An Altar in the World

  • Jack Heppner, Author
  • Retired Educator

An Altar in the World; A Geography of Faith, by Barbara Brown Taylor – A Book Review

Every once in a while I find that a book I have finished reading leaves me awakened to newness in a special way. This is one of those books. I keep returning to it with the sense that I have stumbled upon a well that just keeps on giving living water.

Taylor’s central thesis is that when we limit our search for a deeper spirituality to church buildings and experiences of the soul we will always be short-changing ourselves. Stated more positively, she believes that true spiritual experiences can most readily happen on the ground we are standing on right now and have as much to do with our bodies as our souls.

Taylor lays out her case in her introduction as follows:

What is saving my life now is the conviction that there is no spiritual treasure to be found apart from the bodily experiences of human life on earth. My life depends on ignoring all touted distinctions between the secular and the sacred, the physical and the spiritual, the body and the soul. What is saving my life now is becoming more fully human, trusting that there is no way to God apart from real life in the real world (xvii).

This is a bold declaration indeed, especially in the context of a pervasive faith perspective that values churchly life above ordinary life and movements in the soul over actions of the body. It is a refutation of Gnostic tendencies that have plagued the church for most of its history. Spirit, it was said, is always more important and more valuable than matter; which means that living “above the world” is holier than experiencing our humanness. Taylor’s affirmation is rooted in the perspective that faith is not so much a way of “thinking” as a “way of life;” not so much esoteric experiences as bodily practices.

To support this view, Taylor draws on the biblical concept of incarnation; that it was in the flesh that God was revealed in Jesus:

His full humanity was on full display as he taught, healed, fed, and freed people, just as it was when he honored the poor, defied the powerful, and turned the institutional tables – along with his own cheek (118).

It is on this basis, she claims, that Irenaeus of Lyons could proclaim nearly two thousand years ago that, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive” (118).

Taylor draws our attention to the biblical story of Jacob who experienced God in a rocky place while fleeing from his enraged brother, Esau. In spite of being a “deceiver,” God appears to Jacob while sleeping on the ground using a stone for a pillow. It was an unexpected encounter of the holy in the wilds of the desert. So Taylor’s challenge to us is to get on with the task of being fully human and expect that God will show up in surprising ways. Well, actually it is not so much that God shows up but that we come to understand that God is present in every circumstance of our collective human experience. And recognizing this as we go about our earthly pilgrimage is the key that unlocks the pathway of true spirituality. Somewhere along the way, says Taylor, most of us bought the line that God is chiefly interested in formal religion. But, she adds,

What if God can drop a ladder absolutely anywhere, with no regard for the religious standards developed by those who have made it their business to know the way of God (7)?

Each of the ensuing chapters challenges the reader to find appropriate places where we recognize God’s presence, build an altar, and offer our sacrifices. I will elaborate on a few that caught my attention in a special way.

In chapter two, Taylor speaks about “paying attention.” Without paying attention it will be easy to miss what God is doing in the world and the many ways God is inviting us to participate in the never-ending, universal and specific work of God in the world. Paying attention is being reverent, says Taylor. She suggests an exercise to get us started is to sit down somewhere outside, preferably near a body of water, and simply pay attention for at least twenty minutes. Or perhaps taking a side trip from your regular route where you will see things you have never noticed before. Or, when in the context of others, making it a practice to look at people twice; on the first glance just noticing their presence and on the second recognizing their uniqueness and possibilities of engagement. I am in the process of learning to do this but have a long way to go.

In Chapter eight Taylor suggests we practice the art of saying “No.” It was Meister Eckhart who stated that God is not found in the soul by adding anything but by subtracting. If we are not free to say “No,” said Karl Barth, we are not really free at all. It is noteworthy that in the creation account in Genesis chapter one God declared his work of creating the world to be good, but after establishing the Sabbath – which basically required saying “no” to many things – God called it holy. There is something intrinsically healthy about saying “no” to something you have determined is not yours to do. It has taken me a long time to recognize that my worth in the sight of God and people who matter to me has been established even before I am doing any work. That worth will hold even when I say “No!”

Twelve chapters exploring twelve ways to be spiritual that involve your body. This good and revolutionary news is well worth reading about and applying! I am in the process of learning to build altars in the world on which to offer my sacrifices to God in my body.