It seems like all of a sudden the crisp bite of winter has made itself known. Here was the view during my morning studies today.
My blogging pace as been a bit off as of late. The last few weeks have been a flurry of activity (and general anxiety) surrounding a trip to Baltimore to present two papers (one at the the American Academy of Religion and the other at the North American Paul Tillich Society). Happily, the whole thing went off without a hitch, and a wonderful time was had by all.
If you would like to see my photo set of the whole adventure, you can check out my Flicker page here.
The two papers I presented surround the cataclysmic transition in my theological thinking.
The first paper marks the “death of God” in my thought. Here, in the mode of moral ontology, I show how our ability to doubt any concrete answer to the question of moral foundations makes it impossible for God (understood as a being existing apart from us) to anchor the moral good. Such a conception cannot answer the question, “why must God exist for moral goodness to be Good?” If God is thought of as a concrete particular, then, no, God is not necessary for morality (or anything else for that matter). I’m with the atheists on this one, but then again, so is Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and Paul Tillich. You can read the full paper here: “Yes, But Only If God Does Not Exist: A Tillichian Answer to the Question of God’s Necessity for Morality“
The second paper I presented situates “the death of God” within the process of spiritual awakening. Here I argue that the death of God is, in essence, a moment in the emergence of the life of the Spirit. A sort of religious and developmental paradigm shift is pointed to in this paper. As Robert Scharlemann so nicely stated, “…the untruth of the Gods is precisely the essence of the true God, the one who is truth itself.” Awakening to this truth has salvific value, I argue, since it frees us (and those around us) from all our self-saving efforts and death denial strategies by dying to the illusion that our conceptual grasp of God, self, and world offers true security. Instead, I argue that for God to emerge in our lives a continual death to, or, relativization of, our conceptual/egoic grasp is necessary. Beyond that, a continual return to the depth of life as ever-emerging in the present moment is presented as the essence of religious encounter. You can read the full paper here: “Intimacy Through Self-loss: Intersections in the Paradoxical Soteriologies of Paul Tillich and Sebastian Moore”
In short, the conference was a very good experience. Next time, however, I think I’ll stress less, take more walks, and generally try to take more advantage of all the potentially fantastic conversations that are to be had in such a setting.
P.S. Special thanks to Spencer Moffatt, Erik Leafblad, David Stewart, John Fournelle, Kiara Jorgenson, and Paul Greene for being such a wonderful mixture of insightful, encouraging, crude, hilarious, provocative, and kind.
Moishe the Beadle, in Elie Wiesel’s Night, says that
…every question possesse[s] a power that [is] lost in the answer …
It’s a tremendous line. When it comes to things like virtue, wisdom, peace, faith, and humility, the first real step toward any of them is realizing that no answer to their implicit question is ever adequate. What is virtue? What must I do to be wise? How can I attain peace? In what am I to have faith? How do I know if I am truly humble? The subjection of every answer to further questioning can itself be a sign of the state that is sought.1
Take, for example, just virtue. It turns out, virtue is just not the sort of thing that is well contained in an answer. As a settled answer it becomes law, and law, with its determinate nature, can only cover so much ground. The dynamic element of life always keeps law from ever attaining the status of virtue (legalism is no virtue). So, in a sense, there is no “answer.” But there is the question, and if we reflect on it, we might become aware that, when it comes to certain things, the question is itself the answer. After all, it was Socrates’ strenuous denial that he possessed wisdom that leads us to recognize his wisdom.
In virtue, faith, peace, wisdom, and humility, what is at issue is the precariousness of our life. The path to achieving any of them is to realize that they can’t be acheived by overcoming our precariousness. Rather, for their emergence in our life, our precariousness must first be accepted.2
In this way we develop the ability to live in the power of our questions rather than the weakness of any presumed answer.
1. This post emerged from a response to a thoughtful email sent to me by a friend of mine (who wishes to remain nameless).
2. I have Marvin Shaw to thank for helping to clarify what problem is addressed by this paradoxical motion. Marvin C. Shaw, The Paradox of Intention: Reaching the Goal by Giving up the Attempt to Reach It (Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1988).
I’ve been thinking about a quote on the topic of love by Thomas Merton today. What has made it interesting is that I’ve been thinking about it in light of the writing I’ve been doing elsewhere on the topic of knowing. Merton tells us that love is only perfected in being both received and released.
“The gift of love is the gift of the power and the capacity to love, and, therefore, to give love with full effect is also to receive it. So, love can only be kept by being given away, and it can only be given perfectly when it is also received.” No Man Is an Island, 4.
