One of my favorite poems of my life from my mid 20s is “Revelation” by Robert Frost. It is a short poem which is included here:
We make ourselves a place apart
Behind light words that tease and flout,
But oh, the agitated heart
Tillsomeone findus really out.
’Tis pity if the case require
(Or so we say) that in the end
We speak the literal to inspire
The understanding of a friend.
But so with all, from babes that play
At hide-and-seek to God afar,
So all who hide too well away
Must speak and tell us where they are.1
I never really knew exactly why it was my favorite at the time. At one level, the poem had clear theological underpinnings, being entitled “Revelation” and talking about God. However, this is not a theological poem, at least on the surface, but it a poem about human relationships, on the surface at least, exploring the realities of human relationships, where we do not always speak what we think and feel. Speaking very personally here, having felt that I always lived in circumstances where I feel like I was always on the outside looking
The first stanza describes the vast gap between what we say and what we feel for people that care about each other. This transitions to the second stanza, that at one level suggests it is a pity to break this sort of relationship, that we ideally should not have to speak literally to get someone to understand us. This is where my understanding of the poem has shifted, moving from it describe the personal tragedy when we are so distant that we must speak literally, to rather the social customs we place upon people to not speak literally. Frost’s parenthetical comment “or so we say” suggests that what is happening here is not a personal, inner feeling about disconnection but rather how societal and relational expectations place norms for how people are to relate. There is often times an ideal in relationships where it is a bad thing to speak honestly and straightforward; that the nature of friendships
But it is the third stanza that entirely subverts this norm; it has to be broken when the (cognitive and emotional) distance between people is far. Both babes and God have thoughts that are so far from our own, using this as a metaphor to describe human relationships: even if its seems regrettable to speak literally and clearly, sometimes it is absolutely necessary because people can be worlds apart.
What I wish to tease out here then is expectations we have in the way we make ourselves known to each other, particularly through our words, and the expectations we have about how this is to happen. I suggest that there are two different ways we can construe how relationships and disclosure is built and maintain through our social discourse: fusion and intimacy.
By fusion I mean the often implicit, unconscious feeling of a person who feels the other person shares all the same feelings they feel. But they sense of shared feelings goes beyond a simply recognition that we are alike in some ways: rather it is the notion of an (almost) entire sharing of values and feelings. Not just some of what I feel, you feel, but all of what I feel you feel. At the most extreme, people can think about friends, or even potential romantic partners, that they have found their soul-mate for life in this state of mind. Fundamental to this way of relationship is from the psychoanalytical literature projection and introjection, where who we are is true of the other and what is true of the other is true of me. The boundary between you and me does not exist, or it did exist but it has all but been obliterated, treating the other person as simply an extension of oneself but simply in another body.
By contrast, when I refer to intimacy I am referring to the recognition of two people coming together to share the same thoughts and feelings, but as people who are recognized as two separate persons. What I feel you may feel, but I can also recognize there are other feelings of mine than you do not share. In intimacy, there is the recognition of the other person as another person that allows each other to disclose themselves in such a way that we learn about the other person. Two people may, over the course of time, come to share one heart and one mind, but not with one person as an extension and possession of the other but with one person and another person sharing together in life, through communication and common experience, together.
Now in distinguishing these two types of expectations between relationships, I want to probe the relationship of speech in these type of relationships.
By contrast, in intimacy, there is an acceptance of some sort of distance, even if we are not exactly sure how distant we ultimately are. I may feel another person and I are close, but I do not presume to know what a friend or lover always feels, nor do I think they always know what I think or feel. Here, literal speech,
Now, I present this not to simply pontificate on the nature of human relationships, but rather to express how the relationship of disclosure and discourse impacts our expectations for our horizontal relationships with others, it can also impact our expectations for our vertical relationships with God, and then through that, reinforce, if not even exaggerate, how we then relate to each other as persons in the name of God.
Allow me to make a theological connection that is not readily apparent but I will not fully prove here. Fusion discourse of disclosure is analogous to Reformed, monergistic theological conceptions, where when God act, where God
But it should be clarified that this Wesleyan theological pattern doesn’t necessarily entail the value of the clear self-disclosure of God; Wesleyan theology can become adapted to some more sort of religious practice of mystic-like, non-literal expressions where the speech of God is not valued itself as important as the non-literal experience of God through the Holy Spirit. One can be synergistic in theology and still, ultimately, engaging with a fusion assumption about our relationship to God. On the flip side, intimacy discourse can make room for the more mystic, charismatic, non-literal aspects of relationship to God, but it places the highest value to the relationship between God and humanity in the form of God’s clear Word/speech to humanity. God makes himself clearly known, whether He is received or not, and it is this that ultimately reorients our minds and hearts to turn to and receive all the other, non-literal, more mysterious aspects of relationship to God.
