living through death

"The only way that you can accept life is if you can accept death.” –Leo Buscaglia

Reflections on “Reclaiming the Gospel of Peace”

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Are there any among us who still wonder if we live in a world gone mad? Or have we become so numb to the almost boring regularity of various killings in our nation and around the world that the question fails to register? Last week I attended a national conference held by the Episcopal Church that sought to spark a discussion on this issue. It was host to a surprising (to me) diversity of opinion, including that of Dr. Edward J. Konieczny, the Bishop of the diocese of Oklahoma, a former vice cop who, even now, posses a permit to carry a concealed weapon. Konieczny was a poignant embodiment of a tension that runs through the center of our nation, and the location of the conference, Oklahoma City was also steeped in powerful symbolism.

Teddy bear on the memorial wall at the site of the Oklahoma City Bombing.

The photo above is of a teddy bear placed on the memorial wall at the site of the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing. Our visit to the memorial was a visceral reminder to me of what is at stake when the church presumes to speak of salvation. Below I have reposted a brief reflection that I was asked to share with the diocese of Minnesota on the experience. I would like to thank Bishop Brian Prior and Missioner, Rolf Lowenberg-DeBoer for graciously inviting me along.

For a conference devoted to fostering a conversation on the topic of gun violence, what struck me most was a tendency to conceive of gun violence as the symptom of a deeper and more universal disease. In his address, the Archbishop of Canterbury was quick to point this out when he declared that any response to violence needs to be rooted in an adequate anthropology. This is a point that, to my mind, our faith communities are especially well suited to address.

Gun violence is a drastic act born of a radical insecurity. Our tradition is filled with imagery depicting a wonderful variety of ways that we are, all of us, estranged, separated, insecure. It was not always this way, say the scriptures. We began our lives in Eden, secure in the immediate presence of life-itself, of God. As we each emerged into our separate identities, we fell away from the immediate presence of God, and we all, to various degrees, learned what it meant to be on our own, separate, insecure, violent. Yet, at the heart of the gospel there is the image of one in whom the immediate presence of the Father was experienced beyond Eden. It was in this security that Jesus chose to undergo the violence born of human insecurity, and it is this security that we are invited to participate in and to live out.

What I heard in so many ways at this conference was that the Christian response to violence is to be found in the security of this unfathomable love. May we yearn to have the courage to receive it.

Written by Alex

April 16, 2014 at 10:25 am

The Correlation of Skepticism and Dogmatism

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I’ve been thinking about something a colleague of mine, Bryne Helen Lewis, said in the comments section of a post I wrote awhile back concerning the “Creation Debate.” Her words were as follows: “Ham’s mix of classical skepticism and dogmatic supernaturalism is logically embarrassing and is in no way excused by any larger vision to which he lays claim.”

As an aside, I should make clear that I was not suggesting that Ham’s “larger vision” offered him any excuse; rather, the point was that his larger vision offered more motivational depth for those who are gripped by it than the pragmatic/utilitarian reasons that Nye was offering.

At any rate, I just stumbled across a quote that I thought put the matter well and captures each of our concerns well.

Skepticism is very often the basis for a doctrine of Revelation. Those people who emphasize revelation in the most absurd supernaturalistic terms are those who enjoy being skeptical about everything. Skepticism and dogmatism about revelation are correlated. –Paul Tillich A History of Christian Thought108.

In context, Tillich is addressing Augustine’s fall from Manicheanism into skepticism, and eventually, to a fairly heavy reliance on revelation as concretely given by the church. I’ll make no further comment on the complex makeup of Augustine’s thought here, but I felt the point was worth emphasizing again.

An anxious soul longs for a solid answer by which to live. In the deep hope that such an answer has been unambiguously given, it is understandable that everything else in the world can be doubted. I’d never really thought of it in such terms until now. Thanks, Bryne, for giving me something to chew on.

Written by Alex

March 21, 2014 at 3:51 pm

Posted in Theology

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Paul Tillich: Why Love Is a Constant Spinning

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Yesterday I wrote a post about a deep affinity between the deconstructive philosophy of Jaques Derrida and the activism of Thomas Merton. I concluded by suggesting that “love is a constant spinning,” by which I mean that love is always sensitive to the changing dynamics of the love situation, both in ourselves as the lover and within the object loved as the beloved. If love is to be authentic it needs to be seeking that which is real in the other from the place of what is real in our self. Love is a union of what is real. It cannot live in the house of pretense, superficiality, or caricature.

The reason that love must be a constant spinning—that is, a constant unresolved sensitivity to the concrete love situation—is that reality, be it the reality of the other or of our self, does not easily and obviously disclose itself to us. We live by way of mental concepts and images that, to varying degrees, are “relatively adequate,” to use David Tracy’s phrase. This relative adequacy stands in tension with the absolute drive within love to unite with reality.

