Hunger for Wholeness: Culture, Darkness and Pantheism with Barbara Brown Taylor (Part 1) with Ilia Delio.
In this episode, Ilia Delio interviews best-selling author and Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor. Their conversation kicks off discussing Barbara’s book “Learning to Walk in the Dark,” the merits of darkness and challenges of contemporary culture. Ilia asks Barbara how her theology is informed by nature, what the future of our understanding of God looks like.
ABOUT BARBARA BROWN TAYLOR
“Earth is so thick with divine possibility that it is a wonder we can walk anywhere without cracking our shins on altars.”
Barbara Brown Taylor is a best-selling author, teacher, and Episcopal priest. Her first memoir, Leaving Church, won an Author of the Year award from the Georgia Writers Association in 2006. Her next three books earned places on the New York Times bestseller list. Taylor has served on the faculties of Piedmont College, Emory University, Mercer University, Columbia Seminary, Oblate School of Theology, and the Certificate in Theological Studies program at Arrendale State Prison for Women in Alto, Georgia. Her latest book, Always a Guest, was released in October 2020 from Westminster John Knox Press.Support the show
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Robert: Welcome to Hunger for Wholeness. I'm your host, Robert Nicastro. Today, it's a pleasure to have best-selling author and Episcopal priest, Barbara Brown Taylor as our guest. Please enjoy as Ilia and Barbara discuss culture, darkness, and Barbara's book, Learning to Walk in the Dark.
Ilia: Barbara, first of all, let me just say I'm so delighted to welcome you on this podcast, A Hunger for Wholeness. I think your work has been truly luminous for our age. Certainly, I remember years ago reading your book on the luminous web and really being inspired by your writings. And so, I want to talk today because we're living such—I mean, I'm preaching to the choir here, but the tumultuous times of darkness, and I am really intrigued by your work on Learning to Walk in Darkness. So let me begin, because I think this theme of darkness is really important, actually fundamental as we seek this other side of wholeness. In other words, the wholeness includes the darkness. And I want to maybe expand that and deepen that from your own insights. So, tell me a little bit about what prompted you to write this book on Learning to Walk in Darkness.
Barbara: First, I have two answers to that. One is, I think though I am no longer a congregational pastor and haven't been for a long time. I've still got a pastoral sensibility, so I keep my ears pretty perked to things that people are talking about. And your introduction gave a good example, darkness is a sticky word, and I started noticing how often it came up in conversations, particularly around faith, for people who'd been raised in very sunny forms of faith in God. So, it came up a lot that way and I realized I was using the word darkness indiscriminately, and carelessly as well. It started out being an interest in the word itself, and then that took me into some concordance work scripturally. And then from there, I don't know how you said about writing books, but mostly I read, read, read and read a lot so that every book I write has got a whole table set of good authors who've helped me think about what I'm thinking about. So it went from there, and then again, as you know because you've written books yourself, it took on a life of its own. And I didn't know what it was about until readers told me later.
Ilia: Oh, that's great. I love it. Well, one thing I think you do by bringing darkness to light, if I can put it in that way, is that you overcome the dualisms that are still prominent still in our age, even as you point out, light versus darkness, good versus evil, heaven versus earth. And these kinds of dualisms that have been not only unhealthy, but have seriously divided us; not just politically, I mean internally divided us. And so, I think this notion of darkness is really important. Actually, when I was looking at it, one of the first things I thought about was the universe being composed largely of dark energy in a smaller amount of dark matter. Did that universe story play any part at all in your thinking about darkness?
Barbara: It came up often in book events afterwards when I asked people to say out loud some of their associations with darkness, and that came up a lot is people who were interested in cosmology and spoke about it along with dark beer and dark chocolate. Those came up a lot, and so did depression, and that was long before the times we're in now, though later we'll talk about the state of the world in contrast to our perceptions about the state of the world and where we get our information about the state of the world, et cetera. But I did think about that a lot, that there was more unknown than known, although that may have changed with the best, most recent telescope pictures.
