Rooted Sideways

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“Strictly speaking it is incorrect to say that the single individual thinks. Rather it is more correct to insist that he participates in thinking further what other men have thought before him.” Karl Mannheim, Ideology and Utopia

One can look at this in both positive and negative lights. Negatively, we’ll never have an original thought. Everything we think and wrestle with is contingent and formed from time immemorial before us. We may rearrange the words, and thus arrive at some new shadings or nuances, but essentially everything has been thought of before. More ominously, these patterns that we inherit may be racist and sexist, prejudiced to the core, modes of thinking and acting that appear normal unless they are countered by different patterns.

Positively, we are connected with our past and with everything that has been expressed before. And that means, in like manner, we may continue to have an influence on those who come after us, who read what we write and think about what we have said. This is an argument for choosing our formative societies wisely or, more realistically, for experiencing, with eyes wide open, a variety of societies.

Karl Mannheim (1893-1947) was a Hungarian-born sociologist, who was one of the co-founders of the sociology of knowledge. His best-known book, Ideology and Utopia, argued that our ideas and ideologies are products of our times and of the social status of those who hold them. Knowing that this could lead to a harmful relativism, Mannheim proposed instead “relationism,” in which we understand that our ideas are limited and that we must trace them back to their roots in our history to see how they have influenced how we relate to society. He broadened the concept of ideology beyond its political roots to include how we arrive at ideas and how those ideas mirror our life and times.

This idea can be fruitful for religious groups who take the time to recognize that their conceptions about God, religion, social and religious behavior, and culture are rooted in history. In my view, as an Adventist Christian, it calls me to recognize that my beliefs are born in history and can be traced back to their sources. It both gives me a link to the past and helps me to recognize that my group and I don’t hold the key to all the secrets of life. It builds in epistemological humility without sacrificing awareness of what we owe to our forebears.

Mannheim says we think in patterns that are established by our societies. Which patterns become the dominant patterns? How do they change? He says that groups of people, scattered along the social strata, will not change unless there is tremendous upheaval to their way of life. Only when there is a conflict of ideas can change be possible—and even then, the ideas must somehow impinge on us or push us into radically new ways of thinking and seeing.

Mannheim again: “As long as the same meanings of words, the same ways of deducing ideas, are inculcated from childhood on into every member of the group, divergent thought-processes cannot exist in that society.”

I think it’s questionable if we each are imprinted with the template to this extent or if every person in our group falls as easily into these patterns. Most of us can remember some who stood out—often the quiet ones—in our school or college years because they would not follow the stream. I found them interesting, even admirable, and later came to think of them as remarkable for their independence of spirit against the pressures to conform.

Nevertheless, Mannheim is right, I believe, that for the most part we fall into a comfortable sharing of rituals, symbols, references, and habits that mark us as belonging to the same tribe. The question is, how do we think and act in new ways? Perhaps more to the point: what would prompt us to question that which we are?

Recently, I went to a reunion at the college I had attended in England back in the 70s. Aside from the delight of seeing people I had known almost 50 years ago, there was also the more sobering effect of hearing the stories of their journeys of faith in all that time. Illnesses, deaths of loved ones, divorce, reversal of fortunes — we had not escaped these molders and shapers of experience. Tentatively, at first, and then more confidently, we began to open up to each other about our faith and our doubts. Many of us had worked for our church denomination’s educational, medical and religious organizations for decades, and now we were verging on retirement or had already ventured into it.

The stories emerged, blinking in the sunlight, over the weekend. Consistently, as I listened I found myself thinking of the (somewhat) innocent youths that we were all those years ago, compared to the (somewhat) more experienced persons we are today. The people that we were and are presently serve as bookends to the volumes of years in between; over the weekend we found we could distinguish between the bookends and the books.

Some of these friends had worked in many different cultures and countries around the world, moving in and out of places as disparate as Rwanda, London, Iceland, and Michigan. All of this while raising children, finding homes to live in, establishing gardens, and getting the car fixed. Others had remained teaching or pastoring—or both—in one country, while seeing their societies evolving, changing, growing ever more diverse and sometimes more polarized.

Over the weekend you could see clusters of people together, laughing, leaning in to listen, pausing to remember something and then going on with a chuckle, knowing that what they were trying to retrieve would return to memory after the conversation was over. In any given group of four or five people there could be a combined total of over 200 years of work and service. And now these people were sensing gaps between what they had done and experienced and what they had hoped their church might become. They had diverged from the theological and social boundary markers they had been raised to guard because those positions were stationary, and life moves on. It was not that those beliefs were now invalid, but more that from day to day, in living and working with people, the larger concerns of compassion, patience, and humility had edged those beliefs to the periphery. Now they were wondering if they were alone in this or if there were others who also felt these gaps. They were like people who set down their burdens to travel lightly with the essential provisions.

“I believe in absolute truth and absolute contingency, at the same time,” says Christian Wiman in My Bright Abyss. On this side of the bookends, and at this stage in our life journeys, we are down to the essentials. They are essentials because they have been proven through experience to be useful for making one’s way through life faithfully and with care for others. “And I believe that Christ is the seam soldering together these wholes,” continues Wiman, “that our half vision—and our entire clock-bound, logic-locked way of life—shapes as polarities.”

At times we change our minds and our lives, decisively and consciously, at the same time we are being changed passively and incrementally over time. When we pause to look back, it is then that we realize how different our outlook presently is from the other end of the bookshelf where we began.

Mannheim says we only break out of the conventional ways we were raised to think in through horizontal or vertical mobility. Horizontal mobility is where we change locations or even countries without changing our social status and, in this way, we come to realize how differently people think and live. Vertical mobility is where our social status ascends or descends rapidly, and this, says Mannheim, “is the decisive factor in making persons uncertain and skeptical of their traditional view of the world.”

In conversation about this with a friend she remarked that those of us who find ourselves in these gaps have not radically stepped away from our Adventist roots and from our social context as she has. Viewed from the outside, our unease is trifling and our “gap-mindedness” comes from being too close to the trees to see the forest. Yet, there are many in this position who have paid dearly for their honest doubts and who are viewed with deep suspicion and distrust by those who hold power inside the Adventist religious organization. Depending on one’s vantage point, we have moved an inch or a thousand miles. In practical terms, this means that some in power in our church may already regard us as “outside the camp” with no possibility of being accepted back in. By contrast, some of those I spoke with at the reunion thought of themselves as at the boundary—but still within the circle. Most striking was the feeling that no one in authority should define us out of the church by drawing the circle tighter and thus excluding us. Being woke means being responsible for one’s actions.

Mannheim asks, “how it is possible that identical human thought-processes concerned with the same world produce divergent conceptions of that world. . . May it not be found, when one has examined all the possibilities of human thought, that there are numerous alternative paths which can be followed?”

One of the central metaphors of the New Testament is the idea of a spiritual communion with enough room for many different kinds and ways of serving and living. It is an expansive view rather than a constricted and exclusive position.

“There are varieties of gifts,” says Paul, “but the same Spirit. There are varieties of service, but the same Lord. There are many forms of work, but all of them, in all [people], are the work of the same God. In each of us the Spirit is manifested in one particular way, for some useful purpose (1 Corinthians 12: 4-7).”

There were some I spoke with who had found spiritual succor in other faith communities. They talked of being accepted, of simple caring and friendship, of the delight in finding shared spiritual communion. While they were not about to abandon their Adventist roots, it was invigorating to realize that spiritual sustenance could be found outside the camp.

Gary Gunderson writes in his Deeply Woven Roots, “Although we’ve been told for all our lives that we should put our roots down deep, actually, the healthy trees send them sideways . . . At the microbial level, the roots live together so intimately they literally function as one organism so that the light from one, the food from another is shared—even among different species. At least in healthy forests, a healthy community it is. Where are your roots tangled with others? How are you reaching sideways?”

Photo: Stephen Leonardi, Unsplash.com

Faith as Poetry

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Have patience with everything that is unsolved in your heart and try to cherish the questions themselves . . . Do not search now for the answers which cannot be given you because you could not live them. It is a matter of living everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, one distant day live right into the answer. — Rainier Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

What if creating our personal faith was like writing a poem? Not doggerel or a sentimental one-size-fits-all Hallmark card, but a creation of content, form, style—all of that welling up through hard-won experience.

