…But when [Christianity’s] fundamentals are doubted, as at present, we must try to recover the candour and wonder of the child; the unspoilt realism and objectivity of innocence. Or if we cannot do that, we must try at least to shake off the cloud of mere custom and see the thing as new, if only by seeing it as unnatural. Things that may well be familiar so long as familiarity breeds affection had much better become unfamiliar when familiarity breeds contempt…familiarity is fatigue. – G. K. Chesterton in Everlasting Man
A certain amount of familiarity, predictability and stability is healthy, or at least necessary, in some areas of our lives: employment, family, friendships, community, spirituality, finances, and so on. The consistency that results from some amount of familiarity is a positive thing.
But in other ways, familiarity can be a double edged sword, a dangerous disease. Sometimes we become so familiar with our faith and beliefs that our creeds, foundational theology and spiritual experience become nothing more than cliches and empty ideas, void of life, passion, and desire. The Bible, prayer, worship, church services, community, the rituals of communion, confession and repentance, baptism, etc, lose their life and meaning, their draw and necessity. For some of us, familiarity brings us right up against a seemingly unsurpassable wall.
I recently read a clever little story in a book I’m working on that illustrates this concept of familiarity. It’s relayed after an AA meeting from one recovering alcoholic, who’s a tough biker, to another, who’s struggling to believe in a “God” of any kind.
This wise old whiskery fish swims up to three young fish and goes, ‘Morning, boys, how’s the water?’ and swims away; and the three young fish watch him swim away and look at each other and go, ‘What the f*** is water?’ and swim away.
Like the young fish, we are surrounded by blessings and gifts so familiar we barely even recognize their presence. When’s the last time you stopped to consciously ponder the in-and-out rhythm of breathing? When’s the last time you were silently grateful for the truths of forgiveness and love, the blessings of beauty, family, friends, and community, the gifts of food, water, beer, coffee, a home? Life itself, existence, is a miracle.
If I forget all of these blessings and all of this goodness, I quickly spiral into living an ungrateful and unthankful, discontent and dissatisfied existence. Just as the young fish didn’t recognize the presence and reality of water that was vital to their existence, so we rarely stop to ponder the blessings of this miraculous life. We often do not recognize what is vital to our existence — the presence and character of God, and the reality of his truths that we too often forget; slowly and subtly, they become nothing more than dusty, old cliches without much, if any, meaning (all of which we never give much conscious thought).
Personally, at 28 years old and in my present season of life, I’ve found that I’ve hit something of a wall, often finding little meaning in the everyday religious and spiritual “cliches” that hide deep truths and significant meaning, whether it’s Bible reading or prayer or a church service or spiritual community. They’ve become so familiar I fail to remember, as the three young fish failed to recognize water, that without them my spirit would be without life; these familiar, in a way forgotten, truths sustain me.
Just because the young fish didn’t recognize the presence of the water, doesn’t mean it didn’t exist. On the contrary, the very existence of a presence they didn’t recognize is what sustained them. Likewise, the presence of a reality that has become so familiar to the extent I don’t consciously recognize it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist or sustain me.
In moments of doubt, I’ve thought to myself: Is it okay to be weary and tired, to have no words or songs, no prayers or praises? To have nothing to give, and know not how to receive? To be so familiar with ‘truth’ that it no longer has meaning? ‘God’ being so recognizable that I no longer recognize him? There is little life left in what I’ve ‘known’ my whole life, unless, I fear, I’ve never really known it.
When we hit the proverbial “wall,” we must choose to step back and consciously remember the blessings, truths, and gifts that are foundational to reality according to the gospel. In some ways, we must allow ourselves to become unfamiliar; to become formless so we may be (re)formed by forgotten truth(s). Do we want more? If so, this “more” will take us into an unfamiliar, hidden place — a dangerous and wild place where we must become formless in order to be legitimately formed.
And the God who is Love meets us in our banalities and teaches us to love from our end. Word. Wine. Bread. – James K. A. Smith in Imagining the Kingdom