In my writing on knowing I’ve been drawing on Paul Tillich’s conception of knowledge as “reunion” of the separated. On this point he says that “Knowing is a form of union. In every act of knowledge the knower and that which is known are united; the gap between subject an object is overcome.” ST I, 94.
What is interesting is that he goes on to elaborate the ways that cognition operates by way of a basic tension between mental postures detachment and receiving. Do you see the connection with Merton’s quote?
Both love and knowledge can fail due to a non-paradoxical reliance on only one element of this basic tension.
When knowing is merely detached it becomes lifeless and insignificant. In this technical and analytical distance, the question of “what’s the point?” is never answered, nor could it be, since any answer would be ever subjected to further critical analysis. Therefore, nothing new is ever received. All becomes merely theoretical.
On the other hand, when knowing becomes exclusively receiving, it passionately unites itself with anything that presents itself as interesting with no regard for the fact that reality often diverges from appearances. In its emotionally driven quest for truth, truth is in fact lost in the constant reception of representations (for those of you who receive email forwards from excitable relatives, you know what I’m talking about).
Examples of this tension and its failure fill the history of human thought, from ancient mythology to contemporary film, from the most crude inscriptions of ancient wisdom to the most refined scientific techniques. Both love and knowing fail by way of failing this central paradox.
If we refuse to give love away, we lose the capacity to receive it.
If we refuse to receive love, we lose the capacity to release it.
If we refuse to let our knowledge be free, we lose the capacity to receive it.
If we refuse to receive knowledge, we lose the capacity to free it.
At this point I hope it is becoming clear that what I am suggesting is that knowledge is a form of love. As such, their dynamics mirror each other. And for this reason we can even go so far as to replace the terms in Merton’s original quote, and perhaps by doing so expand our conception of rationality.
“The gift of knowledge is the gift of the power and the capacity to know, and, therefore, to impart knowledge with full effect is also to receive it. So, knowledge can only be kept by being given away, and it can only be given perfectly when it is also received.”
Yesterday I saw an interesting post come up on the Patheos blog, “The Friendly Atheist.” It was about how certain college atheist groups were erecting “god graveyards” on their campuses filled with the names of the gods we no longer worship. The question they wished to provoke was basically “when will yours be next?”
As a theologian, I thought this was pretty sweet (for reasons that I will point out shortly), so I decided to tell them so.
As a Christian theologian, I support this message. It is at the heart of classical Christian theology that Yahweh, understood as a particular divine being, must have his own gravestone. The death of the Gods is precisely the truth of God who is Truth itself.
The response to this was mostly:
1. A lot of “down votes”
2. Utter confusion
3. General rudeness, or at the very least, hostility.
I’ll take responsibility for 2. I’ve rarely been applauded for my clarity of expression. But I was honestly surprised at 1. and 3. At least one of the other commentors felt similarly, lamenting:
The downvotes here depress me. Just because we disagree or find the message muddled doesn’t mean we should discourage those who want to respectfully discuss the topic at hand.
Here was one that I could speak to. He also authored a brilliant response to a sci-fi fan who was in the process of creatively taking me to task by way of a Star Trek example. I should not have such difficulty speaking to them, my critic suggested, for they were rational thinkers, not like the perplexing Tamarians. He went on,
I am reminded of the Star Trek: TNG episode Darmok, where Captain Picard encounters an alien civilization (the Tamarians) whose language is purely metaphorical. For instance, rather than saying, “I went to the store,” a Tamarian would say, “Darmok at Shaka,” which would reference a famous event of the past where a person named Darmok went to a store in the city of Shaka.
To this my ally responded:
I think the point of that episode was that Picard DID learn to communicate with the Tamarian captain once he abandoned his prejudices and began to listen in earnest (finally accepting the dagger as an offer of alliance instead of conflict, ha, I out-nerd[ed] you).
Truly brilliant, and better, to my point! In what follows I respond to him and do my best to briefly set out what my point ultimately was.
This, I love. The truth of it goes both ways and is really at the heart of what I was trying to suggest. “The gods,” in a very important sense, ARE our prejudices. They are our little securities, the ideas, habits, and patterns of life that make us feel safe in the face of the threats of existence. The trouble is that our little gods necessarily limit us. If they are the source of our security, then fear keeps us living in their power. And in their power, the gods of others can be nothing but a threat, an opportunity for conflict. This is why the graveyard is so appropriate. We are not meant to live in fear, so let the gods die. All of them, regardless of the name we give them, be it Zeus, Yahweh, Reason, Science, or Jesus…
But this leads to my deeper point. It’s not easy to describe, so please bear with me. We say that Jesus revealed God, not because he said he was God; rather, it is because he deflected every attempt by others to make him into “a god.” His divinity consisted in his freedom from “the gods,” not that he was one.
