The Stories We Become

StoriesView:aurelien-romain-1092002-unsplash

“The stories we live by are made, not found.” — Dan McAdams, The Stories We Live By

Are we a project or a discovery? Do we make ourselves or are we disclosed to ourselves? The question has been for me a touchstone of sorts, something I return to with intensity in liminal moments—those thresholds we cross that change how we see the trajectory of our lives.

As a college student in the 70s I was drawn to existentialism, especially the kind that Albert Camus lived out. Somehow, he brought together elements of Stoicism and Romanticism into a resolute philosophy of life that emphasized commitment to principle along with a sensuous enjoyment of nature. Being brought up by English grandparents in California in the 60s, in a home that was religiously devout and loyal to the church, oddly enough, paralleled that outlook and even converged at some points.

My grandfather was English, from Yorkshire, average in height, stoic in his perseverance without complaint, and quietly consistent in his gentleness and understanding. His commitments to principle were unwavering, but his ability to forgive was just as strong. God was a presence he rarely named, but he lived in gratitude for how he had been led that expressed itself in moments between us, especially as we talked while wrestling boulders out of our volcanic soil under the heat of a California sun.

Camus, on the other hand, refused God, but never managed to turn his face away completely. Since his only perception of God was that portrayed by the Church, he was inevitably disappointed. It seemed to me that he lived as if he wished God were real. He saw life as a beautiful tragedy, something that appealed to my adolescent romanticism.

But above all, he believed that we made ourselves through our decisions and actions. Life required commitment, faith in each other, a willingness to sacrifice for principle. Dr. Rieux, in Camus’ novel, The Plague, daily faced death as he worked to relieve the suffering of his patients, simply because it was the right thing to do. That sense of duty to principle is where the Adventism of my grandparents and the humanism of Camus overlapped. There was a cross-pollination that has influenced me to this day.

Because of our strong heritage from one of the founders of our church, Ellen White, most of us of a certain vintage have grown up with phrases like being “as true to duty as the needle to the pole,” and “Everything depends on the right action of the will.” In effect, most of us were raised as Kantians, with a strong sense of duty, manifesting a kind of “disinterested benevolence,” to use another of Ellen White’s maxims. We were encouraged not to trust our emotions, since they could easily be swayed, but to trust in Scripture, our spirit of prophecy, and the moral precepts we derived from both.

The idea that we “make” ourselves can go in several directions. We could think of it as a by-product of duty, not something to be sought after, but not something to be dismissed either. Or we could choose, like Aristotle advocated, to seek a higher end or telos, through cultivating the virtues, a choice that we make through reason.

Yet, as Adventists, we are conflicted about trying to become virtuous. It seems presumptuous to us to imagine that we could pursue such an end, even one directed to God. It seems to emphasize works over faith, as if we might work ourselves out of the need for a savior or somewhere along the way, slough off the Holy Spirit. We want to be virtuous, but we don’t want to look like we’re trying to be. There is also a virulent strain of perfectionism in current Adventism that is curiously hostile both to virtue ethics (because it relies on philosophy) and to grace (because it’s not rigorous enough). So, an understanding of how we might be nourished and strengthened by practicing the fruits of the Spirit and the virtues, for instance, is timely and welcome.

There is another way that we make ourselves and that is through the stories we imagine for ourselves about who we are. Dan McAdams, in his ground-breaking book, The Stories We Live By, calls them “personal myths,” and defines them as “an act of imagination that is a patterned integration of our remembered past, perceived present, and anticipated future.” Over the course of years, from adolescence to middle adulthood, McAdams says our personal myths should reflect increasing coherence, openness, credibility, differentiation, reconciliation, and generative integration. These six “narrative standards” are the elements of a good story in human identity, one that reflects who we are and lures us onward to what we may become.

As we become more differentiated in life, we face conflicts and paradoxes. Our personal stories become richer, more textured, as we learn to cope with suffering, disappointment, and conflicts. We seek reconciliation and harmony between the conflicting elements within ourselves and between ourselves and others. Reconciliation, says, McAdams, “is one of the most challenging tasks in the making of personal myth,” and psychologically, we’re not prepared to face it until in midlife.