What is “faith”? Is it a journey, a process, a procedure with a product at the end, a string of moments that our memories turn into a continuous experience? Should we tend our faith like we would a garden, yanking out the weeds and watering regularly? Is it like playing a piece that we’ve performed hundreds of times, each performance slightly different from the last because we have incrementally changed since last we performed it? Perhaps, as we are often told, it is a gift not received until we open it. Or is it the speaking into sound of our suffering, the dis-ease we feel being apart from God, the telos of our completion?

If it were simple we would not be having this communion. I don’t know all the ways in which faith is veiled to our comprehension, but I can give voice to what I am beginning to grasp about it in the light of poetry.

Like poetry, faith can form from a slight movement within our vision or from a word that drops into our life at an opportune moment. As in poetry, we form an idea and express it in a way that allows for both consistency and fluidity. The writing of it—and the living of it—takes attention, creativity, commitment, sacrifice, and an ability to lift thought to sound. There is something on the page and in the life that can be read and understood; there is something else that arises and moves beyond the meaning of the words, something that could not be entirely predicted from the arrangement of those words. It is a seeing-into, an awareness of the numinous sleeping inside the modestly mundane.

Mary Oliver says in A Poetry Handbook that writing poetry demands “a perfect seriousness. For the would-be writer of poems, this is the first and most essential thing to understand.” Rainer Rilke, in his incomparable Letters to a Young Poet, implores his young friend who is doubtful about his calling, “This before all: ask yourself in the quietest hour of your night: must I write? . . . And if this should be in the affirmative, if you may meet this solemn question with a strong and simple ’I must,’ then build your life according to this necessity.” Could we ask for a deeper motivation for the building of our faith?

Rilke’s correspondent, a young officer in the army who longs to be a published poet, has asked for Rilke’s critique of his poems. Rilke responds gently: “You are looking outwards, and of all things that is what you must now not do. Nobody can advise and help you, nobody. There is only one single means. Go inside yourself.”

And we must work out our salvation with fear and trembling, a motion of utter seriousness, and yet not without its playfulness. Where do we begin?

Mary Oliver commends to beginning poets that “to write well it is entirely necessary to read widely and deeply. Good poems are the best teachers.” In flowing that out to faith we have no end of examples. For me, the two that I return to over and over are Abraham contesting with God for the souls in Sodom and Gomorrah, and Jacob desperately wrestling through the night by the river Jabbok. They are heroic figures, all the more appealing in our their finitude, striving with all their might with a benignly awesome force that could flick them out of the way in a heartbeat. To read these stories is to wake up; it is to realize with a shiver that while God will not be mocked, He yearns for engagement at close quarters. Our faith is most alive when it is thrown on its back foot; whether reverently challenging God’s judgments as did Abraham or striving to realize our new identity in God as Jacob did, we learn first by seeing and then by doing.

Oliver continues her master class with an invitation to imitate. “Before we can be poets, we must practice; imitation is a very good way of investigating the real thing.” As she says, there is very little downside to this. In imitation we try on the unfamiliar, testing whether the expression we’re holding feels like it could be ours. “Imitation fades as a poet’s own style—that is, the poet’s own determined goals . . . Begins to be embraced.”

Are we the impassioned, but clear thinking Augustine of The Confessions, or the restrained tensile strength of Dorothy Day and Simone Weil? The gentle and comforting hand of Henri Nouwen or the stern ebullience of Martin Luther? The brilliant erudition of John Donne and Karl Rahner or the urgent intensity of Jurgen Moltmann and Dietrich Bonhoeffer?

We must begin in faith to find our “style” of faith. We are beginners and we do not know ourselves enough to know what is truly ours. Rilke, advising the young Herr Kappus, says, ”To love is also good: for love is difficult . . . Therefore young people, who are beginners in everything, cannot know love yet: they have to learn it.”

And we have to learn faith—it’s not self-evident or obvious nor is it a matter of simply trusting the smirking and coiffed televangelist. Whatever else we may learn about faith, we can know by example, by story—eventually by experience—that it is supple and flexible rather than hard and brittle. It not only adapts to changes, it is change; if it were not so there would be no possibility of surviving our pasts.

“What might it mean to be drawn into meanings that, in some profound and necessary sense, shatter us?,” asks Christian Wiman in My Bright Abyss. “This is what it means to love. This is what it should mean to write one more poem. The inner and outer urgency of it, the mysterious and confused agency of it. All love abhors habit, and poetry is a species of love.” The spark that jumps where love and faith touch is enough to renew us in responding to the God who “makes all things new.”

Our experience is all we’ve got, but it’s enough. Our bodies, ourselves, our needs and wants, may coalesce into some kind of coherent narrative over time, but that usually appears in the rear-view mirror. Going forward, and in the present moment, it’s much more difficult to know where we are. Christian Wiman, commenting on the American poet, Hart Crane, muses that “he did to some extent confuse meaningful experience with mere turbulence, as if one weren’t truly in one’s life unless one were being overwhelmed by it.” We needn’t feel ashamed if our experience is quiet, even reticent, rather than crackling with drama. We get the conversions we need, not the ones we envy.

There is a way of relating to faith that is indolently passive. We go about our business, occasionally mildly surprised that nothing has bloomed in the no-mans land between us and God—a change of situation, an uplifting feeling, a new viewpoint on our life’s journey—something that should happen to us. But when we attempt to make something happen it inevitably falls flat. Maybe we read our Bible for fifteen minutes a day, pray for fifteen, start going to church more or even for the first time, disconsolately trudging down the path mapped out by spiritual self-help consultants. These actions can seem like we’re priming the pump or cutting down on the odds that lightning will strike and we’ll have a spiritual experience. This is not the dark night of the soul, it’s more like twilight for spiritual zombies. If that sounds harsh it’s because there is no formula for writing great poetry any more than there is a formula for walking, open and unafraid, in faith.

Great poetry, I am convinced, is the result of being rooted in this world while seeing beyond it. It takes our full attention, both as writers and as readers. It is often difficult, because speaking life through our words is hard, just as folding our words into our waking lives is hard. All this can be said of faith, no doubt.

For poets, and for the rest of us, what really matters in life and in poetry begins with questions. For the poet, as for the traveler in faith, there is an active waiting, not straining, that is as much about hope as it is about faith. As the epigram from Rilke says, “Live the questions now,” and we may “one distant day live right into the answer.”

Photo: Stefan Kunze, Unsplash.com

The Worlds We Make

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We can have words without a world but no world without words or other symbols. — Nelson Goodman, Ways of Worldmaking

The first line of the Dhammapada, a collection of the Buddha’s sayings, is, “All that we are is the result of what we have thought.” With that, the Buddha signals that thought precedes action and mind shapes character. This is in common with the words of another sage: “As a man thinketh, so is he (Proverbs 23:7),” a maxim which suggests in its context to beware of the stingy who insincerely invite one to share a meal. They are not to be trusted, for the hidden thought will be exposed in the interplay between the two.

So, I am here quoting those who once lived upon this earth, people we know only through their words. The gulf that lies between the utterance of those words in time and where we stand today is not just about the millennia that have passed between us, but about the worlds those words brought into being and the worlds that arise when we read them today. Are they the same worlds?

We create worlds through our words, says Nelson Goodman, in Ways of Worldmaking. In a few pages of closely reasoned arguments, Goodman shows that the frames of reference we construct to describe what we experience are systems of description; they are not that which is being described. We never truly apprehend the object of our experience, only the description we construct to talk about it.

An example: If we say, “The sun always moves,” and “The sun never moves,” both statements are equally true and equally at odds with one another. Goodman asks if these statements describe different worlds— whether there are “as many different worlds as there are such mutually exclusive truths?” No, rather we make accommodation by saying that under this frame of reference this statement is true and with another frame of reference the other statement is true. “Our universe, so to speak,” says Goodman, “consists of these ways rather than of a world or of worlds.”

I find this both invigorating and disconcerting. In a way, Goodman is playing games—language games—to make a point: there is no irrefutable foundation for all truth, only descriptions that are more or less right for their context. The fact that we construct these descriptions out of what we find in anthropology, physics, psychology, literature, philosophy, theology, and other disciplines, means that we are constantly remaking our worlds of thought. “Worldmaking as we know it,” says Goodman, “always starts from worlds already on hand; the making is a remaking.”