The single most important text for me when it comes to this idea of love being a constant spinning is Paul Tillich’s words on Christ’s love and the overcoming of the absolute and relative tension in reason. If he’s too abstract for you, try the couple paragraphs that follow him. He says,

The law of love is the ultimate law because it is the negation of law; it is absolute because it concerns everything concrete. The paradox of final revelation, overcoming the conflict between absolutism and relativism, is love. The love of Jesus as the Christ, which is the manifestation of the divine love—and only this—embraces everything concrete in self and world. Love is always love; that is its static and absolute side. But love is always dependent on that which is loved, and therefore it is unable to force finite elements on finite existence in the name of an assumed absolute. The absoluteness of love is its power to go into the concrete situation, to discover what is demanded by the predicament of the concrete to which it turns. Therefore, love can never become fanatical in a fight for an absolute, or cynical under the impact of the relative. Systematic Theology V I, 152.

The phrase “love is a constant spinning” is an attempt to mirror what Tillich is saying here. It is an attempt to unite the absolute and the relative tensions in human thought and action. Love is absolutely a constant spinning. As long as life is moving, love never lands. It is always sensitive, always moving, as life itself moves.

Years ago dear friend and mentor of mine captured this insight in a way that has never left me. His name is Jim Bjork and he was a friend to countless young people as well as a potter. His pottery provided him with seemingly endless analogies between is craft and a life well lived. So if I may borrow a page from his book, what I’m getting at is that, like a potter who is endlessly attentive to the clay spinning on her wheel, to its texture, speed, shape, even smell, love is endlessly attentive. The novice who see his own ideas more clearly than the clay upon which he works will end up both personally frustrated and having to deal with a pile of mush. The difference is, of course, that eventually the potter’s wheel stops, whereas life moves on. Have a look at the video below for a beautiful look at the work of an attentive potter.

From this I hope it can be seen that, in both Derrida and Merton, their refusal to accept settled answers is not evidence of a superficial relativism, but rather it is the logical response to a deeper absolute, the absolute of love.

Petersen Pottery Company Spinning Nantuckets from Petersen Pottery on Vimeo.

Written by Alex

March 14, 2014 at 9:28 am

Jaques Derrida’s Religon & Thomas Merton’s Atheism: Love is a Constant Spinning

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Jaques Derrida and Thomas Merton have much in common, which is interesting because, on the face of it, they shouldn’t. One was a destabilizing atheist philosopher, while the other was an activist and Benedictine monk. The only way prevailing habits of mind are able to relate two men bearing labels such as these tends to be by imagining them behind their respective podiums, ready for another sensational debate (much like the “creation debate” I recently wrote about). “Prevailing habits of mind,” however, have much to learn from these two figures, but it’s not going to happen from a podium.

Jaques Derrida & Thomas Merton

Derrida and Merton through the Eyes of a Young Evangelical

I was among the evangelicals when I awoke to explicitly religious thought, and, like every community, there was a certain set of other groups that we were led to view as enemies. Among them were “postmodern philosophers,” the chief of whom was Jaques Derrida. The reason we worried about him was simple: Derrida’s deconstruction took away everything we possessed by faith via an endlessly destabilizing approach to truth. Rather than engage him, we just shook our heads. Whatever he was up to didn’t make any sense. He struck us as more pathetic and confused than dangerous. Normal atheists made sense. We lined up behind the mic to debate them. Derrida was a different kind of enemy, one we didn’t understand. Looking back, I think he would enjoy that he impressed upon us a feeling of “not understanding.”

I also remember hearing the name Thomas Merton during those years. Merton was not someone that we personally read; rather, he was someone read by some of the spiritual writers we read. We learned of him as a name reverently dropped from their lips. Something to do with “seven stories” and a mountain. In any case, it would have never occurred to me then that he and Derrida would have anything at all in common, especially something so deep as the heart of their religiosity.

The “Faith” of Deconstruction
and the “Atheism” of Faith

The other morning a friend of mine, Sara Lynn Wilhelm Garbers, drew my attention to a wonderful interview with John D. Caputo in the New York Times by Gary Gutting. Caputo is a “postmodern philosopher” and Derrida scholar. The interview was very engaging, as Gutting continually pressed Caputo with the sort of questions that an informed evangelical might ask.