McAdams’ research is original, but in some respects roughly parallels James Fowler’s Stages of Faith. Fowler argued that faith was a universal in human existence, and that one did not have to be “religious” in order to have faith. We look for order and patterns in the universe, and we live by what we find. He identified “faith as relating” and “faith as knowing,” and it is the latter that McAdams understands as contributing to our personal myths. McAdams sees the stories we construct for ourselves as developmental stages, “qualitatively different structures of religious belief and value.” He separates these into four positions, A through D.

Position A understands faith as specific rules about good behavior and has only vague notions about God, nature, human identity, and so forth. While it can be authentic, there is little reflection on meaning and even less on putting one’s thoughts in order. Nevertheless, it’s a beginning.

Position B, what Fowler calls “synthetic-conventional” faith, gathers up beliefs into a systematic creed or system, whether it be provided by the Church or the scientific enterprise. These are the positions, typically, of adolescents and young adults. There is structure within a system, but little questioning, either of beliefs or of the organizing principles.

With Position C, the individual moves beyond the conventions and begins to fashion a more individual and personalized faith structure. There is questioning of the conventions of the previous position and a good deal of soul-searching. We attempt to find something that is both authentic and truly expressive of who we think we are. And when we reflect on our faith and our conventions we may ultimately reject some and accept others—but the ones we accept will no doubt be those we reason are most honestly ours. We try to reconcile inconsistencies between our beliefs and those of other people through reason and logic. We wish the world were as reasonable as we are.

Position D, however, understands that reason is not enough. “A very small number of people,” says McAdams rather wryly, “beginning probably in mid-life, reorganize their beliefs and values in order to accommodate paradox and inconsistency in life.” In this phase we may gain a renewed appreciation for the simple stories of faith we grew up on, while at the same time recognizing that life is more complex and multi-layered than it first appears. James Fowler calls this “conjunctive faith” because it allows a person to join together ideas and images that are usually kept separate. It makes room for paradox and irony, qualities that are needed to think about the mystery of evil or the redeeming characteristics of our enemies and the darkness of our heroes. It lives with ambiguity and paradox. Some of its most articulate expressions are found in Soren Kierkegaard, Thomas Merton, and Parker Palmer.

It’s what I would call “innocent experience,” the quality of perception that comes after we take a fall from innocence into despair and knowledge and are forgiven and raised to a point beyond our innocence. If we’re fortunate enough to belong to a community, and humble enough to recognize our constant need for honesty, then we can live with paradox and uncertainty—and press ahead with faith.

If Position C—questioning and rejecting our conventional mores and theology—is the prodigal leaving home, Position D is the prodigal returning: wiser, humbler, and armed with a no-nonsense BS detector. The prodigal leaves home innocently arrogant, crosses over into weary cynicism, and returns with the gifts of openness and empathy.

In the summer of 2015, after the GC Session, I posted the following observation on my Facebook page. I think it applies now more than ever, especially since Annual Council 2018 (Battle Creek edition) presents us with an opportunity for authenticity, a way to re-imagine our faith together.

“It may be that in the post-San Antonio era, with another five years under Ted Wilson, many who have been Adventists all their lives, and many who may never have questioned church policy, procedures, and prejudices, will quietly realize how little they need to look to the church structure for their spiritual strength. They may see their friends, their pastors, those they have met online, their non-Adventist and non-Christian friends, as their spiritual community. They may understand that it’s possible to be in the church, but not of the church, that we don’t have to be hindered by unjust practices and blatant mismanagement to the extent that it blinds us to who Jesus is for us today. If we want, we can carry the invisible church within us every day. It will be exciting to see how we may grow and learn through adversity. We need to hold our fellow travelers close on this journey.” — Facebook, July 2015

Costumes and creeds do not a faith provide, but we can write a new story that does.

“Cease to dwell on days gone by

and to brood over past history.

Here and now I will do a new thing;

this moment it will break from the bud.

Can you not perceive it (Isa. 43:18,19)?”

Photo: Aurelien Romain, Unsplash.com

Our Moment at Jabbok

JabbokHood:ian-espinosa-223462-unsplash

When you are through with your tradition, it must be different from what you found or else you have failed. It is your responsibility to make your religious tradition, whatever it may be, Christian or otherwise, more truly religious by the time you are through with it. That’s the great challenge we face. — Brother David Steindl-Rast, “The Shadow in Christianity”

In story and in myth, crossing rivers signals a shift of identity, the overcoming of not only a natural force but of a personal barrier to a new experience. In Greek mythology the River Styx is the boundary between life and death. In Norse mythology the Ifing River separates Asgard, the land of the gods, from Jotunheim, the land of the giants. It runs so swiftly that ice can never form on it, and thus it is an effective barrier for any giant who wants to take on the gods. The Jabbok River, a tributary of the Jordan River, is the place where Jacob wrestles with God before he meets his estranged brother for the first time in years.