Ilia: Well, it's interesting. Dark energies, the energy of expansion, so it's really interesting as a metaphor that darkness, while it is difficult because it is the unknown, you don't see as clearly in the dark. And yet there's maybe some expansive learning that goes on in darkness, which keeps us ever expanding in our own growth. In other words, what would a world without darkness look like? What would a world of sheer light? I know we have, what was it, the northern light or something where it's six months light and six months dark. There's something about this rhythm of darkness and light that really are the yin and yang I think, of energy of, of life's energy. That
Barbara: It’s true. And yet when you mention Yin Yang, that's a great way to talk about the difficulty I see in my own book, which is that day and night are not like that. There are two longish periods of twilight, both in the morning and in the evening when the sun—is what: 12 degrees above and below the horizon? So that if I fooled around with Yin yin Yang, to talk about dark and light, I'd have to fuzz the transition a lot. And I wish I had thought of that before I finished the book. I'm learning to walk in the dark because learning to walk in the twilight is just as interesting, really. I even found a rabbi who said that in Judaism, twilight is considered more dangerous than night because it's the time we're most likely to mistake one thing for another. And that speaks to our political cultural situation. It's the time, twilight, when we can mistake a tree for a bear or a bush for a man or a threat for no threat. So, this rabbi said it's more possible for us to commit the sin of incorrect seeing during twilight than it is in the dark. Isn't that—as long as we're fooling around with metaphors, I think that's fascinating.
Ilia: How do you see darkness and culture and where do you see our culture going? I mean, how do you make sense of it in its disparate, multifaceted complex? Are we unraveling or are we moving towards something? I guess it's always a question I have. Are we falling down? Are we falling forward?
Barbara: I love that. I thought a lot about our conversation ahead of time and I ran across one of Richard Rohr’s teachings, which is that the path of dissent is the path of transformation. And that's a hard one. That's a really hard one given what we're talking about. My answer's problematic even to myself, which is, I am more tuned to where do I get my ideas about our culture? Because I think our culture is our culture. I don't live in Puerto Rican culture, I don't live in Asian American culture.; the culture of the US is many, many cultures I do. And so, I have to pay attention to where I'm getting my perceptions of what's happening to our culture. And I worry that both I and many, many people who are struggling with the walls between us are getting our perceptions from media. And I don't play on social media, but I sure do play on print and radio and news media, and I've become more and more judicious about that. I now insist on reading the local newspaper twice a week. That's as often as it comes out. But to keep reading the local and regional news and to listen to what's going on in Georgia before I surrender my view of the world to those who depend on me to click on the worst things they can think of to tell me.
Ilia: Yeah, that's really good. I like that a lot. Actually, I do something similar. I very rarely read the world news or global reports. I actually agree, and I guess I haven't thought about it myself explicitly, but there is something that culture is perception of where I am. Culture is local. As you point out, it's never a global phenomenon. If it is, it's very multifaceted. So I wonder, let me just try to put this in another way. Culture is the place of meaning. You know, it's the matrix of meaning. And so, there's something wonderful about being part of this matrix of meaning. And yet because we tend to impose our vision of culture on everything else, we make broad, broad statements as the news would like us to think that everything is bad and everything's going downhill, and we're a divided culture and American culture.
You live in rural Georgia and I would imagine that is, there's a beauty there, like a sense of spirit and a sense of belonging. From where you stand, you know, what's your view of life as we approach June, 2023 and amidst all the discussions of Chat GPT, for and the upcoming presidential campaign and racism and all these big, big issues we're involved in. How do you think one should really wake up each morning in this world today, even as a retired pastor, if I could put it that way? What's your best advice?
Barbara: Oh, I don't have advice for most of the things you listed though. A place I can dip in is, I do live in a place of great natural beauty. I live in a place that is very red and I'm sort of bluish, so it's been wonderful for me to live with people who still have their signs up from the last election. And when people from the city come to visit me, they get scared. They're scared before they even get to my door. And if a neighbor is out practicing with a deer rifle, it's just interesting how quickly people get in their cars and go back to the city where they feel safer. So, I have loved living here and realize I'm surrounded by people who are way more than the political signs in their yards. That people are complicated, that people's politics are not the only thing we need to know about them.
