I am more or less incapacitated as I write this. A few moments ago I was picking up a few of things in my room before I settled in to get some reading done. In the process I came across an old picture frame that my son Adrian (who is now 7) had tossed on my bed since it was broken. As I picked it up to have a look, it was as if someone had grabbed a hold of my stomach and squeezed.
The photo was of Adrian as a chubby little guy, along with a small impression of his hand. I don’t know if it had something to do with the fact that the frame was broken, or the way the construction paper with his hand print had already begun to fade, but whatever it was, it got to me. I’m writing through tears.
This moment has reminded me of why I’m in the line of work that I am, why I spend my days reading, taking notes, and writing. I do it, because life matters—because love matters. Yet so much of life deadens us to this primal awareness! So much thought hides the significance of life behind walls of speculation. Wake up! It’s all around you! It’s in you! These are not the assertions of a man who’s hoping. These are the sounds made by one who’s been punched in the gut and for whom the world is now wavy with tears.
Every moment and every event of every man’s [sic] life on earth plants something in his soul. For just as the wind carries thousands of winged seeds, so each moment brings with it germs of spiritual vitality that come to rest imperceptibly in the minds and wills of men. Most of these unnumbered seeds perish and are lost, because men are not prepared to receive them: for such seeds as these cannot spring up anywhere except in the good soil of freedom, spontaneity and love. –Thomas Merton, 14.
Consider a mother praying to God for the life of her desperately ill child. Or maybe it’s a son, screaming at God to help his mother, the one person in the world whose love for him was unconditional, as she slips further into dementia. An uninvolved bystander may ask—though they themselves almost certainly will not—”Will their prayers work?”
Now consider the title of a paper I am preparing to write: “Prayer Doesn’t Work.“
I was recently invited to write an article for the journal “Word and World,” a periodical devoted to the relation of contemporary theology to the demands of ministry. Ministers are familiar with the heart-broken plea of their congregants who come to them asking, “does prayer really work?” Prayer is often proclaimed as the lifeblood of a spiritual community, but for many, such talk seems at least cheap and often deeply wounding. The following is the proposal I submitted. I’ll be working on it over the summer, but I’ll be sure to post the results once I get it wrapped up. It’s a difficult topic, and one that I can’t look at from a distance. Hopefully I can manage something that will be more than simply “provocative.”
Lutherans have historically been ever watchful of “works righteousness” in their spiritual lives, and rightly so. Yet a strange thing has happened in my own prayer life. I have come to discover a typically Catholic form of prayer through the work of a Lutheran theologian, Paul Tillich. Though, in its contemporary form, this mode of prayer was after his time, it remains deeply resonant with his thought. I’m speaking here of Centering Prayer and I’ve come to see it as an interesting way between a crude form of sanctification by moral effort and the lazy caricature of “let go and let God.” In either case, I’d want to argue, prayer simply “doesn’t work.” In fact, the very term “work,” I’d wish to show, is a bad metaphor for what happens in prayer. I’d like to show how Centering Prayer subverts our usual notions of “work” and “submission” by a fundamental paradox that is God’s arrival in our own release which is at once our own true arrival in God’s release.
[Warning: this is an especially geeky post]
God talk is an impossible possibility. This leads to all kinds of problems. Among them is a situation where many theists and atheists think they’re talking about God when they have not yet risen (or perhaps better, descended) to that level. The problems all flow from God’s eternality, and our non-eternality. I’ve been engaging this difficulty with a friend of mine via email. Below is a recent response by me to him. In the exchange “God talk” is being discussed as “the eternal.” I had said previously that religious belief was in a category of its own due to the eternal nature of its object. I said that religious belief needed to “transcend the categories of merely subjective and objective reflection.” He took issue with this, saying: 1) How can you know this? and 2) It’s impossible. The following was my reply.
It’s an interesting situation we’re dealing with. On the one hand, as you say, you can form a theoretical belief about the infinite that does not “mark it off as an object beyond oneself.” As you point out, I’m doing that when I say that the eternal “includes the reflecting self as well as the reflection.” You are right on both these points. And the fact is, there’s no way around it if we wish to go on thinking or speaking about the eternal in a discursive mode.
Here we see the point where the trouble starts. Since these acts of thought can be performed, and because they are, in a sense, necessary, it is easy to think that by that very fact they are adequate. They are not. The eternal can never be talked about adequately because we are always in it, speaking, from it. (just like, as you point out, we are in our subjectivity. I’ll come back to that). Because of this there is no simply theoretical, no objective, no detached analytical knowledge of the eternal. This is why, I argue, religious belief is (or ought to be) in a category all its own.
Thus, religious beliefs (including atheistic religious beliefs) are sort of weird. They are irreducibly subjective, but they make universally objective claims.
