The Theology of Extremity

IFWhat matters most to God? In recent years that question has grown larger and deeper at the center of my soul. My struggle to discern what really matters most to God has settled around a rather unsettling phrase: “the theology of extremity.” It is a phrase that came to me one day while I was visiting in a home where there was no food for the rest of the month. As I sat with the family, on one level I listened to them and made notes about their situation and how our church might be helpful. But on another level, simultaneously, I found myself thinking back through my day. It just happened that on that very day I had spent a good portion of the morning worrying over something I can’t even remember now, except that it was some peripheral liturgical question. As I sat there in that home, I found myself judged by the amount of interest and energy I had devoted to something that mattered much to me, but that did not, as the old colloquialism goes, “amount to a hill of beans” when laid alongside the question of whether or not a family was going to have groceries before the first of the month. (In fact, despite my love for and commitment to the liturgical way of worship, I would have to say that in the face of that family’s need, an actual hill of real beans would have amounted to much more than the matter that had so consumed me.)

As I walked away from that house, I was struck by the phrase, “the theology of extremity.” I thought to myself, “Our practical theology, our everyday way of thinking about God and life, must somehow be colored by the extremity in which God’s children live because that is what matters most to God.” I had that thought, or it had me. And then, I sort of buried it.

But it staged an Easter on me about eight months later. I was walking the dusty lanes of a small village in the hills of Honduras when that phrase I had buried in West Jackson ambushed me in Central America. I was judged by a question that would not let me be: Alongside the enormous needs of the poorest of God’s children, how much do many of the matters that we call important really matter? You don’t have to be a Bible scholar to know that human extremity matters to God infinitely more than much of what matters to most of us. By the light of the blazing Honduran sun, in the faces of very poor children, I thought I saw a glimpse of what matters most to God, and I heard again, from somewhere far beyond, or somewhere deep inside, that phrase I had heard once and buried alive, “the theology of extremity.” It was a moment not unlike what our Quaker friends call “an opening,” and it opened my life in a new way to those old words the prophet Micah said, “Here is what God requires: Do justice . . . Love kindness . . . Walk humbly.” Those words are stark, barren, demanding and extreme in their purity and simplicity. Micah said, “You think that what matters most to God is your burnt offerings, your rituals of sacrifice, your religious exercises and ceremony. But that is not what matters most to God. What God wants, what God requires, what matters most to God is that you do justice and love kindness and walk humbly.”

In the New Testament, James says it another way: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (Jas 1:27). And Jesus says it still another way:

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” (Matt 25:34-35)

It is that basic, according to Jesus. This takes us back to Micah. If we do justice and love kindness, we will inevitably give ourselves, in some fashion or other, to the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the sick, the poor, the shackled. And when we do those things, we will be doing what James called “true religion.” We will be valuing most what Micah said God values most.

But how might we actually begin to live that way? How might we begin to arrange our values in the light of what matters most to God and establish priorities in the shadow of something like a theology of extremity? Well, perhaps it all begins at the place where Micah’s grand verse ends. It just might be that, if we reverse the order of Micah’s list, we have one of the ways our life with God actually proceeds.

Micah said there are three things God requires of us, three things that really matter to God: to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God. If we take that trio and line them up in reverse order, here is what we have: Walk humbly with God, love kindness, and do justice. Perhaps it is in that order that those three realities unfold. We begin by walking humbly with God, by leading a life of quiet prayer to God, silent centering on God, and open listening for God. It is in that devotional side of life that we begin to walk humbly with God. When we walk humbly with God, we are changed. Because our lives are punctuated by daily times of silence and prayer, they become colored by a quiet spirit of devotion. We speak less often and less loudly. We become more sensitive to others because we are walking humbly with our God. Then eventually, out of the depths of walking humbly with God, we simply discover one day, perhaps to our great surprise, that more than anything else, we love kindness. And once we come to love kindness, we then have to do justice. I say we “have to” because we can’t keep ourselves from it. Our great passion in life becomes doing justice for the weak and poor. We seek out those who are living on the hard edge of life, not because we think we ought to, but because we couldn’t keep ourselves from doing justice on behalf of the
powerless even if we tried.

Perhaps that is how our life with God grows deeper and wider. We walk humbly with God in prayer, silence, and devotion. Then, out of that new depth, we develop a wider eye of compassion. We begin to love kindness, to value steadfast loving kindness above all other things. We invest our lives, our time, our money, our energy, and our influence in bringing justice to those who are most in need of loving kindness, steadfast mercy, and a just world in which to live. And then we are doing, according to Micah, James, and Jesus, the sort of things that matter most to God.

Of course, it’s not that simple. After all, there are many things in life that matter. And yet . . . the truth is, we do fret too much over too many things that matter too little. If we stare into the face of enough pain, if we get close enough to extreme human need, it will force us to rethink a lot of what we think matters. The theology of extremity will leave us with less interest in “much ado about nothing,” and it will fill us with new passion for what matters most to God. The theology of extremity will transform us in a deep and indefinable way because, once we begin to live in the light of the shadow of the world’s extremity, it is hard ever to see things the same as before.