To put this against the background of Wesley’s conflict between the overly doctrinaire Christianity prominent at the time and the chaotic enthusiasm that pervaded other parts of the churches and Methodism, Wesley clear draws a line between the two, both in his expectations for others and is his own life. Ever curious about the nature of the experience of the Holy Spirit, he didn’t reduce the life of faith to the literal expression and reception of God’s truth; there was something that was happening that went on beyond this literal speech. On the flip side, however, Wesley has a logic-like manner in which he sought to make clear what he believed was and was not happening in the course of the Christian life. It is here that I would suggest that Wesley fits within my category of intimacy type discourse when it comes to His relationship to God and his expectations for others. Of course, this really wasn’t the case with his well-publicized rift with his wife, although Wesley could certain be intimate is letters to others, including other women (which may have been the source of the marital frigidity).
As a brief excursus, it is this two-person intimacy type of model that was implicit with Wesley’s theology and was baked into Methodist theology that is a partial contributor to the influence of more progressive theology in Methodist circles. If our relationship to God is as two separate entities, then this will influence how we view others. However, one big distinction between Wesley and modern liberal/progressive intepreters of Wesley is that while God and person are two different entities, the relationship is not symmetrical, but is asymmetrical. While we as people have a role and responsibility in our relationship, it is the gracious God who is really responsible for who we become; God is the prime authority, we can choose to go along with God or not but we aren’t response for the start or the end of our journey. Wesley’s theology was not an expression of a democratic type relationship of symmetry of power between separate subjects that often undergirds a sense of theology in more progressive/liberal wings of Methodist and Western theology. That intimacy can be had in the context of power asymmetries may seem foreign to many people’s ears who have been influenced by many (very legitimate!) progressive ethical concerns, but the “wrongness” of this idea is not actually about the possibility of whether there can be intimacy in context of an asymmetrical relationships, but rather the recognition of much of the damage and harm that has been done in asymmetrical power relationships in the name of intimacy/love/etc. (but I would suggest some, if not most of these terrible instances, are actually relationships with fusion expectations that objectified and possessed another with pthe ower embedded those relationships used to enforce the objectification). But enough of this excursus to distinguish what I am saying myself and Wesley from more modern, liberal/progressive perspectives.
My point is this: the way we conceive our relationship to God can be influenced by the models we have for ideal social relationships. One prominent theological trend will suggest that God’s disclosure happens in a principally non-literal fashion as happens in contexts of fusion. Another theological trend will suggest that God’s disclosure happens in both literal and non-literal fashions as happens in contexts of intimacy. (We could also say that many doctrinaire versions of Christian treat God’s disclosure simply in a literal fashion, but I did not explore that here).
But I would suggest if we are to at all make sense of the pattern of revelation through the narrative of Scripture, we must embrace the intimacy discourse of disclosure model, where there are times where God speaks in more elusive, not always clear and dramatic ways, but then there are occasional points where God’s dramatically, powerfully, and clearly discloses Himself (although, we don’t have to suggest this always happens in the form of literal words of speech). It is in the sending of His own Son Jesus Christ, where God’s own self-disclosure becomes the clearest and most distinct (albeit could still be rejected or ignored) in order to align the hearts and minds of Israel and then all of humanity to God’s own will.
Using the words of N.T. Wright, God’s covenant faithfulness to Israel (and indirectly to the world) climaxes in the most clear, dramatic, distinctive self-disclosure that makes God’s will and thoughts most clearly manifest. While all the other forms of disclosure of God, particularly as witnessed in the Old Testament, are important, have impacts on Israel relationship to God (and indirectly on the world’s), and can even have some preparatory role in receiving God’s self-disclosure in Jesus Christ as testimonies about Jesus, one must attune and pay specific attention to Jesus (and also the Holy Spirit, as the Pentecost experience has a deep significance for Acts and the Epistle) to really and truly know who this God is, what this God is about, and what this God is doing. Incidentally, this is why I think it is permissible to say that our faith can be unhitched from the Old Testament, as Andy Stanley said, because just as relationship should ultimately pay attention and be formed by the clear communication couples have, the most significant, the most important aspect of our faith in God comes by what God discloses of Himself in His Son Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. True intimacy between God as one subject and a person as another subject entails our faith being reoriented to God through the clear demonstration of God’s own love and power. That is Paul’s point in 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 in a nutshell.
So, in short, intimacy between God and humanity and