As some of you may recall, Peter wanted Jesus to be the source of his own security. Jesus, on the other hand, said he came to serve and to die. Peter, feeling his security threatened by this, freaked out and tried to stop him. Jesus’ subdued response was basically to call Peter the Lord of Darkness and to suggest that his framework was a bit narrow.
And that’s our basic human problem. In light of the eternal, all of our frameworks are a bit narrow. That includes my own. To live with faith in God as eternal, is exactly to live free from “the gods” of our narrowness. If we can’t manage this, we’ll cling to our own little constructions, and fear will cause us to lash out at those who pose a threat to our god. Those who have been in some way gripped by the mystery of the eternal feel no such need to defend their own ways of seeing things, for their own gods have already been crucified.
My one concern for this community is that it is not nearly atheistic enough. The rather ‘un-friendly’ reception I’ve been given does not seem to evidence freedom from the gods. Perhaps the graveyard could use a few more tombstones?
In the fall of 2006, the same year my son, Adrian, was born, my dad passed away. The absence of his presence in my life was brought to mind this morning while Adrian and I hurried out the front door to the bus stop. Somewhere high in the chilly fall sky a lone Canadian goose could be heard as it passed over. The sound of geese will never cease to remind me of my dad, a man whose life revolved around the hunting seasons.
As Adrian and I walked over to the bus stop, I said to him, “I wonder what it would be like if I still had my dad? It’s such a strange thing. How would life have been different for us if you still had both your grandpas?” After silently walking the last few steps to the mailbox where we wait for the bus, Adrian said, “you still have your dad.”
Not really expecting that one, I stopped and looked over at him. There he stood, head slightly down, but eyes looking up into mine, with one of his fingers pointing to his chest. “What?”, I said with a chuckle, “You’re my dad?”
“No.”, he said, looking somewhat insecure but still determined to get his point across, “look where I’m pointing.”
It was so beautifully appropriate. Of all the things he could have said, he decided to forego words to the preference of a gesture. He said, “you still have your dad” and “look where I’m pointing.”
After wrapping my boy in a big hug (what else could I do?), I stood there thinking of the words of Karl Rahner on the question of where our loved ones are who have passed on. The point he made really struck me. To enter into God, to die, is to enter into the same silence in which we creatures experience God. Somewhere in that paradoxical proposition that “God is nowhere and God is everywhere” lies the answer to the question of where our loved ones have gone. They are “with God,” and that means they are nowhere and that they are everywhere. I’ll let Rahner’s words close.
“That is how my dead imitate Your silence: they remain hidden from me because they have entered into Your Life. The words of their love no longer reach my ears because they are conjoined with the jubilant song of Your endless Love. My dead live the unhampered and limitless Life that You live; they love with Your Love; and thus their life and their love no longer fit into the frail and narrow frame of my present existence. I live a dying life…so how can I expect to experience their eternal life, which knows no death?” Karl Rahner, Encounters With Silence 57.
The following is the introduction I’ve just finished hammering out for an upcoming paper I will be presenting in Baltimore at the American Academy of Religion conference. It also is shaping up to be the heart of my dissertation work. Perhaps for that reason, this did not come easily to me, but I’m pretty happy with it now. I’ll post the full text to my Academia.edu site after the conference, but I thought I’d offer you a sneak peek. Feedback is always welcome!
This paper argues that it is the fear of death and meaninglessness that drives us to seek salvation in some power greater than our own limited powers. However, since nothing we can point to, talk about, or conceptually define is able to overcome death and doubt, the threat of death and doubt is largely driven from our conscious awareness. In this state of blindness, salvation can be bought more cheaply. The consequence, however, is that life must be lived within the limits of our cheap salvation; for the fullness of life runs to the limit of life, and this limit, death, is something we simply cannot face. Under such conditions, intimacy, both in the form of cognitive union and human relationships, is impossible. We are too committed to living our illusions to risk being that vulnerable.
The question I seek to answer is therefore one of salvation. Faced with these circumstances, what could ever have the power to save us? What could grant us the courage to be weak, and therefore lay our defenses aside, creating the conditions for intimacy and life to its fullness? My conclusion is that the paradox of Christian salvation is such a power. In order to show this I will be introducing two different examples of this paradox in action. The first is its appearance in a philosophical mode, namely that of Paul Tillich’s treatment of reason and revelation. The second is its appearance in the mode of desire. Here we will consider the psychoanalytically influenced Christology of Dom Sebastian Moore. Finally, these threads will be brought together by suggesting that the practice of Centering Prayer can be thought of as a sort of daily training in this paradoxical salvation.