The theology of extremity has a mysterious mystical side and a simple practical side. The mystical side of the theology of extremity grows, in part, out of our sense of connectedness to all the people of the world. Think about it: Somewhere in the world, in every moment of every day, one of God’s children is in dreadful extremity. Thus, how do we justify the energy we invest in peripheral issues while any one of God’s children is starving or freezing or dying or weeping? As long as anyone in the world is in extremity, how can sensitive believers be consumed with pettiness? Think of it this way: If someone we love more than life itself were to die a tragic death, how would we act in our grief? Perhaps we would speak softly, ponder the great realities of life, and turn aside from the senseless pursuit of trivial fussiness. We would go deep into our soul and deep into God. We would renew our focus on the things that matter most. Now, consider the fact that every day, somewhere in the world, one of God’s children is experiencing the tragic death of someone they love more than life itself. Someone somewhere is always in that kind of awful extremity. As children of the God who is love, shouldn’t we be conscious, in the depth of our soul, of the extreme pain that is present in someone somewhere all the time? Since we are always living in the shadow of someone’s extreme pain, shouldn’t we be perpetually living in the light of the theology of extremity, caring deeply and praying without ceasing for extremities unseen to us but somehow not unknown?

The mystical side of the theology of extremity is shaped, in part, by our sense of connectedness to others, but it also emerges whenever we honestly embrace the certainty of our own ultimate moment of extremity, the moment of our own death. If we lived each day of our lives in the light of the certainty of our own death, we would often say to ourselves: “Why am I fretting so over this worry or that frustration? On the day I die, is this going to matter? If I were on my death bed, would I be irritated by this or angry at that?” To live as though someday will be the last day is another way to begin to embrace the clarity that the theology of extremity brings to life.

This is the mystical side of the theology of extremity: living in the shadow of the world’s pain, living in the light of our own death, living as though everyone who suffers is someone we know, and living each day as though some day is going to be the last day. To begin to think this way is to begin to embrace the theology of extremity in a quiet, deep, mystical way. This is dangerous, of course. Overly embraced, the theology of extremity will do us in. We cannot bear the burdens of the world, and we cannot live each day as though it will be the last. Such intensity we were not made to endure. Embraced to extremes, the theology of extremity would become baptized co-dependence. It would not be a healthy way to live. Rightly embraced, however, the theology of extremity will color our lives without consuming them.

This brings us to the simple, practical side of the theology of extremity. Once the mystical side of the theology of extremity begins to ferment in our souls, it has a very practical result: We speak differently. Specifically, we speak differently when we react to life’s frustrations, disappointments, inconveniences, and problems. If I live each day with a quiet awareness of the deep sadness, terrible hunger, and unbearable pain that is always someone’s somewhere, then how can I lose my temper and speak unkindly in the face of lost laundry, late planes, or long lines? If I live each day in the light of my own death, how can I say angry words over a dented fender or spilled milk? In a world full of starving, dying, hurting people, I cannot speak arrogantly about my little inconveniences if I am awake to the enormous extremity of others. To embrace rightly the deep, mystical side of the theology of extremity is to find ourselves with a new, simple, very practical phrase often on our lips: “If this is the worst thing that ever happens to us, we will have had a wonderful life.” When we embrace the theology of extremity, we can find a thousand occasions to say that phrase instead of speaking unkindly or angrily. Indeed, to look honestly at life through the lens of the theology of extremity is to sometimes chuckle at things over which we once would have growled. Why? Because the theology of extremity has become our new measure of what matters.

This brings us back to Micah’s short list of the things that matter most. Of course, it isn’t as simple as Micah’s short list. There are many things that matter much: relationships, friendships, the new bike, the mountain hike, the play, the song, the anniversary, the birthday, the family around the table, the visit to the nursing home, the wedding, the vacation, the education, the graduation, the walk, the art, the ethics, the baptism, the Bar Mitzvah, the call, the card, the note. The list is long of all the things that we know in our souls really do matter. In a sense, everything matters. In another sense, too many things get much too much of our attention, while life’s great issues lie untended. And sometimes, what really matters is the tiny, human, ordinary thing—not the big, impressive, religious thing. We must learn to care about the right thing at the right moment. We must somehow develop a pure eye, an eye for what matters most to God, for what matters most to the people we love, for what matters most to those we have never met or seen. The theology of extremity helps us to see, with a clearer eye, the things that matter most. According to Micah, what matters most to God is that we walk humbly, love kindness, and do justice. We actually think there has to be more, that there must surely be something more to our lives with God than just that. But if we gave ourselves to those things that matter most to God, it is likely that we would find just the basics to be quite enough, more than enough. In a world of severe extremity, just doing the basics would be all we could embrace and then some. What if we discover one day that, all along, that was what really mattered most to God? Amen.

This post originally appeared as chapter 8 in Beyond the Broken Lights by Charles E. Poole.

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  1. Sarah: Do you have this book? Mom

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