***

Here are some materials at hand that we can make a story out of, a description of something and someone that matters a great deal to us.

Jesus is crucified about 33 CE and the first gospel, generally thought to be Mark’s gospel, is written about 70 CE. That is a gap of about 40 years—a whole generation—without any written source of Jesus’ life. The people who gathered each week in small groups to remember the Lord were those who had had first-hand knowledge of Jesus. The boy who gave over the loaves and fishes that Jesus fed five thousand people with would have been a man with children and grandchildren of his own. Lazarus, raised from the tomb and given a second life, would have passed on by this time. The disciples, men with families when Jesus chose them, would have grown old and scattered, some to Rome, others staying in Jerusalem, Thomas (as legend has it) making his way to India to establish a Christian community, and Philip probably down in Ethiopia. All of these people lived and died on the stories that were told and retold about Jesus, as they met together in upper rooms, sometimes in a wealthy person’s home, sometimes on the run, often over a meal with song and celebration. They were people, quite literally, of the word, the Word that came and lived amongst them.

Think of the stories they told, the anecdotes tenderly passed down through the family chain like pearls of great value. From the sayings of Jesus to the signs he performed to the parables he told, these narratives sustained these groups through their days and eventually formed the web of Mark’s gospel.

In his breathless and rustic style, the author of Mark’s gospel creates a narrative—a world!—that Matthew and Luke break down to use in the remaking of their individual worlds. Later, around 90-100 CE, comes John’s gospel, a parallel universe to the previous gospels, converging at points, but drawing its own course through its orbit. It closes with these tantalizing words:

“But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”

These gospels are the Gospel, the good news about Jesus who came into the world and “the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him (John 1: 10).”

***

We read these words today, millennia away from their creation, in the awareness that the bone and sinew, words and meaning of their author and the person of which he wrote come down to language and symbols, marks on paper or pixels on a screen. Despite the billions of words devoted to this Jesus, the stories that could be told have no end because these words, having been written, continue to produce new stories in the strength that “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it (John 1:5).”

Instead, we may become accustomed to these stories to the extent that we no longer take in their meaning. Our eyes pass over the letters, we register the shape of the words as we would the silhouette of objects whose outlines against the light are familiar only because of the form of their darkness.

“This world, indeed,” notes Goodman, “is the one most often taken as real; for reality in a world, like realism in a picture, is largely a matter of habit.”

“Language can create faith but can’t sustain it,” says Christian Wiman in Ambition and Survival. I’m not so sure. When I read of the Buddha holding up a flower before his gathered disciples and one of them—only one—smiles, and Buddha says the equivalent of “He gets it!,” something in me thrills to that imagined scene. When Jesus begins with “The kingdom of heaven is like . . .,” it’s “Once upon a time” all over again. We’re hardwired for stories: good, bad, mediocre, we pick them up, and turn them over and over in our hands until we find the seam that opens them. From these we fashion a world that we can live in.

“To have faith in a religion, any religion,” continues Wiman, “is to accept at some primary level that its particular language of words and symbols says something true about reality.” That I can agree with.

He goes on: “This doesn’t mean that the words and symbols are reality (that’s fundamentalism), nor that you will ever master those words and symbols well enough to regard reality as some fixed thing. What it does mean, though, . . . is that the only way to deepen your knowledge and experience of ultimate divinity is to deepen your knowledge of the all-too-temporal symbols and language of a particular religion.”

Separated as we are by thousands of years and the innumerable worlds of language and imagination between us and Jesus, these slender figures on our pages are the portals between our worlds. The path to the divine remains, astonishingly, through the darkness and light that is our world.

Photo: Lydia Shi, Unsplash.com

Capacious Inclusion

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I’ve got a question for the child in you before it leaves

Are you tough enough to be kind?

Do you know your heart has it’s own mind?

Darkness gathers around the light

Hold on, hold on — U2, 13 (There is a Light)

I glanced through the window of the classroom door and took a deep breath. I was just out of graduate school and this was my first day of teaching. Inside were 60 students tightly crammed into a room that comfortably held 40. The course was Jesus and the Gospels, standard religious education fare at Adventist colleges, but still my favorite of all the classes I have taught in the intervening 37 years.

I did not have a detailed lesson plan for the day beyond talking about the requirements of the course. I hoped that we could open up together about who Jesus was for us and what the Gospels meant to us. So I drew an inverted pyramid on the board with the widest side above and the narrowest point below.

“What is the most general category you could identify with as a person?,” I asked. “Where would you begin?”

If we teach as we were taught, then I was channeling teachers who had radically challenged my worldview since middle school. They assumed a wideness to the intellectual horizon before us that lifted my imagination and tilted my perspective. While I could not equal their breadth of knowledge I could at least match their enthusiasm for the subject.

And so I asked again, sensing how difficult it would be for someone to break that first-day silence. “Who are we, really?” I was realizing that posing good questions is harder than it seems. “This is not a trick question.”

At last one person raised his hand. “We are humans?” It was more a question than a statement, but it would do. It seemed a good place to start a religion class, with that which unites us in the most general and inclusive way possible. From there we stair-stepped our way down, from general to particular, from inclusive to exclusive, shifting categories up and down the column as we fine-tuned our choices.

We were playing out in practice the theory that S. I. Hayakawa, former semanticist and English professor at San Francisco State University—and later a U.S. senator from California—had proposed for understanding how words and labels affect our thinking and speaking. In public speaking, suggested Hayakawa, the specific is preferred to the general. His “ladder of abstraction” had, as its lowest rung, the general (Human) and its highest rung the particular (Annie). Abstractions can confuse and bore our audiences, he said, details focus their attention and imaginations.

True enough in a certain context, but turning the ladder upside down gave us a whole new perspective. As the students worked it out, we are humans first, male and female second, and from there the discussion flared out with many possibilities. Ethnicity next? Language? Citizenship?

At this point I suggested a swerve: what about religion? Where does that fit in? After some sifting and defining and a lot of back and forth, the class arrived at a line of descent that ran in Western history from the apostolic community to the Catholic Church through the Protestant Reformation, and then to the fracturing into denominational and sectarian fragments, of which Adventism, whose origin in 19th-century American millenarianism, was one. Adventism, then, was inserted at the bottom, the sharpest point, the narrowest passage to anything that might follow.

S. I. Hayakawa and his “ladder of abstraction” helps us understand the gradations of meaning between abstract and specific terms as part of clear communication. I was interested in how our moral and theological vision would change if we turned the ladder of abstraction upside down, began with the most inclusive category, and thought of ourselves first as members of the human race.

This may seem obvious to many, especially those who regard the human race to have evolved from simple life forms, a la Darwinism and evolutionary theory. But growing up in a religious community with a distinctive form of creationism, we were taught that humans were created in the image of God, fell into sin through a tragic error, and are now living with the consequences of that original willful misstep. It takes an act of God, the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, to restore humanity to the crowning act of creation, and the shortest route to that goal is to belong to a religious tradition with clear and certain beliefs that are founded on Scriptural and theological truth. Believing the right ideas and behaving according to the rules is how one proceeds through life. Thus, it is a matter of supreme importance, one that has eternal consequences, to belong to the right religious body. If you grow up in this way you identify as an Adventist first and everything else after that.

Or an orthodox Jew or a deeply observant Muslim or, for that matter, a political ideologue committed to the Party above all. What all these religious and political bodies offer is a framework within which our personal identities can be developed—nurtured even—and ultimately compressed into similar forms. There is stability, consistency, a reliable level of expectation, and a sense of belonging to a movement that can put things right. But resentment and envy can grow where contractual obligations stand in the place of the risk of faith.

Our identity is built up over a lifetime, but begins with an irritant like a grain of sand: Who am I? What am I to do? Whether it becomes a pearl or a festering sore is largely the result of a myriad of decisions, some imposed upon us as children and others carved out of our own experience as we gauge the distance from where we are to the sunlit clearing up ahead where we think we want to be.

