Art and Life; Meaning and Purpose; Agency and God

I read, faithfully, the New Yorker because of excellent writing, great cartoons, and attention to the best fiction, art, opera, film, poetry.  In the October 7, 2013 edition, Goings On About Town: This Week., the art of Chris Burden is featured.  The New Museum features a piece called, “Ghost Ship,” described as “a crewless, self-navigating yacht that sailed the North Sea in 2005.”    What would make, I wondered, this yacht a meaningful experience with people on board to guide it?  Is meaning or lack of meaning for that matter dependent upon what humans bring to an event, a circumstance, an idea, or an experience, even if it never became a piece of art?  Could in other words, a crewless yacht traveling on the open sea contain its own meaning?   Or without the human offering some sort of experiential reality, is it simply devoid of purpose or meaning?  Like the earth say going ‘round and ‘round along with all the other planets, in all the other solar systems, in this universe and other universes, most of which are not seen or experienced by human beings.

Forgive me my convoluted wandering/wondering ways.  Nonetheless, the larger point for me is what serves as the context for a meaningful and purposeful life?  Agency of the self, credentials and the power to speak and have others listen that validate agency, the community, the world, God’s agency?  How do we know what we know, and how do we find a new footing informed by what we know or think we know?  What happens when we don’t know—as in when the yacht goes on its path without us?  Which brings me to a theological conundrum:  God at work in the world.  I believe that it is more often the case that we do not know “where or how God is at work” in the world.  In fact, for me, that is what faith is.  It is that we cannot know the intricacies of God’s work on some level.  Therefore, faith is the fundamental trust of not knowing what in fact we know.  Our giving witness to any one thing or event or experience does not validate faith, it is the other way around!

In my context, a seminary and in the context of ministry—depending on your view and experience and understanding of religious faith and belief—clear answers or opinions (at least) emerge.  This seems to be the core of energy at the moment—an exchange, a parable repeating over and over of losing and finding and losing and finding what meaning and purpose is or is not.  This is so because seminaries are experiencing a loss of relevance at the moment; a shortage of enrollment, a shift in what potential students seek to study.

It comes as a great surprise when those of us in the church and in ministry and in seminaries enter the losing time in the parable. The parables of the lost coin, or the lost sheep for instance.   We don’t like to consider that we might be included as lost coins, or missing sheep.  The pattern of losing and finding in my view is fluid, continues, keeps us honest lest we evolve faith into something of our own making, in our own design for our own reasons.  That is the power of the gospel which will continually upend our understanding—when we take over the yacht of this world with our own crews and contrive meaning and purpose on our own terms, in our own computer technology.

For me, this art brings me face-to-face with my own deep hopes and fears.  Too easy to confuse agency and God, to attach meaning to that which we deeply desire as faith and trust—hoping that faith or trust will provide for us what we find missing; to assume getting lost again and again does not apply in the living of everyday, ordinary life and to me.

I’ll leave it at that…for pondering and prayer.


Susan Kendall, Ph.D.
Director, Doctor of Ministry Program




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