And in none of this—you see, it's a problematic answer because I don't want to sound like an asleep at the wheel person who's just cruising into disaster saying, "Oh, we're all just lovely." But I love where I live because I can't silo, there are not enough of me to silo here. And I love where I live because I'm now in my eighth decade, I guess. You always have to add one day to your age, right? Well, I'm in my early seventies, so I say that for anybody else who happens to be and to say how much at this age and also during the three years of the pandemic, that I was both taken apart by what was happening in the human dimension of things. And I was helped to be put back together again by what was happening in the creation view of things, that my advice to get back to your question is, if at all possible, go outside with no shoes on. Even if you live in a city, find a patch of moss near the nearest garbage can, or find a tree that still has leaves on it and just get back into your place in things.
When people tell me they're afraid, we're killing the world and want to say, no, we're going to kill ourselves. There's a chance we'll turn earth into Mars or something else, but I think it's us we're doing in and that's bad enough. But I don't know, creation and getting my feet in the dirt and digging in the dirt has saved my sanity and my health over the past 3, 4, 5 years. And oddly, just to take it deep fast, it helped me face the disaster of my own death. Mary Oliver has that poem that ends about finding your place in the family of things. And that's what the natural world around me does. It can be quite ugly, harsh, and bloody as well, so there's no romance here about that.
Robert: It is always difficult to find paths in the dark, but how does our understanding of God inform our sense of direction as a species and as a society? Next, Ilia asks Barbara about touching nature, the merits of pantheism and the future of God.
Ilia: I'm actually putting a talk together on Francis of Assisi and the particularity of materiality, you know, his love of twigs and stones and I mean, a guy who really walked barefoot in the leaves and the dirt and rolled over in snow. So, there's something about the concrete nitty grittiness of matter of earth, of creation that spoke to him of God. And I think you're in the same kind of direction. I put you might say in the same school as Francis, would you see yourself there, like the nitty gritty God?
Barbara: Oh, I, if you put me anywhere near that company, I would just lie down and cross my hands over my chest and be happy forever. So yeah, he's my go-to place when people want to talk about my pantheism or my paganism.
Barbara: I mean, he's my nature saint. He's the one who knew that the divine life is not in some, it's in all, so thank goodness. Did he ever have any time as a heretic? Was he ever—I think some pope called him a heretic for a little while.
Ilia: You know, the fact is the church was really like a mess during his time. Not unlike it is today, but it was really a mess then. And they needed like a big movement to kind of—it was a political thing. So the Pope kind of said to Francis, "Look, we'll give you what you want as long as we can kind of use your movement to buoy the church." So, it was sort of a political arrangement, Francis agreed so he can get his rule approved. But I think honestly he was always on the edge of the church. I think he himself in some ways—I know that Francis may not appreciate this. He was in an urge, he was definitely a pantheist or pantheist. I actually like pantheism. I'm all for Christian pantheism myself. I think a little pantheism could really go a long way, quite honestly. He was never really fully comfortable though, certainly with the high church of even in the Middle Ages, so he lived on the edge, kind of like Jesus.
I mean, they were edgy people sort of in the institution, but sort of one foot outside sort of where we are. I mean, I don't know where you are, but I think this whole notion—I mean, I'm actually having mind your other book, The Altar in the World, I didn't read it, but I take that as the place of finding God in the concrete realities of our world. Just so much Francis. I mean, his whole thing was—the whole creation is the cathedral of God. So, why build a concrete church when you have the whole church of creation?
Barbara: Yes. I just got my new favorite Ilia de Leo quote, by the way, was it, "I'm all for a little pantheism."? I really like that. I like that a lot.
