It’s always been hard for me to part with physical things that are closely associated with our kids. This morning was no exception. Today, as part of a recent de-cluttering kick, I walked to the curb with this infant car seat—the car seat that both our kids took their first voyages home in—and set it in the trash.
I know I am not throwing away their childhood, but it reminds me of the easily overlooked fact that it’s already gone. Years later Brynn would often crawl back into this car seat as if trying to reclaim the security of her earliest memories. The trouble is, there’s no security there, not for Brynn, not for any of us. All we will ever have is happening right now, and that’s no stable ground. Hanging on to an old car seat won’t bring back the sweetness of an early childhood, but the ache I feel inside at this moment is pulling my attention back to this life that is still happening (So call your folks and tell them you love them!).
We lose so much life without even participating in it! We are too busy trying to resurrect the dead past or filling our barns in preparation for an unpredictable future to notice the utter futility of an awareness thus restricted. Better to burn every pair of baby shoes, every love note from your spouse, every photo of the family that raised you, than to miss the moment in which you now sit that is calling your name.
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This morning as the kids were getting ready for school, I told my son that he had done a good job getting his stuff ready and that I loved him. “I don’t care”, he said. So I did what the moment demanded. I grabbed him and tickled him until he nearly peed. Our neighbor boy who waits for the bus at our place said, “man, I never hear you guys laugh like that.” It was like someone punched me in the gut, but he was right. Every morning my head is full of the rush and worry that surrounds the completion of my PhD. This anxiety regularly bleeds over to how I am around the kids as they get ready for the bus.
It won’t be long and there will be no more kids waiting of for buses, no more giggling when they should be reading, no more hugs and “I love you” signs made out the bus window as it drives away. Will I look back and ask, “Where were you?”
True to style, Radiolab recently produced an especially stellar episode on the obscure topic of nihilism (the view that life has no meaning or purpose). And apparently, they did such a good job with it that Glenn Beck picked it up and did an episode of his own on the matter. Beck thinks that Radiolab is endorsing nihilism (and also that they are a part of a progressive movement to seed the public mind, apparently). In thinking this, Beck entirely misses the real thrust of Radiolab’s episode, which is a shame because he could likely benefit from a bit more nihilism. Allow me to explain.
The Paradox of Serious Nihilistic Denial
My work centers on the classical insight that the fulfillment of life comes only after a certain kind of death (e.g. Mt. 16:25, Mk. 10:42-45). This entire blog, is one long meditation on this single monumental truth. So when I heard this episode by Radiolab, I could hardly stay in my seat. “They’re on to it!”, I shouted to my somewhat startled wife as we were cruising down the interstate. “On to what?”, she asked. “This is what I’m writing my dissertation on!”
Here I must clarify. I’m not writing my dissertation on nihilism. But then again, Radiolab’s episode was not really on nihilism either. Their episode was on the draw of nihilism, and that ends up pointing to something much larger. They noticed a trend in popular culture to valorize nihilism. The question (because Radiolab is always about the question) was: why?
In seeking to answer this Simon Critchley suggested that nihilism is as old as human history itself. Jad went on to explain that you’ll see it crop up whenever social structures begin to come undone, either by cultural decay, natural disasters, or war. He points to Ivan Turgenev’s novel “Fathers and Sons” as the moment the term nihilism was coined. In that novel the son turns to the father and says “We base our conduct on what we recognize as useful. In these days, the most useful thing we can do is repudiate. And so we repudiate everything.” The father says, “Everything?” “Everything… with indescribable composure.” In our time, all we need to do is turn on the news and we are bombarded with what seems to be a nameless evil that continues to emerge from both without and from within our own culture. It makes sense, then, that this urge to repudiate should manifest yet again. But when asked if there was something more potent about it in our own time, Critchley said, without hesitation, “yes.”
Recounting a class he taught with Eugene Thacker on mysticism, he tells of how in the fourth century AD, there was a movement in which people began to leave the great city of Alexandria for the desert. Influenced by a Neo-Platonic philosophy (and its suspicion of material reality) and a desire to encounter the pure love of Christ, these people fled the seat of all culture and learning of their day for the desolation of the Egyptian desert where they engaged in ascetic activities of self-renunciation and prayer. They wanted a love that was pure, and so they left what they deemed was evil in the world and sought to purge the evil within themselves in the solitude of the desert. What struck Critchley was that the students were deeply captivated by this image in a way that undergraduates are not typically prone to be captivated. Something in these strange mystics and their practices of solitude and bodily mortification in an attempt to free their capacity for love was hitting them in a very deep place.
Notice this: We are not talking about nihilism anymore. We are talking about forms of denial and about forms of criticism, but this is not nihilistic denial. Nihilistic denial must deny even the seriousness of its own denial, but these mystics denied and criticized the world and themselves out of a yearning for a goodness and truth the surpassed the world’s (or their own) ability to fathom. They recognized that even the very best human goods are ambiguous. As Thomas Merton said, “The best, imposed as a norm, becomes evil.” Thus, even the very best in human culture is open to criticism.
Negative Theology: Denial and the Transcendent Good
Again, this is not nihilism. This is what theology calls apophatic, or “negative” theology. Negative theology speaks of God, the ultimate good (Goodness itself), by way of negating the elements of creaturely goods that fail to rise to the level of the ultimate good. For example, we know that justice is good. But we do not know what perfect justice looks like. We only know what human justice looks like. Thus by way of the apophatic method we would seek to get closer to speaking of perfect justice by negating all the ways human justice fails to rise to the level of perfect justice. This way of thinking is thus critical of all human attempts to say positively what perfect justice is, but it is not nihilism. It is the denial that any human (ourselves included) have a positive and adequate concept for our longings for perfect truth, goodness, and fulfillment. There is a pull within us that we can hear calling our name, but though we have names for it (fulfillment, justice, salvation, etc), we do not know its essence (a classic source for this style of theology is Pseudo Dionysius the Areopagite who influenced almost all Western theology. Check out a marvelous passage of his here).