From this, the terms we use to talk about the eternal need to mirror this weirdness. Their relative adequacy is constituted not simply by a their reflexivity, including the self as an object of reflection (“the eternal as the sum of all things, including myself”). No, as Charles Taylor points out, a radical reflexivity is necessary. The mind must try and fail to grasp as an object the very act of its own reflecting. This is what Robert Sharlemann pointed out as the genius of Tillich’s relation of human reason to divine revelation. In this attempt and failure, something of the eternal is paradoxically understood without being grasped. And from here, a sort of map is given for all further speech about the eternal. There is the attempt to speak of the eternal reality, the failure, and the pointing out of the attempt and failure (It’s rather Christological, if you think about it).
Transcending Our Subjectivity?
As for transcending subjectivity. The claim was that any relatively adequate term must transcend the merely subjective and objective modes. It was not that I have done this and have returned with the eternal Word. You’re right; it’s impossible (hence, what I said in the paragraph above).
How Can This Be Known?
To the question of how I know these things, two responses: 1. This question assumes that we are dealing with a theoretical question. As I’ve shown above, we are not. 2. It happens every time I pray. It is, as Sebastian Moore says, “intersubjectivity with the infinite.”
In closing, the following passage makes no sense if it is read from an “un-broken” frame of mind, one that has yet to meet the failure of radical reflexivity. But from the standpoint of one who as endured this paradox, it is a beautiful extension of the logic I have been describing in this post.
Men’s curiosity searches past and future
And clings to that dimension. But to apprehend
The point of intersection of the timeless
With time, is an occupation for the saint—
No occupation either, but something given
And taken, in a lifetime’s death in love,
Ardour and selflessness and self-surrender.
(T.S. Eliot ‘The Dry Salvages’, 5.)
Eliot’s words marvelously point to the reason that a sort of “death” is so important to my developing work (of which I have written in the past). He’s grappling with the problem of the human spirit’s drive to grasp the eternal by way of its own finite resources. We can see the problem again in the very first lines of the preface of Immanuel Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason.”
“Human reason, in one sphere of its cognition, is called upon to consider questions, which it cannot decline, as they are presented by its own nature, but which it cannot answer, as they transcend every faculty of the mind.”
Consciousness of this problem has emerged repeatedly in the classics of human thought, both East and West. It pervades all dimensions of human being, from our knowing, as Kant points to, to our moral experience, to the dynamics of intimacy. What I’m working to help us see is not a “solution” to the problem, per se, but rather, I hope to help us see the problem itself and to point toward a response that disarms its destructive potential. Eliot is on to it.
When our finite consciousness is impacted by consciousness of the infinite, it stands before a monumental decision. Will we cling to the dimension of our normal experience and thus be tormented by its inadequacy? Or will we, trembling, in fear, and in love, risk undergoing the death that Eliot points toward? Our response to these moments are, in all their variety, the singularly great event in human life. It is the “occupation” of the saint to which all of us, in our own ways, are called. It is the process by which all things are made new, the end of the era of futile possession. It is only here that life becomes pure gift and our hearts swell with gratitude and compassion.
This tradition I’m working in has helped me make sense of Paul’s words “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself.” Whether or not these words carry any meaning for people in our time, I have no doubt that the form of life they reflect has the power to save us all.
How much of life do we miss simply because, though we are bodily present, our minds are worrying away in either the past or the future? How much do we miss by being beyond even those mental stirrings, placing our minds on auto-pilot? It’s hard to blame us, really; this life is often an anxiety producing experience. We carry guilt for our actions in the past. We worry about the possibility of a fulfilling life in the future. And often times all this worrying and longing strikes us as so fruitless that we’d just rather drown it all out with mindless noise. Notice, while alone in the car, how quickly we move to fill the silence with the radio. To be alone with ourselves is often a painful experience. And yet, to lose yourself by tuning out is boring. Life becomes little more than another trip to work, a sitcom, a beer, and bed.
We Are All Self-Absorbed
The basic problem is what those in the world of psychotherapy and spiritual direction call “self-absorption.” Self-absorbtion is the basic human problem of being trapped inside your ego-organized self. But this is a funny thing, because to be trapped inside yourself (your ego-organized self), is, in another sense, to be separated from yourself (your fuller self, the self that is connected with the world around you).