Of the many quotes from Ellen White, one of the founders of the Adventist church, that my generation took in as youth, the one that moved me the most and has remained a touchstone for me as a teacher is, “It is the work of true education to develop this power, to train the youth to be thinkers, and not mere reflectors of other men’s thoughts,” from the book, Education.

Adopted as a general principle of education this idea has a quietly revolutionary power to it. It suggests first, that thinking is not incidental, but is the goal of true education; that no matter what the content of the course, the primary outcome should be the training of the mind for independent thinking. Second, that thoughtful reflection within a religious context is not an adjunct to religious rules and practices but is the grammar and language of one’s spiritual expression. And finally, that for all the knowledge one might gain from others, there is no substitute for personal experience.

At no other time in history have we had the capacity to know so much about other religions, cultures, mindsets, and philosophies of life. Yet, on all sides we see not openness and capaciousness, but fearfulness and divisiveness and retreat. This is not the first time in history for such a reaction, and it most certainly will not be the last, but neither is it the worst expression of this debilitating exclusivity. But we must take responsibility for our own ignorance and fear. A good start is to think of ourselves as belonging to the human family.

I remember an afternoon spent in a open-air market in Bali, when two young Balinese men and I began a conversation near a memorial to the bombing in 2002 which took the lives of over 200 people from 22 nations and injured hundreds more. A granite slab with the names of the victims now stands where the pub that was the initial target was incinerated in the blast. The two had been teenagers when the bombing occurred and knew some of the Balinese victims. They taught me some Indonesian words and I taught them some English. We talked about Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity. They talked about their families; I talked about mine. They spoke of their hopes for a university education and I shared my love of teaching with them. Nothing earthshaking, no headlines, but simply three people overcoming numerous barriers to communication for the joy of understanding another person, another culture.

Looking back over a lifetime of teaching and learning, my willingness to be open to different ideas and experiences has varied in proportion to my confidence that I am always on the road to Emmaus, and whoever my companion of the moment may be there is, as Eliot wrote, ”a third who walks always beside” us.

Having begun my teaching life in an Adventist college, with every intention of staying there, I smile to find myself through circumstance, temperament, and opportunity, one semester from completing that trajectory in a Catholic women’s college serving students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

“What you must realize, what you must even come to praise, is the fact that there is no right way that is going to become apparent to you once and for all. . . Wisdom is accepting the truth of this. Courage is persisting with life in spite of it. And faith is finding yourself, in the deepest part of your soul, in the very heart of who you are, moved to praise it.” — Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss.

Photo: Ben White, Unsplash.com

Attention Deficit

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Men have no eyes but for those aspects of things which they have already been taught to discern. — William James, Psychology

In April 1931, George Orwell wrote a short piece entitled “The Spike” for a magazine called Adelphi. In it he describes time he spent as a tramp. He became a tramp, a homeless person, partly of necessity and partly because he wished to understand the particular forms of suffering that tramps go through. One virulent irritation was boredom. Orwell came to think that boredom was the worst of a tramp’s burdens, worse than hunger and worse than the feeling of social disgrace. “It is a silly piece of cruelty to confine an ignorant man all day with nothing to do; it is like chaining a dog in a barrel,” he said. “Only an educated man, who has consolations within himself, can endure confinement. Tramps, unlettered types as nearly all of them are, face their poverty with blank, resourceless minds.”

Today, Orwell would be accused of elitism and would be made to tweet an apology. But Orwell was nothing if not honest and having lived the life on the street could speak with authority. One need only pass through any metropolitan area to see the homeless on benches, median strips, near metro stations or on corners, many of them slumped against a wall, sleeping huddled against the cold or in a quiet corner of a coffee shop. Their days unwind with agonizing slowness, each minute trudging after the next. In this essay, Orwell recounts how he was saved from the ten hours of daylight boredom in the spike (homeless shelter) by the blessed reprieve of working in the kitchen. Even so, one suspects that with his powers of observation and his interests in literature, politics, and history, Orwell would not likely suffocate in boredom.

There are two elements at work here: memory and attention. Memory, because we are hardly human without it, and attention because it is necessary to learning of any sort. William James devotes a chapter of his seminal work, Psychology, to attention, describing it of two kinds. There is the effortless, involuntary, and passive kind, and there is the active and voluntary kind. Involuntary attention occurs when we follow a train of thought that is interesting as a means to an end or when the mere association with the thought burnishes us with a sense of satisfaction.

Active, voluntary attention is that which we make a determined effort to accomplish by bending our minds to it. James remarks that it is a feeling which everyone knows, but which is indescribable. We sense it when we try to discriminate between sensory experiences or attend to one voice near us against a babble of other voices. It is an effort whose accomplishment slips through our fingers like water. James says, “There is no such thing as voluntary attention sustained for more than a few seconds at a time (his emphasis).” He describes a process that sounds like the building, layer upon layer, of a pearl around a grain of sand. The mind, finding something interesting, comes back to it, turns it over and over until the novelty wears off, then drifts away, only to return for the feeling of both familiarity and the stimulation of finding something new. And here is the sentence that lit up for me like a Jumbotron: “No one can possibly attend continuously to an object that does not change.”

We pay attention to what matters to us, says James, in a statement that seems so self-evident as to be trivial. That is, until you realize what it implies: that so much of what we overlook, do not see—not to say, ignore—is a result of us just not caring enough.

Actually, that’s not quite true: to say that we don’t care is to suggest that we somehow rank the sensations and ideas coming to us on a scale from exciting to dull, and we jettison everything that doesn’t bend the needle of our interest. But James’ research led him to what one of his sources called preperception, ”the imagining of an experience before it occurs.” In other words, there must be a memory, an image, an association already in us in order for something to become the object of our willed attention. While shiny and colorful objects may momentarily grab our attention, such eye candy cannot hold us for long.

The kind of intellectual attention needed for concentrated study or contemplation seems to be a combination of external sensation and internal preparation which, comments James, “always partly consists of the creation of an imaginary duplicate of the object in the mind.” To put it another way, when we give our attention to an object of thought we hold an image of it in our mind going forward. Not only that, but the image remains as a hook to snag passing thoughts, perceptions, even emotions, so that we can take up ideas where we left them in memory because we have something almost tangible to return to.

When we form such an image and it fills our attention we cannot unnotice it. James again: “But who that has once noticed the identity can fail to have it arrest his attention again? . . . Every bonnet in the street is momentarily taken by the lover to enshroud the head of his idol. The image in the mind is the attention; the preperception is half of the perception of the looked-for thing.”

We pay attention to what we have already been taught to discern. That is both good news and bad news. The good news is that what we’ve been taught has some chance, however slight, of catching our attention again. The bad news is: What would it take to have us care enough about what we don’t know to pay attention long enough to form an image in our minds? In the end, this is an epistemological question, a question of how we know, what can be known, and what we do with what we know. Inevitably, it is a question of learning—and teaching.

“I see everything,” says Robert Downey, Jr., playing Sherlock. “That is my curse.” But for most of us our curse is not seeing enough of what we are paying attention to, narrow though that slice of life may be.

Attention must be paid! To pay attention reveals the cost of focusing with intention on something. When we focus on something, says Winifred Gallagher in Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, we select some things and leave the rest as a blur. What we select literally becomes our reality, so that in a very real sense I have my reality and you have yours. The fact that much of our realities overlap means that we can communicate with each other while experiencing reality from singular perspectives. But I digress . . .

We select that which stands out—a red cardinal flitting through the trees, a hissing snake—whatever is new or different in our environment. Gallagher calls this “bottom-up attention,” the kind which keeps us in touch with what is going on in the world. It’s necessary, sometimes crucial, for our survival, but it also includes a host of unnecessary distractions. Think of dogs and squirrels and you get an idea of what life would be like if this passive form of attention was all we had.

The other form of attention is the “top-down” intentional and focused variety in which we concentrate on what we want. This active attention requires hard work and energy, but despite our intense focus it will likely quickly fade. That’s the cost we pay for attention which can give us direction and purpose—a meaningful life rather than a jumble of confusing stimuli.

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Given all this—given the fact that we have what Buddhists call ‘monkey mind’ that flits from one thing to another like a monkey swinging through the trees—how do we focus our attention upon God? Every religious tradition has sought ways to quiet the mind long enough to hear the still, small voice within the hurricanes and tremors of daily life.