Jacob sent his family, his household, and all his possessions over the river before the sun went down, but now in the darkness he is alone. Scripture can be so stringently laconic at times: the text in Genesis 32 simply says, “Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.”

Spiritually, Jacob is at a crossroads in his life. Even within the womb he struggled to gain an advantage, but Esau emerged first. Esau had the brawn; Jacob had the guile. What he couldn’t get through honest effort, he gained through deception. But he had his comeuppances too. The blessing he had stolen from his brother as he deceived his father curdled in his heart: his beautiful bride, Rachel, was found instead—on his wedding night, no less—to be her stolid and morose sister, Leah. His servitude to his father-in-law, Laban, a man renowned for his chicanery, stretched on year after year. Jacob survived through cleverness, bordering on fraud.

He had his moments of light though. Making his way through the desert, he lay one night under the stars and dreamed he saw a ladder stretching to the heavens, alive and glowing with angels, stunning in their beauty and haughtiness. When he awoke, gasping and disoriented, all he could whisper across the sands was, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it! How awesome is this place! This is the house of God and this is the gate of heaven.” And so he called it Beth El.

But this night he is alone with his anxieties, a man approaching middle age who carries responsibility for an extended family, slaves, and herds. Jewish philosopher Martin Buber saw in Jacob the existential man, wrestling with life’s questions until he wins through to some spiritual release.

Psychologically speaking, we can see Jacob struggling with his Shadow, the part of himself that he could not acknowledge, that constantly raised its head to confront him with his weakness, his suspicion, his fear, and the ache in his heart that pounded into him with every breath that he would never be good enough for his father.

In Carl Jung’s development of the Shadow it appears in our dreams as a figure of the same sex as ourselves whom we fear or dislike or regard as inferior. In trying to live up to the standards of conduct set for us by parents, church, and society, we identify with those ego ideals and reject the qualities that contradict them. “But the rejected qualities do not cease to exist,” says John Sanford in Evil: The Shadow Side of Reality, “simply because they have been denied direct expression. Instead they live on within us and form the secondary personality that psychology calls the Shadow (50).”

Unless we recognize them and integrate them into our consciousness, they will only cause us pain and confound our psychological and spiritual growth. But the shadow personality can also be a positive force for us if we can relate to it in the correct way. If we have always repressed anger in an attempt to be kind and “Christian,” it becomes part of our shadow. But if we can integrate part of that capacity for anger it can help us become stronger, more resolute people, who are able to respond in a healthier way to intolerable circumstances and especially to injustice. Sanford offers the example of Jesus’ anger in driving out the money changers who were profaning the Temple of God. “Obviously, Jesus’ capacity for controlled anger gave his personality a strength that he would not have had had he lacked the capacity for such a response,” notes Sanford.

People in whom the Shadow is repressed often lack a sense of humor. They are not able to see themselves as anything but striving for perfection — and humor is often a release for all the tension that comes from falling short — and from falling. If we can have humility without humiliation, then we can laugh at ourselves in those awkward situations. The Shadow helps us forgive ourselves and others too.

Jacob at Jabbok is one of those stories that stays with one throughout a lifetime. It is about a man being reborn through struggle and suffering, who wins through failing, and who limps off into the sunrise a hero. He had been passive-aggressive all his life, looking for an advantage where he could not prevail through strength or credibility. Now, as he struggles through the night, he puts his whole heart into it, assertive, not violent—so alive for the first time that the superior strength of his opponent is his joyous challenge. Even as the Stranger strikes his hip, throwing it out of joint, Jacob will not let him go without a blessing.

The audacity of one who sees his spiritual liberation within his grasp is stunning. And in that moment his name, Jacob, “The Supplanter,” is flung away, and a new name, Israel, “The God-Striver,” pours down on him like oil. As the first light strikes the mountain tops in the distance, the Stranger slips out of Jacob’s sobbing grasp, lowering him to the ground.

When he rolls over and looks around, he is alone again. Once, he had seen the angels; now, with a thrill of awe, he struggles to his feet: “I have seen God face to face and lived!”