Often, we prefer life this way. The reason is that life within our ego-organized self has at least one thing going for it: It’s predictable. And to that extent, it’s safe. But the catch is that it’s predictable only because it’s the mental world we’ve personally crafted or bought in to. It’s filled not with the world that emerges as mystery, around us and from within us, but with our concepts of the world around us and with our concept of our own identity. It’s not the immediate experience of this moment, this light, this smell, this texture, but instead it’s “another tree,” “another trip to work,” another “white evangelical.” We’ve constructed this world since birth to deal with the chaotic unpredictability of life. To a certain extent, it even works, but its limits show begin to show themselves in a brooding sense of dissatisfaction, boredom, and self-loathing. Underneath it all is the sense of a fuller life, of excitement, of a desire for that which we know not what, of adventure.
Wanting What We’re Scared of
The trouble is, getting in touch with that fuller sense requires courage. We need to learn to leave, at least occasionally, the relative safety of our ego-organized self, of our concepts. A tolerance for an encounter with the unknown, the unpredictable, the chaotic in life, must be developed. In short: We must have a capacity to endure the danger of adventure if we are to embark on the adventure of life that calls to us. It is for this reason that spiritual directors William Connolly and William Barry suggest that “Self-absorption is a concentration on weakness. The effort to help a person to look beyond herself is part of the appeal to strength that is the task of the spiritual director. [emphasis, mine] (The Practice of Spiritual Direction, 51.)
Quit the Neurotics of Normalcy
The good news is that you don’t need to go to a therapist or a spiritual director to begin to develop this capacity for the unpredictable, and therefore to more easily take hold of the fuller life that is so often buried within you. Here’s a few things I can recommend.
- If you are the outdoorsy type (and perhaps especially if you are not!), consider Alastair Humphreys’ philosophy of “micro-adventures.” The genius of his thinking here is that he helps you to get past giving excuses for never living adventurously because of the daunting nature of large-scale adventures.
- Unplug. We’ve all heard this before, but it’s true. Do it. Every now and again, try to drive, walk, or just sit without a steady input of artificial stimulation. If you looking for a serious challenge, attempt to take a detached stance to the mental train of thoughts that will immediately rush in to fill the void of silence (for a bit more on the benefits of silence, see my recent post here).
- Take Leo Buscaglia’s advice and jump out your bedroom window (at 37:03).
- Work on moving your relationship with your spouse from a relation of dependency to interdependency. Nothing will force you to endure the unpredictable than actual intimacy with another human being. And nobody is better at helping committed relationships on this journey than David Schnarch. His book “Passionate Marriage” is revolutionary (Note: not for the prudish, Esp. Chapter 10).
- Quit your job (self explanatory).
- Consider contemplative prayer or a practice of meditation: Think number 2. on steroids. If the problem is being trapped inside your ego-organized self, contemplative prayer is the daily discipline in encountering God not in the known contents of your mind, but in the unknown mystery that comes before and stretches beyond you. Thomas Keating’s classic “Open Heart Open Mind” is a great place to begin.
- Ride your bike across Europe and Asia.
- Raise chickens in your backyard. The interactions you’ll soon have with your neighbors will alone bring all kinds of fun unpredictability.
Culture Is Fine, But Let’s Keep It Weird
Whatever you do, be gentle with yourself. All of us, simply by being born and growing up into this world, regularly live within the safety of our constructed worlds. And to a certain extent, such living is normal, natural, and healthy. But on the other hand, we also live in an era where our technological grasp on reality has given us the ability to fashion our very environment according to the whims of our mental constructions. It has become ever more easy, by virtue of the rapid changes in social and mass media, to mistake our constructions for “all that there is.” It is a rare thing for the natural world to break in upon us and force us to wake up to the unpredictable mystery in which we find ourselves. As a consequence, we find it ever easier to live merely within the limits of our constructions. We are bored. We are vaguely dissatisfied. But it needn’t be so. Life itself is danger and adventure! Sometimes all it takes is stepping outside the role culture has crafted for us for that feeling of wonder, awe, and an aching desire for that which we know not what to come rushing back to us.
May you live the adventure from which you flow and to which you are called!
There’s a common character in horror flicks, the one who, after having gone missing, has just been discovered gagged in some unexplored room. This person will know something rather important, but, since they are unable to speak, those who have just discovered them will usually go on simply saying things like, “Oh Jimmy we were worried sick!” or perhaps “Wow, Jimmy, you wouldn’t believe the crazy stuff that’s been going on around here!” All the while the gagged person will be wide-eyed and struggling to warn their friends of the crazy dude with an axe (or what have you).
As as a theologian training in the academy, I had a lot of sympathy for that character as I watched (some) of the debate between Ken Ham and Bill Nye last night. Allow me to remove the gag for a moment.
It was a sad experience for me on many levels. I know I was not alone in my general frustration, since my twitter feed was going nuts with a lot of irritated progressive-type religious commentators. Unfortunately, their enthusiastic support of Nye left me (almost) as bothered as Ken Ham’s insular framework. But why?