In turn, Caputo did his best to show that the truth deconstruction is after is deeper than anything our settled concepts can grasp. For deconstruction, truth is always a moving target. As such, what Caputo calls Derrida’s “religion without religion” is likewise intended to be a dynamic idea rather than a settled label. The paradoxical form of this phrase immediately deconstructs itself. Whatever “yes” is stated is immediately followed by a “no.” If you try to resolve “religion without religion” into religion—“ah! So Derrida really is religious!”—then the “without religion” rushes in with its “not so fast!” The same operation occurs from the other direction if the phrase is resolved into “atheism.” Its paradoxical form is always drawing us in, but forcing open our conceptions. The goal of this operation is to foster an endless attention that is at all times actively disrupting our complacency or pretension.

A Tillichian Aside

As an aside, I can’t help but mention that this paradoxical operation is exactly that which lies at the heart of Paul Tillich’s theological rationality (something Caputo also rightly notes in the interview). Robert Sharlemann put the point well when he argued that, in Tillich’s thought, “the untruth of the Gods is precisely the essence of the true God, the one who is truth itself.

Back to Derrida and Merton

But we have a hard time with this notion since we can’t “do anything with it.” One wants to stop attending, grab a hold of something, and get to work. But this endless spinning doesn’t seem to give us anything but negativity. To this point Gutting asked,

Is there any positive content to his view of religion or is it all just “negative theology”? Is he in any sense “making a case” for religion? Can reading Derrida lead to religious belief?

The phrase “just ‘negative theology’” is telling, but the concern behind the phrase is understandable. In response Caputo does his best to describe the elusive positivity that necessitates the negativity.

In its most condensed formulation, deconstruction is affirmation, a “yes, yes, come” to the future and also to the past, since the authentic past is also ahead of us. It leads to, it is led by, a “yes” to the transforming surprise, to the promise of what is to come in whatever we have inherited — in politics, art, science, law, reason and so on. The bottom line is “yes, come.”

Here we have the positivity that deconstruction presupposes. Deconstruction seeks the yes by way of the no. “The authentic,” the “really real” emerges, though is never grasped as a possession, by way of a constant “spinning,” a dismantling of the adequacy of our settled approach to it.

With that in mind, let us now turn to the words of Thomas Merton. Again we will see the negativity and underlying positivity in his words.

The true solutions are not those which we force upon life in accordance with our theories, but those which life itself provides for those who dispose themselves to receive the truth. Consequently our task is to disassociate ourselves from all who have theories which promise clear-cut and infallible solutions, and to mistrust all such theories, not in a spirit of negativism and defeat, but rather trusting life itself, and nature, and if you will permit me, God above all. “Letter to an Innocent Bystander”, in Raids on the Unspeakable, 61.

Merton calls this underlying positivity “God,” but it cannot be stressed strongly enough, that, for Merton, “God” is not the settled answer to the question. Merton is rightfully called an atheist to the extent that theism is construed as a settling of the question of existence with the answer “God.” God is just as much the positing of the question as the answer (a point I have tried to make clear in a previous post). This is integral to his reasons for arguing that “our task” is standing against any who presume to have settled answers. Like Caputo’s stress on the “yes” behind deconstruction, Merton also urges that the critical posture of the activist is not birthed from mere “negativity,” but from trust in the ongoing rationality that constitutes our very being. A rationality that, viewed from one angle, can never be spoken, and yet, viewed from another, underlies all speech. The “spinning” never ends, but it can be entered into faithfully, in hope, and in love.

Love Is a Constant Spinning

A few years ago in a PhD seminar, Dr. Walter Sundberg remarked to me that Paul Tillich’s book “Dynamics of Faith” is a master work of endless spinning. He keeps talking about faith, and you want to just grab him, give him a good shake and ask him, “Faith in what?” But the spinning never ends. Tillich never “lands.” I think that’s about right. (I take up this point in more detail in a later post.)

For both Derrida and Merton the situation is similar. A distrust of human pretension and complacency is the proper response to the encounter with a truth that emerges as gift rather than possession (a place we might “land”). God’s “yes” implies a “no” to any and all complacent or pretentious human attempts to claim truth solely for its own deployment. To be among “those disposed to receive it” we must live in attention, ever awaiting truth as gift. For my part, it has indeed been a gift to see at least one way that that these two ostensibly “ancient enemies” have a bit more in common than I’d once been led to believe.

Written by Alex

March 13, 2014 at 8:49 am

A Gift. A Deep Ache

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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.

Adrain

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.

Written by Alex

March 3, 2014 at 11:03 am

Posted in Theology

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“Prayer Doesn’t Work” A Work in Progress

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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.

Fall Sky

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.

Written by Alex

February 24, 2014 at 12:01 pm

Breaking God Talk

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[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.

The Possibility

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.

The Impossibility

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.

The Paradox

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.

Moore

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