***

The ability to admit one is wrong and to change one’s ways and direction is part of the toolkit for any Christian. Lord knows we get enough practice at it to be experts, but it’s a lesson we apparently must learn and relearn. As individuals, we may stop in our tracks, look back, see where we diverged, and change course. As institutions? Not so much.

It takes humility to admit that we are wrong; it takes perception to see it. To perceive is to see our situation with new eyes: that we may be right in our results, but wrong in how we got them; that we may have magnified the incidentals and overlooked the essentials; that we may have gotten some of it right—but there’s so much more to discover.

Jacob struggling at the River Jabbok is a metaphor. Facing his greatest crisis, he bares his soul like an offering. The struggle is not about winning, but about dying and being reborn. Jacob struggles against himself that his true self might emerge. He bears in his flesh the wound that never heals, every step the ache of Love’s weight. From now on, Jacob’s empathy for those frozen in their pride draws them to him; he becomes a warming, healing presence to those whose self-righteousness wedges them apart from others.

***

This is our Jabbok moment as a church. As we confront our hubris and our guile we may finally acknowledge our shadow. “True justice must resolve a conflict in a way that leaves the community whole,” writes Paul Woodruff in The Ajax Dilemma. “It’s not merely what you decide that matters, but how you decide it, and how you communicate the decision.” We have thought of ourselves as templates for perfection, nothing short of a model for the world. But we are humans, fretful in our weaknesses, and yet bright with promise. If, as a church, we struggle now for a rebirth, we will hear God’s breath close to us. “I never asked for perfection,” God will say, “only that you become complete. And I will take care of that.”

Our changes now are painful, extended in time, bending our form to the breaking point. That is how change is made in this dimension of time and space. On this plane our changes usually cause friction and disturb the peace. There is a time coming when we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, as we are transformed from the perishable to the imperishable.

Photo: Ian Espinosa, Unsplash.com

The Original Sin of the Species

AfterTheFall:anqi-lu-783189-unsplash

“Yet the quality of a religious system depends perhaps less on its specific doctrine, than on the choice of problems that it regards as important, the areas of human experience to which it directs attention.” — Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo

Peter Brown (who wrote one of the most highly-regarded biographies of Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, and the greatest influence on the Christian Church after Paul and before Aquinas) gives us a perch from which to regard one of the great controversies that Augustine was determined to stamp out.

Augustine’s disputation with Julian, the young ex-bishop of Eclanum, on the origins and effects of original sin, is described by Augustine as an explanation for the misery and suffering of the human race. Their battle comes late in Augustine’s life, the old lion up against a whip-smart and ruthless opponent half his age for whom this battle is personal.

Brown makes it clear that Augustine’s loathing of sex, even within marriage, determines his view of Adam and Eve falling into sin through their unbridled lust for one another. The behavior which Augustine assumes as evidence is their shame at their nakedness after eating from the tree. Everything flows from this. Fully developed, the doctrine then requires baptism for sin in order to escape the horrors of hell—even infant baptism—because even newborns do not escape the stain of original sin. Everyone who is born of a woman is the result of lust; it follows then, infers Augustine, that everyone is born in sin, preternaturally bent from the moment of conception to choose the wrong, to stain the holy, and to willfully, at every turn, gallop off the path of righteousness.

It’s a tortured and torturing logic, one that has inflicted untold pain on Christians since the time of Augustine. In contrast to Augustine, Julian upheld the view that God was, above all, a god of equity. God’s justice was toward each of us individually, not all of us lumped together. We were responsible for our own failures, but God’s grace would be sufficient for us.

What Augustine did in the service of theology — and what many following him in the Church have done from his time to the present — is to ascribe our human propensity to fall and to fail to the weakness of Eve. This has serious consequences. It means that we deflect responsibility for our own state of separation, as Paul Tillich characterized the effects of sin. It builds in moral passivity and projects onto others the motivations for our own deceit. It calls into question whether even God can reach beings so utterly corrupted and debased.

But most of all, it perpetuates sexism because it lays the blame for the world’s misery on women. To paraphrase Paul: “And thus abideth racism, xenophobia, and sexism. But the most pervasive of these is sexism.”

We are, all of us, without exception, complicit in the sin that Adam and Eve committed. Nor do any of us need convincing about the horrors humans can perpetrate on one another. So, we’re not denying that evil can have a human face. It’s just that for millenia the face that appears most often in the Church’s grand narrative of the Fall is that of a woman.