There are techniques for quieting oneself, methods of breathing, ways and means for being truly present that people have used for thousands of years in this pursuit of God. All of these have their place; my purpose here is neither to endorse them nor diminish them. What I’m trying to grasp is how I might have the mind of Christ or pray without ceasing or meditate on the Lord both night and day. All of these states of being assume that we can still brush our teeth, put on our socks, drive our cars, and carry on conversations. Whatever it means to focus one’s attention on God it cannot necessarily mean that we isolate ourselves. “Christ comes alive in the communion between people,” writes Christian Wiman in My Bright Abyss. “What this means is that even if you are socially shy and generally inarticulate about spiritual matters—and I say this as someone who finds casual social interactions often quite difficult and my own feelings about faith intractably mute—you must not swerve from the engagements God offers you.”

These may come in the form of people who do not look like God. We might not even see them because they are not usually within the scope of our attention. On the other hand, we may constantly be with people who seem wholly self-sufficient, confident, amiable enough—people much like ourselves—people for whom God is an article of belief rather than a mystery of faith. Nevertheless, those whom we meet are, in every case, an offer of communion from Christ.

God approaches us in the person of others: “the least of these,” the one-percenters, the strangers within our gates. Our attention, divided though it may be, honors God in this way.

Photo: Ehimetalor Unuabona, Unsplash.com

Outrage and Longing

Courage

“The desire to surpass our limits is as essential to the structure of the human as the recognition that we cannot.” — Susan Neiman, Evil in Modern Thought

To live with integrity these days is to live inside the conflict between outrage and longing. But, if we become practiced in the art of paradoxical living we will see that dancing on the high wire between these two towers may be our best chance for grace-filled living.

“If we were God,” says philosopher Susan Neiman, “we could change moral principles into sovereign law. Were God Himself to enact such a law, moral principles would lose all connection with freedom.”

And there’s the rub. Being made ‘a little lower than the angels,’ in
the quaint phrasing of the King James Bible, means we are beings who desire wholeness; the state of ‘being made’ means that we will never experience that. We live within the limitations—and the grandeur—of moral freedom in which the desire for the reign of goodness sometimes overrides the understanding that goodness flourishes only where it is wanted, gifted, and received. As Neiman points out, magically changing moral principles into law, even if done by God, would jinx the whole thing because freedom means there is a genuine choice to be made. Making those choices every day is the burden of freedom and the brightness of being human in the image of God. Moral freedom is a form of creativity, available to all of us.

Rollo May, one of the pioneers of existential psychotherapy, quotes Rainier Rilke on withdrawing from psychotherapy: “If my devils are to leave me, I am afraid my angels will take flight as well.”

Rilke knew that creativity for the artist surges up from the depths, a necessary fire in the mind and heart. Rollo May put creativity and evil in the same room. Creativity, he mused, comes from the rage within us against death and destruction.

If we are made in the image of God and that image in us is the power to create, then how could evil threaten creativity? God, as creator, never creates for destruction because all God’s work is created for life. When we create—and we do—our sense of direction is not inerrant. We create in all directions, some of them winding off to evil and all of them subject to losing their way.

But creative power, moral or artistic, is no guarantee against a certain perversity. Put up a sign for “Wet Paint” and see how long it takes for fingerprints to appear. What would happen, we think, if we did this, this thing we’ve been warned never to do? Let’s try it—just to see what would happen. If it’s awful we’ll know and we’ll never do it again. And off we go. And we find that this evil, now loosed in the world, arrives without a warning label, with no expiration date, and without operating instructions. The terrible truth about creative work is that it can be turned to destruction and that there are always some who will do that just for the hell of it.

One of the ways our outrage can lead our moral creativity astray is to imagine that God resents our natural powers and is suspicious of our freedom. Thomas Merton calls this Promethean theology and comments in The New Man that “This means that man must either save his soul by a Promethean tour de force, without God’s help, or else that man must turn his freedom inside out, stew up all his natural gifts into a beautiful guilt-complex, and crawl towards God on his stomach to offer Him the results in propitiation.” But this is to deeply misjudge God’s love and the grace that is ours.

We are not worms. Our moral and spiritual freedom before God raises us to our feet, lifts our sights, and erases the false image of God we conjure up. “Grace,” says Merton, “is given us for the precise purpose of enabling us to discover and actualize our deepest and truest self.”

“The fantasy of replacing God is the test by which morality itself is decided,” says Neiman. To imagine, with longing, a better world is the flip side of outrage at the present one. It’s the outrage that compels us to imagine a newer world; it’s the longing that endures when we admit that our best efforts will probably not outlast us. But the visioning of such a world, even with all our limitations out at the edges of our sightlines, gives us the energy of hope.

Neiman opens the windows and runs up the shades: “Integrity requires affirming the dissonance and conflict at the heart of experience,” she writes. “It means recognizing that we are never, metaphysically, at home in the world. This affirmation requires us to live with the mixture of longing and outrage that few will want to bear.”

Reaching beyond our expectations is part of our human destiny; falling short is our fate. We are threading our way between hubris and humiliation. There is another way, but it’s much more difficult. This is where faith rides the rails to keep us safe. We need the reach to go beyond, but patience, humility, and good humor helps in knowing that we can do so without trying to usurp God or having to crawl before Him.

Another take on this is from Reinhold Niebuhr’s Beyond Tragedy when he writes, “The church is that place in human society where men are disturbed by the word of the eternal God, which stands as a judgment upon human aspirations. But it is also the place where the word of mercy, reconciliation and consolation is heard: ‘Thou dost well that it was in thine heart.’ Here human incompleteness is transcended though not abolished. Here human sin is overcome by the divine mercy, though man remains a sinner.”

Outrage and longing is not about winners and losers, it’s about “Those who endure to the end . . .” We’re not required to win; we’re invited to travel with “that great cloud” of large-souled ones who have borne their witness before us in all times and all places. If hope means anything and if love lives up to its reputation a time will come when justice and mercy will be the way in the great day of the Lord.

It makes no sense to set a date and expect the arc of justice to touch down in that precise moment. We don’t set the clocks or even wind them up. They were running before we got here and will continue after we’re dead. But it does matter to regard our time and how we spend the little of it that we have.

Our outrage alone will not save this sorry, stubborn, strange, and beautiful world; according to our primal myth that has been done in hope already. So there’s no need for us to presume that we are the hinge of history the universe didn’t know it was looking for. Nor will longing alone be enough. We need them both: the push of outrage to change our world, the pull of longing to heal our restless souls.

Yet, we each have a part to play—perhaps several parts. That much is clear. How we play it is the question, and for that we need patience for ourselves and each other.

If we have a conscience and compassion our outrage can propel us beyond our reticence. If we also live with longing our limits will be no barrier to God’s healing and sustaining grace.

Photo: Unsplash.com

Violence Like a Garment

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For I was envious of the arrogant;

I saw the prosperity of the wicked.

For they have no pain;

their bodies are sound and sleek.

They are not in trouble as others are;

they are not plagued like other people.

Therefore pride is their necklace;

violence covers them like a garment.

Their eyes swell out with fatness;

their hearts overflow with follies.

They scoff and speak with malice;

loftily they threaten oppression.

They set their mouths against heaven,

and their tongues range over the earth.

Therefore the people turn and praise them,

and find no fault in them. (Ps. 73: 3-10)

We might imagine the author of this psalm watching, aghast, as these corpulent criminals step out of their limos to the gasps and cheers of the masses. Never did he think that people who so blatantly exploited the poor, flouted the laws, lied with such facility and constancy, and exhibited the casual cruelty of those who had long since buried their consciences, could continue to prosper with impunity. He is revulsed, he finds them appalling, he cannot stand the sight of them. Seething, he realizes with horror that he is consumed with envy.

What do these psalms of imprecation mean for us? To read them is to be both puzzled and angered. Angered at the people we see who seem to fit this description down to the molecular level. We are puzzled by these psalms, too. At times they read white hot with rage. The writer is taking it personally. The arrogance of these people is enough to make one choke on his own bile. If pride really does go before a fall, our writer wants to be there to witness it. How is this edifying? Should we take this as license to “go and do likewise?”

