New Year’s Matchbook

Posted: January 1, 2012 in Uncategorized

And I needed some matches to light a candle. In our house there is a tin can that’s full of all manner of matches – match sticks and matchbooks collected from here and there over long periods of time. And each artifact tells a certain story, if only to identify where one was when it was plucked up and carried home.

This day I fished around and reeled in a funeral home matchbook: Gerber Chapel from Webster Groves. Only a preacher would have a more than average quantity of matchbooks from funeral homes. It was a sign of the times, that a funeral home would provide matches for smoking customers, or customers to be. For me the dating was broad – somewhere between 1991 and 2006, a fifteen year interval. Close enough.

As I opened the booklet to retrieve my match and strike it, there was writing on the inside cover. It was my own writing. And what I had written at the time were simple notes, ideas, an outline for some writing, meditation or even sermon. There were three phrases and they could only make sense to the one who originally scratched them there:

Tillich – God above God
Elephant and the Blind Men
Yet the partial is more than enough

Well, well. I suppose we all have our center within the center, a theology, philosophy, ideology, psychology, sociology, cosmology – that acts as the interpreter of all else. This was, and perhaps is, mine. It takes a matchbook and its required discipline of limited space to force an economy of words and thought.

Paul Tillich’s notion of the God above God is a crucial one, and that is that whatever our notion of God, and the notions we have are important, they do not embrace the entirety of the depth of God. Our notions, understandings, perceptions are only partial. There is a reality beyond them. In fact, the best of our approximations always include the awareness that there is more than we can possibly comprehend. This instills us with humble confidence; there is something to say, it’s never sufficient. There is God beyond our understanding of God.

The second, the elephant and the blind men, is a well-known parable. It is the companion to Tillich’s God beyond God. Several blind men are escorted to an elephant and asked to describe just exactly what an elephant is. Predictably one who holds the leg describes an elephant as a tree. One who touches the side of the elephant says that it is like a wall. And the blind man who holds onto the trunk believes it is most like a snake. All three touch the elephant, partially, and describe the aspect they have experienced. Of course, the same is true of our experience of God; limited, partial, confined to our particular experience. Together, perhaps, many perceptions pooled might provide a more adequate picture.

Finally, the partial is more than enough. That’s a Timism. And it builds on what preceded it above. Though the transcendence of God is beyond our notion of God, and though, like a blind man, we only know the partial dimension of the sacred which we have experienced, and may even combine those perceptions with those of others living and dead, it is enough. It is enough because the universal is revealed in the particular. We have enough of the whole through the part. And if God infuses everything, everywhere, through all time, then touching the hem of his garment is enough. That gets to what we mean with the Christian vocabulary of grace; that through our limits the divine economy is sufficient. A part is all we’ve got and it is enough.

Matchbook theology. Sometimes it’s best.

  1. Audrey says:

    Excellent! That means it is unnecessary, indeed impossible, to “correct” someone else’s vision of God. Perhaps I have touched the leg and they have touched the belly of the elephant. A discussion of God is helpful and often mind expanding. But, in the end, we are both blind.

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