples. But then he spoke more and more in metaphoric theological conundrums and esoteric parables such as when he compared Christian faith to a vulture gathering over a dead body
Obviously the bar was being raised higher and higher--incredibly high, and the disciples balked, scratched. Scratching in pole-vaulting means one steps over the line or somehow misunderstands or violates the rules. And many disciples and other humans scratch at life down to this day. Metaphor.
One of the most difficult high raisings of the bar came when Jesus didn’t return in the ‘soon’ time of Paul and John (I Thessalonians and Revelation), but somehow Christians adjusted the bar down and up at the same time! Some biblical theologians reinterpreted the word ‘soon’ to mean ‘rapidly’ rather than in the common sense definition of ‘in the near future.’
They said the return of Christ could happen thousands of years in the future, but when it did it come, it would be ‘rapid’. This seems a very dishonest scratching of language. It is more than an accidental rule violation, but a situation of sure chicanery--straining the gnat and swallowing the camel.
Such fixing of the pole vault should be disallowed. Other Christians have said that ‘soon’ is different for God compared to us, (again a suspect vault, sounds like a scratch).
‘Liberal’ Christians admit Jesus and the NT authors were mistaken, but in so doing they are trying to pole vault up a steep incline while sliding down the slippery slope of increasing doubt and skepticism. If the NT isn’t historically accurate about such a key doctrine as the return of Christ, many ask, how could one rely on Scripture being accurate about anything else? After all, the bar of requirements for historical writing has been set very high in the modern age.
All things, people think, need to be factually accurate, inerrant to be of value. Religion, the spiritual, and the transcendent all need to be judged with the measuring tools of science.
A compass of accuracy needs to discern the geometric lines of theology and faith, to eliminate and banish any heresy that deviates from the true.
The nature of truth is a difficult subject bar none (to throw in a pun and lighten this heavy post;-) The difficulty of faith versus delusion (false faith) and reason versus despair (false reason) is a very high bar indeed--one which guides and misguides. Let us pray moment by moment and think moment by moment so as to rise upward into the transcendent, knowing within that we are loved by God as Jesus said.
Another difficult raising of the cross bar of Christian faith came 1,500 years after Jesus, in the time of Galileo and Copernicus. The Church claimed supreme understanding and control in all matters.
Yet a minority of scientists contradicted the teachings of the Church and, allegedly, the Bible. They claimed to have proved that the sun doesn’t round the earth each day; indeed, the earth is not the center, not the focal point of all creation as Genesis claims.
Soon science increased its claims--our sun is only a very minor star. Contrary to the Scriptures’ statement, “God made the stars also,” in actuality, those stars are much more vast than our puny solar system.
We are on an edge of a galaxy, which is one of millions of other galaxies! So much for the literal understanding of the Bible and common sense! Scratch!
Of course, many choose to twist the plain text in the Bible, cheating again in the sacred game of pole vaulting. They argue Genesis describes the creation of the sun on the fourth day from the perspective of God’s Spirit at the level of the surface of the planet looking up, so it does look like the sun comes after the earth rather than before. What has happened?
A dense, heavy cloud of vapor has hidden the sun during the first three days. The sun finally appears above the earth on the fourth day. But the verse in Genesis doesn’t speak about the sun appearing from behind fog on the fourth day, it says:
“And God said, 'Let there be light in the vault of the heavens to light up the earth.' And so it was. And God made the two great lights…” (Genesis 1:14-16)
Yipes, what convoluted rhetoric! Another scratch. Disqualified.
Other faithful humans leaped, instead, out of fundamentalism, and so out the metaphysical window plummeted the 3-storied universe. These Christians leaped over the new cross bar level to a spiritual universe where Heaven still exists with its pristine streets of gold ‘up there’ and Hell abysses ‘down below’ though this spiritual reality has nothing to do with the observable world measured and manipulated by science and technology.
So we got a dualistic existence, where science concerns itself with the observable, and religion concerns itself with the spiritual and moral. Many Christians of the present time manage to make this philosophical leap.
I made the leap as a young adult.
However, I feel uncertain, in brutal honesty, whether I only scratched.
But the bar for Christian faith when faced with the conclusions of science kept ascending. Much more difficult to leap over—maybe impossibly so—was the discovery by Darwin in the 1800’s that life proceeds not by a sudden miraculous creation 6,000 years ago, but by a combination of cosmic luck and survival of the fittest over millions and millions of years.
Later in succeeding years, other scientists tabulated their technical findings and showed the earth came about 4 billion years ago, not 6, 000, and the universe has existed at least 16 billion years!
