“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone
when the morning stars sang together
and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?
“Or who shut in the sea with doors
when it burst out from the womb?—
when I made the clouds its garment,
and thick darkness its swaddling band,
and prescribed bounds for it,
and set bars and doors,
and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther,
and here shall your proud waves be stopped’?
“Have you entered into the springs of the sea,
or walked in the recesses of the deep?
Have the gates of death been revealed to you,
or have you seen the gates of deep darkness?
Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth?
Declare, if you know all this.”
Job 38:4-11, 16-18
Religious practice dialogues with the contours of living. Things are not simply handed down from on high, whether that “high” is mortal or otherwise. People are bound to adapt, to revise, to edit, to apply. This allows diversity and richness to emerge in what would otherwise be an ungodly and authoritarian way of making meaning. Medieval women in northern Europe found solace and strength in the goddesses of their ancestors and soared among them searching for honest communion with Christ. Yoruba traditions pervade Caribbean Catholicisms, infusing them with color and ecstasy. The lives and livelihoods of American protestants are expressed, encapsulated, and illuminated as the people free themselves for a paradigm shift.
But God does not always speak through these alterations, and it is easy to be fooled by our complacency into conflating the human with the divine. So the machinations of the powerful, the greedy, the lazy, and the self-satisfied have invaded the pale and powerful sanctuaries of the privileged, deluding us into weaponizing language about the Almighty for distinctly limited purposes. So the image of a false divinity has been allied with exploitation. So the anthropocentric has usurped the reverent.
And in these great halls built on blood and rooted in coal, liturgical practice reflects the people who perform it. Isolating our community in silence, placating our guilt with moderation, assuaging our inaction with sympathy, and sanctifying our ignorance with monotony. Certainty and optimism are our opiates, election and comfort our false hope. And locked in this waking nightmare we found the audacity to extract from the land the tools to open gates of God’s daughter the sea. As we learned the measurements we thought we had set them. As we uncovered the depths we thought we had dug them. We raised our voices in praise of ourselves as we melted the bars and pried open the doors.
One wonders how religious practice will change when the steeples are drowned and the golden idols of our robbery are purified in salt. One wonders what hymns will be sung when the roads and bridges are home to crabs and barnacles. One wonders how the Lord’s day will be observed when the swamps and the snakes and the birds reclaim what was taken. One wonders how the human will be conceived when we remember we weren’t there.