Jan 26, 2015

"We Are Building God" -- Rainer Maria Rilke on the Divine

A week back, on another wintry Monday night, I gave a lecture on Rainer Maria Rilke's views on various topics connected with the divine -- God, religion, solitude, death, life, love, and poetry -- at a local Unitarian Universalist congregation.  Some of the 20-odd people who came for the talk weren't members of the congregation.  Many were regular participants in the Glimpses of Existence library talks.  There were even a few who had heard or read about the talk in other ways, and came to learn, and talk, about Rilke.

It was quite a cozy setting, as it turned out by chance -- a regular meeting that was not on the calendar, as the pastor discovered at the last minute, was being held in the main chapel -- so the UUCC graciously offered us a rustic, comfortable meeting room for the venue.  It fit rather well some of the key themes we discussed -- there's something about simple, long-lived in furnishings that conduces to thinking about things like solitude, or the darkness of soil, or our ongoing relationships with those who have passed on from life to death -- or about how we might think about God and our connection to Him.  It's a good space and place in which to do what one might call practical metaphysics.

If you'd like to watch, or listen to the talk, here it is:


The passage from which I took the title for the talk comes up in the context of a discussion about childhood, God, and the future, in one of the Letters to a Young Poet.  It runs:
As bees gather honey, so we collect what is sweetest out of all things and build Him. Even with the trivial, with the insignificant (as long as it is done out of love) we begin, with work and with the repose that comes afterward, with a silence or with a small solitary joy, with everything that we do alone, without anyone to join or help us, we start Him whom we will not live to see, just as our ancestors could not live to see us.
It's a challenging conception -- that God might be something that we ourselves, we human beings, have some role in "building," in bringing to fruition, in helping to ripen. It's not only challenging to more orthodox interpretations of that experience and reality that human beings have called God, the divine, and other names as well.  It's also challenging for another reason -- Rilke suggests to us that human beings are radically unfinished creatures, and that the culture we live in isn't going to make it any easier for us to develop depths, to grow into ourselves, to learn and live the sort of solitude necessary for a fully human life.  We can't "build" God in the way he describes, without cultivating a lot of patience, without learning key lessons of existence. . . .

There's a lot more to be said to flesh out these outlines -- and I would like sometime to write a bit about just why I resonate so much with this strange poet, particularly in his views about the divine. . . But, those are for other times, other posts.

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