By their very inclusion in the Bible these psalms become a lens through which we examine our own society. Any resemblance to persons currently alive and abusing their power cannot be a coincidence, for this type of arrogance runs through human experience as a constant. We are accustomed to applying what we read in the Bible to what we experience, but we are not accustomed to expressing our feelings toward those we encounter with such intensity.

The Psalmist has no problem excoriating his enemies; they are God’s enemies too, as far as he’s concerned.

Are these psalms here for our comfort? If they are directed at the wicked should we count ourselves in that number? The Psalmist certainly doesn’t. He counts himself, sins and all, on the side of God, and that is precisely why he is outraged that God doesn’t do something about the oppressors who destroy God’s people and jeer at God’s sovereignty.

If the Scripture is there for our instruction and edification, to what end does it edify us? What is the prophetic role of the Scripture for us in this time and these circumstances? If the Word continues to strike to the heart of contemporary situations, shouldn’t we apply it?

In Biblical interpretation as in architecture, form follows function. This psalm is a prayer addressed to God which we overhear. In fact, it is a confessional prayer, one that by its very nature and form is meant to inspire all who read it to pour out their deepest feelings and thoughts to God. It is startling in its clarity in portraying the palette of shifting emotions and motives that color its expression. It is psalms like this one that were the seeds of Augustine’s Confessions, the greatest non-biblical written example we have of a heart transparent to God.

“All in vain I have kept my heart clean

and washed my hands in innocence.

For all day long I have been plagued,

and am punished every morning (vss. 13-14).”

Having confessed how futile his fidelity seems, the writer immediately adds,

“If I had said, ‘I will talk on in this way,’

I would have been untrue to the circle of your children.”

But it isn’t until the writer slips into the “sanctuary of God” that he begins to understand, for trying to sort this out is wearisome and endless and futile. Gazing at the rich and corrupt can be mesmerizing; in the house of God, having snapped the link, he comes to realize how tenuous the position of the wicked really is and how terror-stricken their lives are behind their facades of power and wealth.

“They are like a dream when one awakes;” he recalls, “on awaking you despise their phantoms.” He looks on his envy with regret:

“When my soul was embittered,

when I was pricked in heart,

I was stupid and ignorant;

I was like a brute beast toward you (vss. 21-22).”

Then he gathers himself and sees where he is: continually with God who holds his right hand. God guides him, counsels him, and receives him with honor. For someone who has writhed in humiliation and distress under the heel of the cruel, he feels a profound sense of gratitude and self-respect.

“Whom have I in heaven but you?

And there is nothing on earth that I desire

other than you. (v. 25).”

The psalm includes a warning that those far from God will perish. “But for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord God my refuge, to tell of all your works (v. 28).” The prayer and the story end on a high note: the writer revels in the closeness with God.

Yet, the most telling verses come at the beginning:

“Truly God is good to the upright.

to those pure in heart.

But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled;

my steps had nearly slipped (vss.1-2).”

The writer contrasts the blessedness of the pure in heart with his own situation, one who had “almost stumbled” and “nearly slipped.” He came close, by his own reckoning, to going the way of the arrogant and the wicked, drawn in by envy and bitterness and a sense that being good and doing good counted for nothing in the world and, in fact, were liabilities. That is, until he came to his senses by entering into the presence of the Lord. In worship, his spiritual gyroscope righted itself and he saw himself as he was.

“My flesh and my heart may fail,

but God is the strength of my

heart and my portion forever (v. 26).”

It is also striking that while he recognizes it is God who strengthens him he does not grovel. God is a trusted counselor, not one who delights in humiliating his friends before he rescues them. This writer is alive to his own spiritual and psychological states, acutely sensitive to both his frailties and his loyalties. There are no excuses made, no dissembling or blaming, nothing that would suggest denial of his situation nor pride for waking up to it. He is simply a man who stands alone under the stars and lifts up his heart to God without fear or anger.

In this moment he reflects—as much as possible for a finite being—the image in which he was created.

Surely we are called to speak out in the face of corrosive deceit and cruelty. Lest we fall into the trap of self-righteous fury in doing so, this psalm reveals the interior work of humility through which we confront the powers of our present age with honesty and courage.

Photo: Elti Meshau, Unsplash.com

A (Very) Brief History of Silence

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Emma González, one of the last of the student speakers at the March for Life in Washington, D.C., called out all 17 names of the students murdered in the Parkland shooting, and then fell silent. As she gazed out over the enormous throng on the Mall, the minutes ticked slowly by. At first, the crowd thought she had been overcome with emotion, but although tears trickled down her cheeks, she did not waver. Three minutes went by and some in the crowd raised a cheer to fill the silence. Four minutes, and by now we understood that she had a purpose in mind. Many in the crowd around me bowed their heads and wept. Finally, she spoke again: “Since the time that I came out here, it has been 6 minutes and 20 seconds, the shooter has ceased shooting and will soon abandon his rifle and blend in with the students so he can walk free for an hour before arrest.”

Silence can be a presence and a protest. Sometimes it’s a cold absence. But it is never nothing. It can make a difference to one’s spirit to know these silences.

In the Bible there is the silence of God’s darkness in the Psalms, the main exhibit being Psalm 88; there is the silence of fidelity in Jesus’ response to his captors; the silence of endurance of God toward Jesus’ agony on the cross; and the silence of awe and understanding in Revelation 8 when heaven itself falls silent for half an hour.

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The Silence of God’s Darkness

N. T. Wright, in his book, Evil and the Justice of God, has called Psalm 88 “the darkest and most hopeless of any prayer in Scripture.” The psalm is not a theological treatise, it’s not interested in speculation. It’s a brutal eyewitness account of what it’s like to be a partner to a God who does not answer when the situation is dire.

Walter Brueggemann calls Psalm 88 one of the “Psalms of disorientation” in The Message of the Psalms. These Psalms speak of terror, the sense of forsakenness, the inexplicable silence of God. Brueggemann says, “The truth of this psalm is that Israel lives in a world where there is no answer.”

In verses 6-9, the Psalmist calls out in sorrow and anger. Not only has he descended to the Pit, but it’s Yahweh who put him there. “You have made me a thing of horror.” God doesn’t come off well here. “Do you work wonders for the dead?” cries the Psalmist. “Are your wonders known in the darkness?” Of course not.

But the silence of God does not silence the speaker. There is no atheism here or rejection of God. The speaker redoubles his efforts to break through the silence and to force God to act. As Brueggeman says, “Yahweh must be addressed, even if Yahweh never answers.”

The Psalm closes in desperation: “Your wrath has swept over me, your dread assaults destroy me.” You’d think some of this would rouse Yahweh to respond or even just to acknowledge the situation. But no. The Psalm ends as it began—in darkness and silence, but this time a darkness that is brought on by Yahweh in contrast to the natural darkness of the night.

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The Silence of Fidelity

Jesus’ silence before those who mock him at his trial is the silence of fidelity, of staying true to his vision of God rather than escaping to fight another day. Even in captivity, Jesus regards his tormentors with assurance and humility. He will neither elaborate upon nor dumb down that which he has already revealed about the character of God and his Kingdom in a multitude of ways over many encounters.

“When violent resistance to evil is renounced,” says Jack Miles in his book, Christ, “there is no guarantee that dignity or decorum will be retained.” When the righteous are mocked in the Psalms they complain, expecting the Lord to smash the wicked in the mouth. But here God is laughed at in the person of Jesus. Miles continues: “If God has not spared himself ridicule, his people cannot expect that he will spare them. The psalmbook has to be read in a new way. The servant, as he has reminded them, is not greater than the master.”

In his brief but pointed exchanges with Annas and Caiaphas, the high priests at his trial, Jesus refuses to engage them, while pointing out that he has taught openly in their synagogues and the Temple. “Why ask me?” he says. “Ask my hearers about my teaching.” And then calmly: “They know what I said.”

“My kingdom is not of this world,” Jesus says before Pilate. “So, then, you are a king.” Jesus replies, ‘It is you who say that I am a king.’ Miles comments that “His confrontation with Pilate marks the birth of the Western tradition of nonviolent resistance.”

In his silence toward his captors Jesus fights for the greater cause and God’s longer game. He may not have understood all the moves in this game, but he trusted that God had the upper hand in this cosmic battle. That is why Jesus could commend his spirit to God, even when he felt forsaken by God in his agony on the cross.