Ilia: Well, right. I mean, we are still so dualistic and agnostic. I mean, basically. You got to admit, I find the churches today, Catholic church is still very heavily intellectual, you know, abstract, these abstract ideas. And for all the goodness of Pope Francis and Laudato Si and all that kind of stuff is still very intellectual and abstract. Why don't we just release the whole church maybe to Georgia where you are. We could send them to the farms and just touch the earth. I mean, do some farming, pick up earth worms and get stung by a bee.
Barbara: That happens, that happens when you go barefoot.. Do you know about the farming area at Princeton Seminary? Has anybody told you about that?
Ilia: No. Tell me more, because I just read about a new master's degree at Princeton on ecology and theology.
Barbara: Yeah, it probably grows out of that. It's just for any listeners who want to check it out. It's a program that does put seminary students anyway, theology students out into fields to do some planting and growing and harvest and eating and composting, and so it's both. It becomes intellectual when the students take that back to the classroom and have new metaphors to engage. theological thought, but it's also very physical. They sweat, they get dirty, they get bitten, they get poison ivy, they get the whole thing. I'm fascinated with the way that brings the bodily, the material in theological education, like almost nothing else I can think of right now.
Ilia: Pretty fantastic actually. I mean, I'd love to see a Catholic seminary move in that direction as well. Maybe somewhere in Rome they can move out to the fields. I think that's the right way. Can we recover? Can we really recover the Christian God? I mean, what do you think? Do we think there's any hope there? Like this is a God who entered into the nitty gritty flesh, the blood stuff, the messiness. I mean, we always make Jesus like he never had a bad hair day. I mean, he never got angry, he never got dirty, he never sweated, and we think these things are just heretical if you say them, I'm like, either he's human or he is not. You know, what's the story here?
Barbara: What I worry about with Christians is we say we believe in the incarnation, but I don't see much evidence of it. I went to a church in Birmingham, Alabama once and was taken with the painting of Jesus over the altar, which was of him coming out of the tomb with his arms up raised. And I was up really, really close to it, looking for any body hair, under his arm, on his chest anywhere, and saw none. And I said something about that out loud to myself and a woman in the sacristy who was cleaning the silver, looked up at me and said, "I can't believe you just said that. I cannot believe you just said that." So, it was talking about Jesus’ body hair. So isn't it interesting she was really flabbergasted that I would think, much less say it. So, I don't know, I don't know if there's any hope.
Ilia: And I don't know, Barbara, because honestly, I think we have a bias against the incarnation. We find it actually almost theoretical to think that God would have become this human with all the body hair and sweat and bleeding and everything else that humans do. But I don't know what kind of God we're talking about. I mean, we still have Zeus God, basically. We sort of have the big guy in the sky God, the Wizard of Oz, the great Ouija board player, I guess, I don't know.
Barbara: Oh, there's another phrase I love "A bias against incarnation." And guess what that does about our own incarnations, you know, our own physicality and how much of it is admissible and how much of it has to stay in the dark since that's our topic.
Ilia: Yes, exactly. No, I think that's really true. I mean, in other words, we had a really credible, earthy God, how would we see ourselves? Would we love our bodies? I mean, we have kind of a body problem insofar as we keep thinking that it might be fallen and weakened and depraved, and we have to find ways to say, "Hey, it keeps me going. It's not so bad after all." I actually thank people who mark it out, you know, with even like tattoos and piercings. They're trying to tell us something, you know? Like, my body is my body, and it's my identity. There's something there, I think, we have an identity crisis when it comes to the body, and there's a real need to mark that body, that it's a body that has a distinct identity, a person, you know, it belongs to someone.
Robert: Next week, Ilia asks Barbara, whether AI leads us further into the darkness or closer to the light. If you'd like to support Hunger for Wholeness, consider visiting christogenesis.org and donating to the Center for Christogenesis during our June fundraiser. We have a special webinar coming up with Ilia at the end of June about religious renewal and artificial intelligence. Find us online for more information. As always, a special thanks to our partners at the Fetzer Institute. I'm Robert Nicastro. Thanks for listening.