A Grey Theology for the Pacific Northwest – Part 1

By Derek Hiebert

This is a revised version of a paper presented at the Christ & Cascadia conference, Seattle, October 14th, 2016.

For reasons generally related to religious aversion, the Pacific Northwest (PNW) has long been dubbed “spiritually dark,” and, more recently, the “None Zone.”[1] Here, ‘darkness’ and ‘absence’ are words used to describe the spiritual environment of the region. However, I suggest we consider a different word to describe the PNW: grey—a term that captures a particular attitude toward life . . . a mundane, humdrum, dullish mood about the nature of everyday reality.

My aim here in Part 1 of this post is twofold: (1) provide observations about what characterizes this grey milieu, by peering through the lens of the poetry and music native to this region, and (2) establish a framework for a vision of what biblical hope might look like in the midst of a grey cultural setting.

Pictures of Grey

In what follows, a sampling of music and poetry from the PNW is set forth, in order to provide a snapshot of the grey culture that pervades this region. Three portraits of a grey perspective are highlighted: ambiguity, disorder and confusion, and emptiness and loss.

Ambiguity

“How do I know what is real?” This is a question that so many modern philosophers have labored to provide an answer to. But the response to this question, in a grey setting, is not one marked—as in so many modern philosophical accounts—by precision, but ambiguity. Here, the twin metaphor to grey could be “fog,” an atmospheric reality all too common in the PNW.

The poet Erin Coughlin Hollowell gives a picture of this in her piece entitled, “Practice”:

The morning that I dedicate myself

To looking at the world more closely,

I wake to find everything covered by fog…

…Spruce trees become towering shadows,

Brooding on a vague gray horizon

Only twenty paces beyond the back door.

Somewhere a dog lifts his voice

To solitary song, anonymous,

Reduced to long, lone vowels.

In this aspect of greyness, one is content to let the obscurity remain what it is. Instead of a desire to know what is true about reality, there is indifference. I don’t know. I can’t know. So why try?

Disorder and Confusion

Another picture of this grey metaphor comes with aspects of disorder and confusion. Life does not make logical sense. Where in the past we thought conformity to clearly defined categories was advantageous, we now realize the groupings are more fluid. There is no order, no objective configuration. Life is merely a constant ebb and flow without order or trajectory.

Hanna Marie Gunderson, in an excerpt from her series “On Disorder”, describes this in agricultural terms:

On my way to work I drive past the mess

of a field lying fallow and grey. Less

and less of the farmer’s order survives

with time. Leaves give up more of their lives

to inertia. The birds are all gone. The air

contains only its own stillness.[2]

Emptiness and Loss

Another portrait of grey we see in the PNW is one characterized by a sense of emptiness and loss. This is where one finds a more extreme variety of melancholy.

Seattle grunge band, Alice in Chains, reflects on loss in terms of identity and selfhood, in their ballad “Nutshell”.

We chase misprinted lies
We face the path of time
And yet I fight
And yet I fight
This battle all alone
No one to cry to
No place to call home

My gift of self is raped
My privacy is raked
And yet I find
And yet I find
Repeating in my head
If I can’t be my own
I’d feel better dead

With this sort of emptiness, one is left without direction—a sojourner without a destination. Life just is. There is no purpose or goal to make sense of the journey.

A Framework for a Grey Theology

According to anthropologist Paul Hiebert, beginning around the 17th century, with the advance of the Enlightenment, Western society came to embrace a two-tiered worldview.[3] He identifies the upper tier as ‘religion’, which includes items such as faith, miracles, other-worldly problems, and the sacred. The lower tier, on the other hand, he labels ‘science’, which includes items such as sight and experience, the natural order, this-worldly problems, and the secular.

Hiebert proposes that acceptance of this two-tiered system has resulted in an “excluded middle.” This neglected middle tier, said Hiebert, deals with areas of life that cannot be strictly relegated to either the upper or the lower tier. In this middle tier are items such as uncertainty and mystery. And it is here—in this middle tier—that the real stuff of life so often exists.

Borrowing from Hiebert, this notion of an excluded middle tier can be used to frame a grey theology for the PNW—one that takes seriously sight and faith, the secular and the sacred, and this world, and the world beyond. These tiers can also be viewed as poles on a spectrum—poles I am referring to here as ‘melancholy’ and ‘Maranatha’.

On the left side of the spectrum (melancholy), is the pervading context of the PNW—a culture that is known for ambiguity, disorder, confusion, emptiness and loss. On the right side of the spectrum (Maranatha), is hope in the One who brings peace, love, and joy. A grey theology for the PNW will not be merely a midpoint on this spectrum, as if the task was simply to blend equal parts gloom and cheer. Rather, the goal is to identify a mode of doing theology that addresses the unique context and concerns of the PNW—one that exists in the grey.

 

[1] Patricia O’Connell Killen and Mark Silk, ed. Religion and Public Life in the Pacific Northwest: The None Zone. (Walnut Creek: AltaMira, 2004), 9, 17.

[2] Hanna Marie Gunderson. “On Disorder.” Saxifrage. Ed. Jacob Carl Harksen, Jason Saunders. 36th ed. Tacoma: Pacific Lutheran University, 2010. 67.

[3] Paul G. Hiebert. “The Flaw of the Excluded Middle.” Missiology: An International Review. Volume 10, Issue 1. January 1, 1982. 35-47. It could also be argued that this two-tiered worldview was shaped in large part by the classical Greek worldview, which made the formal/material dualism fundamental to reality.

About Derek Hiebert

Derek Hiebert is a Western alumnus, Director for the Western Seminary Seattle Teaching Site, husband to an amazing wife, and father of three daughters. He and his family live in Parkland, WA, and minister bi-vocationally with Soma Church.