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The Silence of Endurance

God’s silence toward Jesus on the cross is a silence of endurance. ‘My God, why have you forsaken me?’ Jesus cries, the prayer that God does not answer.

Jesus’ agony on the cross is mirrored by God’s agony of silence. In the Christian mythos this is the culminating moment in cosmic history and God will not intervene. This is not about God requiring His pound of flesh in some legalistic payback scheme; it’s about revealing the lengths to which God—and God in Christ— is willing to go to show that love wins in the end over hatred.

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The Silence of Awe and Understanding

In the clangor and violence of the Book of Revelation there comes a breathtaking moment: “When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour,” Revelation 8:1 recounts. “On the whole,” writes Sigve Tonstad in God of Sense and Traditions of Non-Sense, “Revelation depicts heaven as a noisy place. But silence is itself a distinctive category of response, the most spontaneous and intuitive form of reacting to the unexpected and the most trustworthy measure of the magnitude of the surprise.”

The breaking of the seventh seal rips a sharp intake of breath in heaven. There are no words. It is the sigh of understanding that all religions and faiths and peoples have longed for throughout the ages.

“After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands (Rev. 7:9).” It is the culmination, at this stage, of what can be experienced of God by humans.

But this is also just the beginning of what the apostle Paul looked for, the revelation of which is to “know as we are known.” For those caught up in God, entheos,the glass, so dark before, grows brighter moment by moment.

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In the Tao Te Ching, the book of Taoism, emptiness has a place. “We shape clay into a pot, but it is the emptiness inside that holds whatever we want. We hammer wood for a house, but it is the inner space that makes it livable. We work with being, but non-being is what we use.”

Emptiness, silence — these elements in Taoism are regarded not as negation or lack, but rather a presence to be apprehended through intuition.

The Hebrew metaphysic is quite different. Emptiness and silence are to be resisted; they are an affront to the soul, a setback to the vigorous movement of the body through the obstacles strewn in our way in this life. God, having once spoken, is not allowed to remain silent, not even to take a breather out of sight in an adjacent room from the clamorous clanging of His errant children. The great Hebrew visionaries, the Psalmist among them, take their cues for meaning from the Creator: words bring objects into being and words create reality. Silence is dismissal, not conversation in another musical scale. For this we should be grateful, since it is through words that many of us live and move and have our being. What you cannot construct with your hands you can imagine with your mind and bring into being with your words.

Perhaps if it were not for the righteous fury of the prophets and the Psalmist in the silent darkness of God, we could not bear to hear from those in the Christian tradition who have learned to live in that silence—people such as St. John of the Cross, St. Therese of Avila, Thomas a Kempis, Thomas Merton and C. S. Lewis. Like the Psalmist, they did not shrink from the plain reality that for us God is often silent too and clothed in darkness.

Until we see God face to face, we must take the dark with the light, and find in God’s silence our memory and our future in faith. “Silence is the language of faith,” says Christian Wiman. “Action—be it church or charity, politics or poetry—is the translation . . . It is also true that without these constant translations into action, that original, sustaining silence begins to be less powerful, and then less accessible, and then finally impossible.”

To see and understand in this way in this life is the working out of our faith within the world’s travails. But it is also the anticipation of a much deeper understanding of God through the eucatastrophe, the ‘good down stroke or breaking in,’ of God that will reveal the knower to the known.

Photo: Nicola Fioravanti, Unsplash.com

Suffer the Children

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In these years of our discontent there is no shortage of outrage. If you are a Trump supporter, these are your salad days in which the outrages of the Obama administration are finally receiving their comeuppance. If you are not a Trump supporter, but now find your moral sensibilities being dragged behind a pickup with three rifle racks across a landscape of cacti, rocks, and boiling sand, then there is a certain relief in shouting out loud. It is cathartic. I am in the latter group. You are free to leave at this point; no hard feelings.

I mention that it is catharsis only because so much has already been written and said and analyzed and disseminated about the Trump administration’s policy of tearing children away from their parents at the border. I am writing because thinking out loud helps me understand what is important to me, and more to the point, how I can express a spiritual faith in times like these.

There are a few moral precepts that one should be able to affirm without agonizing over. Slavery, the rape and abuse of women, and the abuse of children are among them. Stating them thus does not exclude other precepts nor should it be considered a knee-jerk reaction without thought and reflection. Rather, these are simply part of one’s moral landscape, familiar markers that commemorate a covenant between God, oneself, and others, markers that remind us of the (now) obvious conditions of being faithful to God, responsible to one’s society, and true to oneself. These are also three reasons for moral action, as I understand it.

The first one is that God asks us to refrain from certain actions and to do other actions. For people of faith, whatever form their god may take, this is often enough reason to act. It is a powerful reason, and for some does not require any further reflection.

Even some who are moved by it still find themselves intrigued by Plato’s question: are actions right because the gods approve of them or do the gods approve of them because they are right? According to some lines of the historical discussion, if we do them because the gods approve of them we may run the risk of blindly following some arbitrary divine commands. What if your gods are tricksters, irresponsible, forgetful, or otherwise not to be trusted? On the other hand, if the gods do them because they are right then while that is a powerful vote of confidence in the moral justification of the actions, it makes the gods look weak. In the first case, the gods have arbitrary and perhaps capricious power; in the second case, not enough power to make them worthy of worship.

Most historical religions have a moral structure and some even have commands for meeting moral and religious expectations. We could chose to think of these commands as arbitrary, but then we would have given up any semblance of trust or even of thoughtful reflection on our relationship with our god. Again, it’s a matter of trust: we do these things not only because our gods ask us to, but also because doing them is an exercise of our moral freedom.

The second reason is to be responsible to one’s community—and again, we may choose to act for a number of reasons. We may wish to avoid jail time if we break the rules; we may desire to be in favor with our neighbors, our friends, and our families (Adam Smith called it the ‘approbation of society’ in his Theory of Moral Sentiments); we may want the rewards that come with good behavior or we may genuinely want to contribute to the well-being of our society. These are all good reasons for doing the right thing, and as many have pointed out, one does not have to be religious to accomplish them. For many people today, ethics is the new religion.

The third reason is to be true to oneself, a piece of advice that can be traced back at least to Aristotle. It’s not hard to see that either or both of the previous reasons could give us a sense of ‘self,’ but some people will immediately get diverted into questions of whether we have a self or not, and if we do, how much of it is the result of genetics plus environment. Since most of us act as if we are selves and treat others as if they are selves too, we can leave the questions to others and try to think about whywe ought to be true to ourselves.

Classical ethical theory invokes Aristotle here (practicing virtue aligns us with our true end or telos , which is to flourish) and Kant (do the right thing because you respect yourself and others and you’d want the same respect for everyone else).

Being true to oneself not only involves respect for oneself and others, but going deeper in and farther back to find the highest regard we can have for the human being.

In an essay on goodness, Francis Bacon (1561-1626) examines the relation between habit and nature. “Goodness I call the habit,” he says, “and goodness of nature the inclination. This, of all virtues and dignities of the mind, is the greatest, being the character of the Deity; and without it man is a busy, mischievous, wretched thing, no better than a kind of vermin.” Bacon believes that we achieve a “habit of goodness” through “right reason,” but that just as there is in some people a natural inclination toward goodness and a willingness to help others, there is in others a “natural malignity” that drives them beyond mere irritation with others to envy, anger, and selfishness.

Such people revel in the calamities of others. They are like flies buzzing around a raw wound, says Bacon, and rather than bind up the wounds of those who are suffering these misanthropi enjoy the misfortunes of others. “Such dispositions are the very errors of human nature; and yet they are the fittest timbers to make great politics of.”

Having been the victim of some palace intrigues in the courts of Elizabeth I and King James I, Bacon knew from first-hand experience how crooked the timbers of politics could be.

The policy of the immigration hardliners in the Trump administration to separate children from their parents has been roundly condemned by congressional Democrats and some Republicans. Immigration-advocacy groups, lawyers, children’s rights organizations, psychologists, educators, and doctors, all have been scathing in their criticisms. The Catholic Church has flatly called out the practice as immoral. Melania Trump has expressed her horror at it and former First Lady Laura Bush, diffident to a fault, has written an op ed in which she called the policy “heartbreaking.” Even Franklin Graham, who refuses to call out Trump on anything, has characterized the practice as “disgraceful.”