As the story goes, Nye stood against a particularly crafty form of dishonesty that could freely twist itself into almost any shape in order to appear honest. So far as that goes, it’s a good thing, yes? He was the champion of scientific rationality which is responsible for so much we in the modern world hold dear (including the very computer I use to compose this post!). Again, good stuff, so far as it goes.
But, among other things, what bothered me was his explicitly stated reasons for entering into the debate in the first place. Nye is worried that the rationality behind creation science is undermining America’s ability to produce more quality scientists. Specifically, he pointed to the work of scientifically trained engineers who, as he said, “make things.” And if we can’t compete in the worldwide game of “making things,” America will lose its place on the global scene.
Now, of course making things is, to a certain extent, good, but Ham and his followers have a larger vision that captivates them, one that outstrips any industry or nation. Yet it seemed that the highest Nye could reach was ultimately a utilitarian form of self-preservation. In Ernest Becker‘s terms, he, just as much as Ham, was engaged in a death denying ideology; he was invested in playing his role in the heroic drama that American society had carved out for the scientific community. And part of what keeps debates of this sort going is that Nye’s heroics were of a lesser caliber than that of Ham (even if it had more empirical support).
As strenuously as I’d also wish to criticize Ham, I can’t help but point out that Nye’s motivation is also a dangerous sham and a reduction of the greatness of scientific rationality. The greatness of science is its ruthless truth-seeking that methodologically cuts out, as much as possible, all “interests,” such as “preservation of the American way” or “showing a literalist reading of Bible to be true.” The moment science becomes a mere tool for achieving any end other than truth as such, it begins to lose its dignity. The ultimate dignity of science is its self-critical restraint which allows the mystery of reality to, in a limited way, emerge for us.
But it’s the practical results of science that tend to dominate the contemporary mind which Nye represented. As Sebastian Moore points out, “Our culture has in it a systematic reluctance to let the mystery of being consciousness suggest itself. We inhabit a scientific culture; and a scientific culture—as opposed to the open-ended desire-to-know which drives science itself—is one in which the results of scientific exploration at the practical level are what count in the fashioning of our common mind.” (Let This Mind Be in You, 53)
What I would have loved to have seen Nye do would have been to embody the self-critical posture that makes science great (rather than go off half-cocked and try to counter Ham’s discovery of “wood encased in 85 bazillion year old rock” (or whatever) by suggesting that “maybe the rock moved over the wood?”). I would have loved for him to have explained the way that, though science is enormously fruitful in the realm of reality it is equipped to engage with, it nevertheless engages with only a narrow slice of reality (that which is amends itself to empirical testing). I would have loved to have heard how even within this limited domain, scientific rationality is not concerned with itself. And exactly because it is not concerned with itself, it is concerned only with the provisional truth that emerges through its particular method of study. I would have loved to have heard that no matter how impressive the findings of science may be, there will always be the rain that coveres both he and Ken Ham alike.
Without silence we will encounter very little that is new in life. Without silence, our alternatives in thought and action will remain relatively restricted. Growth, both personal and relational, will be difficult. We will easily find ourselves “stuck,” seemingly doomed to run the same old scripts and face the same old problems. Without silence, life is noise, and we resort various ways of dealing only in the sounds we like. Are these words about you? They are most certainly about me.
On a daily basis, I spend an extended period of time practicing silence. As I sit and tune into the background noise of my mind, it is shocking to realize how much noise is constantly going on. In one way or another, this background noise (which is really only just the surface) tends to revolve around various forms of seeking security, esteem, control, and power. Typically, these thoughts have a “pull” to them. It’s easy to feel once you get used to it, and once you do, you can locate the impulses that are motivating your thought and actions. In realizing this, you are able to see the ways that your alternatives in thought and action have been limited to exclusively the options marked out by the background noise of your mind, to your own personal narcissistic operating system.
For most of us, most of the time, this all goes on “behind the scenes,” as it were. Not being aware of the dynamics leads us to think that our occurrent awareness and the alternatives it hands to us is “just the way things are.” Not only is this not the case, it is a capitulation that is tearing our world apart.
Tuning into the background noise is really only a preliminary step in my daily practice. The real “work” begins when, now aware of the noise, I practice a subtle act of inner release. There is no violence here; it is not suppression, it is mentally letting go. It is practice because the mind is never really silent, thus the motion is repeated, again and again. Attention is to nothing-in-particular (which is importantly different from “nothing”), and only by intention is one able to maintain the discipline.
With practice, this pattern has the potential to accompany one in daily life. More and more, habitual thoughts and actions become relativized to an attention that is not immediately run through the grid of our narcissistic operating system and the limited alternatives that go along with it.
With silence comes openness to the new, and life is in its manifestation.