It is interesting that in Paul’s recounting of the story sin entered the world through Adam, not through Eve. But the story that the Christian world accepts — and it could be argued that the world accepts — lays the blame on Eve.

If it is true, as Brown reminds us, “that the quality of a religious system depends . . . On the choice of problems” it gives its attention to, then such a religious system is only as strong as its weakest link. The blame for sin that is laid on women derives its power from assumptions that underlie not only matters of theology, hermeneutics, and worship, but also policies and hiring decisions. Its direct application in churches around the world weakens the hope for redemption that we are encouraged to hold. When people use it to denigrate women and “keep them in their place” they are not only wronging women specifically, but they are also trivializing the real issues of grace and redemption.

Brown’s epigram asks us to take seriously where our attention lies, as a church and as Christians. How long are we going to punish women? What are the problems that consume our time, energy, and money?

But if all our essential beliefs are meant to point us to the burning bush of God’s saving love, then we should at least examine that through which we have relegated fifty percent of the human race to the flickering shadows at the circumference of that light.

This prejudice runs deep, as unseen and seemingly innocuous as the air we breathe. It begins early in our lives, with the first telling of the temptation story, and it remains part of our cellular structure until we realize how extensive its roots really are. If you’re a Christian, you know what I mean. In fact, if you’re Western — no, make that human — if you’re human, you know this is the primal prejudice, the one most difficult to overcome because it seems to be the natural order of the world. Augustine’s attitudes towards women were no doubt influenced by his own proclivities and the temptations he wrestled with, but they are not prescriptions for contemporary life. His attempt to derive a theological explanation from biological and emotional responses need not be our default position nor should the Church’s hardening on the role of women be accepted as a fait accompli.

We might begin with the original myth itself — ‘myth’ being defined as an archetypal story about our human origins, not a story that is untrue. The Genesis story of the Fall can be interpreted in many ways, but one central note is the exhilarating paradox that reveals our moral freedom as both liberating and binding us. We are subject to the dizzying expectations of both obedience and independence. We need obedience to claim our independence; we need independence to be freely obedient. It’s a setup for a tragicomedy. Granted, from outside the Garden we literally can’t imagine human existence without the failures of sin built in, but we can imagine (and live) the joy that comes when we know we are accepted by God. Can we accept that we are accepted, as Tillich so powerfully stated in one of his sermons?

There is a streak of sadism that runs through the administering of Christianity. It’s the belief that salvation is only as real as the guilt that makes it necessary. The greater the feeling of guilt, the sweeter the salvation — and there are always people willing to tighten the screws in the service of compliance. All of that for our own good, of course.

But our dilemma is that we do that which we ought not to do, and we do not do what we ought to do. We don’t do the ‘oughts’ because we can’t see how or why they would help us. And we can’t imagine how they would help us because we can’t trust that which we did not make. It’s our desire for independence that brushes aside the ‘oughts’, but it’s that very independence which can turn the ‘oughts’ into that which we desire with all our heart.

***

After they turn to leave the Garden, we do not read of Adam and Eve talking to God again. A force field has been raised behind them. Nor do they seem resentful at their loss. Stoically, they set about making a life east of Eden — ‘Eden,’ the Hebrew word for ‘delight.’ Once they lived in the innocence of children; now, with experience, they have shouldered the responsibilities that come with consciousness. We wonder, too, if at the end of a long day of toil, they find satisfaction in that which they have hewn out of the hard rock of endurance. There is heartbreak ahead for them, but they will suffer it together, alone and in silence. There is joy in the midst of pain.

They hope for us what they cannot taste: the sweetness of unexpected grace and forgiveness. And we look back, almost wistfully, longing for even the shards of memory which they hold of the Garden.

No promise but that which heals could foreclose on Augustine’s doctrine of original sin, for all the anguish it has caused and all the anger it has raised. Among the rifts between people that we Christians have driven wedges into over the centuries, this one that casts women into a ritually inferior state must be bridged.

“Let us say

We are all confused, incomprehensible,

Dangerous, contemptible, corrupt,

And in that condition pass the evening

Thankfully and well,” says the Countess in Christopher Fry’s, The Dark is Light Enough. “In our plain defects

We already know the brotherhood of man.”

Photo: Anqi Lu, Unsplash.com