The Ontological Egg

I am taking the weekend off, so you're getting a recycled Sabbath Blessing. This was originally popped out on July 3, 1999. Enjoy.

Is it really more than 20 years ago since I went on my French cooking binge? I guess it is. Some things, once learned, you don't forget: I could still put together a homemade mayonnaise without a second thought (although I don't--too fattening!) the way I could still ride a bicycle, if I had to.

Skimming through a well-sauced and heavily battered cookbook from that time, I ran again into my one point of resistance--the one part of French cooking that I could never accept with that unhesitating obedience that French cuisine expects (or used to, before nouvelle cuisine came in): les oeufs brouillées. That's scrambled eggs to you, buster. According to my classical French cookbook, well-beaten eggs are to be heated gently with butter until they reach a creamy consistency, barely thickened and almost lump-free. Thus, and thus only, the scrambled egg.

Well, I think that's hooey. THE scrambled egg in my book is scrambled in the pan you cooked the bacon in, after you've poured out the bacon fat, so all the delicious brown bits get worked into the eggs. The eggs are definitely firm when they're done not dry, but solid. These are what my household call "dirty eggs" and they are, in my not-so-humble opinion, the only scrambled eggs worth a person's serious attention, although others are at liberty to disagree. You wanna be fancy, you might work in a little chopped red pepper or green onions or sharp cheese. But it's the firm-with-bacon style that counts.

But while I know that dirty eggs are THE ultimate in scrambled, French cooks know, with equal certainty, that the One True Scrambled Egg is buttered and runny. Each of us believes that compared to our One True Egg, all other eggs are pallid, inferior reflections. This is the Platonic Ideal of the Scrambled Egg, enshrined in some bright diamond-hard reality outside this transient world's purview. The Germans would undoubtedly have a line-ending compilation-word for this ontological image, something ending in heit or geist. But if you ask how the French know that this Egg-Ideal is of the soft-with-butter persuasion, they just look at you, baffled by your inability to see what should be patently transparent to anyone with half a brain (cervelles au beurre noir, different chapter).

People get like this about all sorts of matters. There is the One True Broiled Steak (rare, of course). There is the Only Possible Caesar Salad . There is the One True Dry Martini. There is probably the One True Sushi as well, but I haven't got a clue what it's like. We seem to need these ideals models that transcend space and time, against which we can judge reality and find it wanting, especially when it gives us a chance to observe how much more wanting the other guy's version is, compared to ours.

Which is all well and good if a tad perfectionist and silly for scrambled eggs, or steaks, or martinis, or sushi. The problem arises when we try to apply this way of working to more essential matters,our view of God, for example.

Fundamentalists think otherwise, but I was brought up to believe that in the Bible we have a collection of works in which God speaks to us through other human beings. It's a record of what people have heard in that quiet corner of the mind where the God-voice dwells and where deep spiritual knowledge wells up from some source unknown, like groundwater rising to the surface, which is how God generally does speak--God not being much for skywriting or billboards or leaflets dropped from airplanes.

God speaks with particular directness and authority through his Son Jesus, and therefore we're to take what Jesus says extremely seriously. But does Jesus say, "this is what God is like", followed by some direct and simple statement? No: Jesus makes a whole lot of indirect comparisons huge metaphors like lumps of cloudy amber, whose meaning is often not immediately clear or is even paradoxical, at least to our limited understanding. "The kingdom of God is like..." he says, using some bewilderingly ordinary metaphor that's as hard to grapple with and hang onto as a well-greased beachball.

Human beings like certainty. It makes them feel that the universe is a somewhat less baffling and dangerous place. They like to know things, and they like to have that knowledge neatly pinned down, immobilized, so it can't slither away from under them and leave them dangling in uncertainty once again. But God is too big for us to wrap our tiny minds around. God is so big that he encompasses all sorts of apparently contradictory things, without himself being in the least contradictory. This is a little crazy-making, if you have a tidy mind.

As is so often the case, we have a choice to make. We can make God into an ontological egg: "God is like *this*, and if you don't believe it, you're a heretic." In effect, we reduce God to a size that we can encompass in our heads, a God who makes sense to us by our own human standards. That makes us feel safe and superior and allows us freely to sit in deliciously ego-stroking judgment on the benighted--what's been called TEAPOT theology, for "those evil awful people over there". It also allows us to make rules or laws that (we claim) reflect some objective Trueness out there in the universe, instead of our own human prejudices and needs.

Or we can in humility say, "I really don't know God at all. I know only what I feel of God in my own soul, and that seems to go along with what others who went before me felt of God in their own souls. That will have to be enough for me to go on." We can embrace our unknowing, knowing that it is, in fact, safer than knowing. We can keep thumping gently up against this soft, thick, profound darkness of unknowing, always drawn in the deepest sort of longing to the Light that we know lies behind it, but that we cannot in this lifetime see directly.

It's not that there isn't some central great truth in God, some ideal that's completely outside this fragile, transforming life of ours. Of course there is that Truth. Of course there are realities in God that are unchanging and far more solid than we can begin to imagine. Our mistake is to claim that we've got God all taped, when in fact we cannot begin to imagine God's reality, even a tiny part of it.

Those of us who, in our vocations, have to speak or write of God are always up against this paradox, day in, day out. We have to wrestle, like Jacob at Peniel, to manage to live humbly in uncertainty while still saying something about God with that good solid gut-felt spiritual authority. We know in our toenails that there is a real God out there, a truth beyond all truths but we don't know a fool thing about him, at least not for absolutely sure. We see only through a glass, darkly. All we can ever do is to keep in mind that whatever we say however true we feel our insights are they are at best hopelessly inadequate, and at worst downright dangerous in their wrongness. All of us fail to manage this balancing act, at least at times. Some of us acknowledge that failure, as St. Paul does; others choose not to see it.

The inevitability of our failure to get God pinned to the mat does not, however, mean that we should shut up. It just means that we have to live with a certain amount of humility and to pray that we're listening right and that God understands that we're doing the best we can. We can’t get it perfectly right. But like a good teacher, God gives part points - lots of them.

"Do what you will, this darkness and this cloud remain between you and God and stop you both from seeing him in the clear light of rational understanding, and from experiencing his loving sweetness in your affection. Reconcile yourself to wait in this darkness as long as is necessary, but still go on longing after him whom you love. For if you are to feel him or to see him in this life, it must always be in this cloud, in this darkness." (The Cloud of Unknowing, chapter 3.)

Too true. Too true.

Copyright © 2001 Molly Wolf. Originally published Sat, 04 Aug 2001
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