And yet here is Jeff Sessions, the Attorney General of the United States, whose shrill pronouncements increasingly sound like the cries of a desperate man, fiercely clinging to his “zero-toleration” position. When Christian authoritarians run out of options for justifying their immoral policies and laws they reach for the fire extinguisher they think will put out the blaze—Romans 13—in which the Apostle Paul advises his readers to obey the laws because the authorities have been put in place by God. Read out of context these verses (Romans 13: 1-7) have been used to justify slavery, war, apartheid, and systemic evils of all kinds. Marilynne Robinson drily comments in her recent collection of essays, What Are We Doing Here?, that “Indeed, unread books may govern the world, not well, since they so often are taken to justify our worst impulses and prejudices. The Holy Bible is a case in point.”

Read in context, these verses are sandwiched between the marks of a true Christian—extending hospitality to strangers, living in harmony with others, and overcoming evil with good—and showing love for one another by loving our neighbors as ourselves. Paul is pretty clear earlier in his letter to the Romans that every person, Christian or not, knows in his or her heart the basics of what is right. The implication is that Christians try to do what is right in every situation out of love for the neighbor and respect for that which God has created. The assumption is that good rulers and good laws have the blessing of God; the knowledge that there are bad rulers and worse laws is so obvious that it does not need mentioning. God’s people are expected to know the difference and to live by their consciences accordingly.

People of faith who look to the Bible to understand the function of principles in shaping our ethics and actions see that caring for children is pretty high up on the hierarchy of values for Jesus. In the gospels of Matthew and Luke Jesus makes the point that people make mistakes in caring for children, but woe to the person who deliberately hurts a child. “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea (Matt, 18: 6).

With his characteristic irony and pointed hyperbole Jesus lays it down that crushing a child’s faith and hope is a deadly sin. These are things that everybody is expected to know and abide by. As Bono says, “Jesus said ‘Suffer the children to come unto me,’ not make the children suffer!” But the fact that Jesus speaks so urgently means that this fundamental precept of human existence, caring for the children, was alarmingly ignored in his time. So it has ever been. And now we’re doing it again with howling cynicism and hypocrisy by appealing to the sanctity of the rule of law and the authority of God and scripture. Except that it’s literally not a law but a prejudice, and Jesus condemns such actions in the strongest possible terms.

In the increasingly fractious and twisted arguments over immigration one thing should be clear: these children have the most to lose right now and in the years to come. And as for us adults, it’s time to throw off our millstones.

Photo: John Moore/Getty Images

Can a Leper Change His Spots?

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“There is so much more meaning in reality than the soul can take in . . . This, then, is an insight we gain in acts of wonder: not to measure meaning in terms of our own mind, but to sense a meaning infinitely greater than ourselves” — Abraham Heschel, God in Search of Man

I’ve been thinking lately about the ten lepers that Jesus healed, and the one that returned to thank him. The story is in Luke 17:11-19, and at first glance it seems oddly out of place in the narrative of that chapter. It is one of those pericopes,the nuggets of stories that make up so much of the weight and heft of the Gospels. They are like pearls on a necklace: cut the string and they scatter in every direction, losing value as they bounce away. But scoop them up and place them next to one another and they gain a certain nobility of place.

Jesus and the disciples are heading south to Jerusalem, coming through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As they enter a village, ten lepers, keeping the prescribed distance, call out to him in desperation, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” Jesus sees them and answers, “Go show yourselves to the priests.” And Luke adds laconically, “And as they went, they were made clean.”

Where do we find ourselves in this story? Who do we identify with and why? One of my professors in graduate school told us that in reading the parables, for example, we should stand in the audience which Jesus was addressing instead of standing next to him, basking in our self-righteousness and our proximity to the Master.

If we stood in the audience hearing Luke’s gospel read out loud in gatherings, we would instantly and instinctively react to the prejudice behind this story. Jews and Samaritans did not get along, hated each other with a religious passion that ran deep, generation after generation, like Irish Catholics and Protestants used to. Luke places the event at the border of Samaria and Galilee, a flashpoint of possible conflict or perhaps a neutral zone where peace could break out. The roving band of lepers, cast out with curses from their villages, find a bond of mutual misery together. Jesus is their last, best hope.

Perhaps his notoriety had proceeded him. Perhaps a sympathetic relative tipped them off that Jesus and his disciples were on the road. In any case, the exchange between Jesus and the lepers is brief, decisive, and effective. They ask, he responds, and they are healed when they move.

Nine of them are Jews: we know this because they immediately set out for Jerusalem to be certified as clean by the priests—a journey of several days. So . . . no time to lose.

The verse doesn’t mention how long it took for them to realize they were healed. But one of them saw the new flesh, pink with life. He spun around, praising God loudly (loudly enough for the other nine to hear?), ran back and threw himself down at Jesus’ feet, thanking him. The one who returned was a Samaritan. Luke points it out in a way that cannot be mistaken, and Jesus rather caustically asks, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”

Jesus’ sense of irony rings through this. Here are his own, his people, off down the road without a backward glance, while a traditional enemy, one not deserving of respect by tribal measures, comes back to praise God and thank God’s servant. It’s enough to make a person erase the lines in the sand.

Luke raises the contrast between those getting on with their lives and those who, unexpectedly, in one glorious moment, see God like a fountain springing up from within the eyes of this man. The nine were no less healed in their haste, but having received much had perceived so little.

New Testament scholars tell us that Luke’s gospel was intended to show how Jesus’ message of the Kingdom of God was open to everyone, strangers and foreigners, as well as Israel. That would include us, readers searching the stories for points of contact, people of an era that desperately claws at the slope down which it is plummeting headlong. If there is a “still, small voice” of God to be heard we will have to remove our earbuds first.

Here we are, over 2,000 years later, picking up a Gideon’s Bible in a Motel 6, flipping it open to a random place and finding this story. What could make us pause, finger tracing the words, long enough to turn from the window and sit on the edge of the bed? Northrop Frye says in Words with Power, that “Experience is of the particular and the unique, and takes place in time; knowledge is of the universal and the assimilated, and contains an element withdrawn from time.” Both are needed: the expected flow is from experience to knowledge. Could it be reversed? Could knowledge of an event long ago on a dusty road create an experience that blooms within us? Isn’t that implicit in every story written down and sent into the world?

Abraham Heschel writes in God in Search of Man, “The soul is endowed with a sense of indebtedness, and wonder, awe, and fear unlock that sense of indebtedness.” Look both ways and hold hands when you cross the street together, say please and thank you, clean up after yourself, be good to each other, and don’t tell lies. These are some of the universals, and as we mature we realize how much we owe to others, the indebtedness that has not only kept us on the way, but has made the way even possible. “Oh, the debt I owe,” sings James Taylor in ”Watchin’ Over Me.” “I said oh the damage done/How’m I gonna pay that debt I owe.”

Jesus looks at the man at his feet: “Get up and go on your way,” he says, “your faith has made you well.” What was freely given was freely received. All of the ten asked, all were healed. One came back to thank the Master. What does this act reveal?

An indebtedness acknowledged to an enemy of one’s people renders that enmity chained. And in turning back, the Samaritan not only offers thanks, but sees in the man before him the God of all people, lepers and Samaritans included. Like the others, this man’s body was restored and his social curse lifted; unlike the rest, his faith opened his eyes to the wonder of a meaning he now carried that was greater than himself.

And we may respond, also, to a story with a life beyond its telling. Abraham Heschel writes, “We cannot survive unless we know what is asked of us. But to whom does man in his priceless and unbridled freedom owe anything? Where does the asking come from? To whom is he accountable?”

Our leprosies may be the means for seeing how great is the height and depth and breadth of the love that sets us free.

“We journey through a narrative,” writes Northrop Frye, “and then we stop and confront what we have read as though it were objective. It is not objective, because it is already a part of ourselves. There is a further stage of response, however, where something like a journeying movement is resumed, a movement that may well take us far beyond the world’s end, and yet is still no journey.”

Photo: Alex Woods, Unsplash.com