This setting of the sacred bar careens outrageously high so that only the most blind, or most compartmentalized, or the most ultimately determined can leap the bottomless chasm up and over the cosmically high crossbar of faith.
For where is God if all comes about by accidental meandering and by dog-eat-dog, possibly dog-lick-dog evolution?
Is not God reversed in a kind of spiritual dyslexia, into doG?!
Evangelical Christians simply reset the bar slightly lower, explaining God started Life, so there!
Intelligent Design! We get the God-of-the-Gaps, a creator who hides in the shadow areas of existence where scientists haven’t yet figured out methods of inquiry and extensive evidence. So this compromise hardly solves the problem.
And don’t forget the dogged Fundamentalists and Calvinists. They, despite over whelming evidence, continue to claim scientists are just closet atheists, or brazen ones like Richard Dawkins, who are only rebelling against God by coming up with preposterous geological and biological lies.
But none of this is very encouraging for the honest and the circumspect individual. Why would the Creator start a creative process but then not guide it if God is all Loving, all Kind, all Good, all True?
Why would God major in pain, allowing or predetermining for billions of animals to suffer for countless eons and then go extinct, and for millions of humans to agonize, living excruciatingly painful lives down through a chaotic and vicious history? Why one endless moral/ethical scream?
And what happens to the bar (not speaking of the legal court or the local drinking den;-) if, as many scientists claim, eventually science will be able to explain from a natural point of view even abiogenesis, how first life started?
Then won’t God, the Creator, be simply a superfluous empty word, unneeded (as many scientists claim is already the case) and unwanted?
Then religion will be reduced to the garbage bin like other popular superstitions—astrology, phrenology, humoralism, etc. Astrology led eventually to astronomy, but once scientists understood the mechanism of the scientific method, astrology became so much delusionary baggage to be jettisoned.
The same goes for religion, so they say; once religion gave meaning to humankind, but now science gives meaning to our lives. The account in Genesis has been shown to be fallacious.
Of what use are fanciful myths like the Garden of Eden or 6 days of creation?
They smugly point out that Christians and other religious people have been crying “God,” like the boy of long ago who cried wolf, for so long without any evidence.
Now the evidence for evolution is overwhelming. Why should anyone listen to our theological yelling?
A few humans take one last incredible leap. They point out that while the natural observable world is as Darwinians say—a naturally meandering survival game—such a scientific scenario doesn’t prove a Creator doesn’t exist, for the true God is hidden, is a philosophical reality “outside” of the province of the scientific method.
While this is perfectly arguable—this author is embarrassed to admit, in the past, he himself sometimes used the method--this philosophical God is, obviously, not the Creator in Genesis, not the God of Scripture (the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Scriptures) who micromanages every moment from eternity.
Thus, this last incredible leap is the most impossible of possibilities (to paraphrase a statement by the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr).
This last impossible leap of spiritual pole vaulting jumps so incredibly high ones seems only able to do it by the sheer choosing—an existential leap, philosophical choice, in the manner of Kierkegaard, where one doesn’t weigh the possibility, or the rational doubts, but leaps, because not to leap is to despair.
Martin Gardner, the famous skeptic in his powerful philosophical book, The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener, says he made this spiritual leap, and continues to trust in God because, the leap of Fideism, is worthy, and provides hope.
I am skeptical of fundamentalism, materialism, and fideism.
They all seem to scratch.
Oddly, unlike Gardner, my faith in God isn’t mainly emotional, but intellectual. But like him and other thinkers I admire, I know my days are numbered now that I have passed the halfway bar in my brief life, compared to incomprehensible cosmic deep time.
To half quote the famous metaphysical poet of extended conceits, John Donne: “When one has ‘donne’ his best, one is not done but have more” (from his poem “A Hymn to God the Father”).
There are still more difficulties, higher bars to jump over. Try leaping over not only the moon, but the universe!
The best answer would seem to be Hegelian—that a synthesis is better than either the former thesis (Christian orthodoxy) or antithesis (the Enlightenment).
We humans both yearn and learn.
Francis Collins, a Christian and a scientist, the leader of the Human Genome Project has created one such synthesis and created the BioLogos Foundation: Science and Faith in Dialogue.
We spend whole life-times seeking, and yet still have difficult questions.
Be honest, avoid scratching.
Leap with faith and reason.
Keep them in creative tension.
And cross the bar of existence with zest,
not only with confusion and “my God, why” despair
but, finally, in purposeful “it is finished” hope.
In the Light,