Rationalized Consciousness Sees the Apophtic as Nihilistic
Now, to the one who is convinced that they do have a positive and adequate concept for this deep goodness, apophatic criticism cannot be distinguished from nihilism. To their minds, their own concept is not open to criticism. They are convinced that they have the answer, thus any criticism is deemed not faithfulness to a transcendent good, but instead a merely corrosive attack. Beck seems rather obviously in this place. At the end of his episode he says “As this world devolves into chaos and depravity, people are searching for meaning. We have to provide them with truth on every platform possible.”
For him the matter is straightforward. “We” (as opposed to “the progressives”) have the truth and what is needed is simply to distribute it.
The Paradox Beyond the Alternatives
The desert mystics would see such truth, in spite of its divine claim, as being all too human. It is too bound up in the city and the world that they had abandoned. It represents the prison bars behind which eternal love lives, longing to be freed. This is why Christ was such a powerful figure for them. Not because, as Beck thinks, he came to impart an adequate concept of goodness, but because Christ, in a single move, exposed the evil of the world and a love beyond understanding by completely giving himself away. In this act, the ultimate nihilism and the ultimate meaning are one.
UPDATE: Since writing this I’ve been pressed on they way (in a previous draft) I affirmed Simon Critchley’s suggestion that nihilism goes all the way back. “Nihilism is a modern problem,” said my critic. I think that’s probably right. The examples the Critchley sites as nihilism prior to the modern era are in fact being conflated with other forms of criticism, including the apophatic criticism that I discussed in this paper. Thanks for the push-back, unnamed interlocutor.
When life is made superficial by an awareness dominated by the routine goals and desires of everyday life, adventure can be an opening to the depth of life, and therefore to the experience of salvation. That, in short, was the basic argument of the paper I presented at the Paul Tillich: Theology and Legacy conference last week in Oxford (You can view my photography from this conference here, if you’d like).
Upon wrapping up the conference, I then proceeded to take a late flight to Iceland where I drove southeast, finally coming to rest under the arctic twilight at 3:00 a.m. beneath Seljalandsfoss, a breathtaking cascade of glacial meltwater. After 3 hours of sleep, I hitchhiked with a former F-16 pilot from Oman to Skogafoss where the Fimmvörðuháls Trail begins. Over the next 19 miles I would climb and descend 3,280 feet; pass endless stunning waterfalls; cross a glacier; walk directly over Móði, one of the two eruption craters from the 2010 Eyjafjallajokull volcano; and be endlessly stunned by the otherworldly beauty of the weathered volcanic remains of Þórsmörk. (For those curious, you can view the complete photo set of this hike here).
The Fallacy of Self-Exemption
All the while I kept thinking about the words I had said at the conference. I had claimed both that adventure has the potential to deepen life, but also that anything in life—even adventure—can lose its depth and become superficial, ordinary, routine, “been there, done that.” When the latter frame of mind dominates our awareness our adventures become consumerism. We show up to our adventures looking to grab as many thrills for the least amount of effort so we can put them on like a suit and go home proving to our friends and family (and probably to ourselves) that we are authentic, daring, really alive. In this way, adventure is drug up from the depths and made to be merely superficial, a rather obvious form of pretension.
As I hiked along with my GoPro snapped to my pack and my giant DSLR bouncing conspicuously against my chest, I couldn’t help but feel the extent to which I was by no means innocent of my own critique. I noticed myself momentarily awestruck by some new feature the land presented me with: a waterfall, a flower, clouds forming all around me as the moist ocean wind cooled on its ascent… but then, just as quickly, I would anxiously reach for my camera. In that moment I had become a consumer. My anxiety about capturing the moment and my despondency upon missing it was evidence that I was trying to turn that unique gift into my own property. To the extent I lived in this frame of mind, my adventure had become superficial… an extension of merely everyday life.
Some Help from Walter Mitty
On the plane home I watched, for the second time, the slightly corny movie The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which, in spite of its campy style, remains one of my favorite movies of recent years. There is a moment where Sean Penn’s character, “Sean O’Connell” who plays an old-school photo journalist, is in the midst of almost capturing a photo of a rare snow leopard high in the Afghan Himalayas. As the ghost cat emerges from the rocks, Sean sighs with pleasure. He motions to Walter to have a look, but then he just sits there, gazing at the animal far across the mountain range. Walter is beside himself. “When are you going to take it?”, he asks. Sean replies, “Sometimes I don’t. If I like a moment, for me, personally, I don’t like to have the distraction of the camera. I just want to stay in it.”
In that brief statement O’Connell captures the experience I was wrestling with on the Fimmvörðuháls. There’s no anxiety when you’re able to “stay in it.” You don’t need to worry about consuming the moment, or deciding how to pin it to your chest as a badge of your authenticity. That’s what makes Sean’s character so appealing: the absence of an anxious ego born of a deeper security. In the terms of my paper, such is the experience of salvation.
Adventure Become Prayer
A major point of my paper was that salvation, as it appears through adventure, has the potential to enlarge our capacity to endure the unknown and the unknowable. And this was the other realization I had as I trekked over the Icelandic highlands: If one is able to let the consumerist mindset fall away, adventure becomes prayer. Each step, each breath, takes on the form of attentive expectation. One’s eyes begin scanning the horizon, even the ground beneath one’s feet, for the unfolding gift of life’s ongoing newness. As one settles into this sort of prayerful movement, absolutely nothing is “been there, done that.” All things are new, unexpected. One walks in gratitude. Photos become opportunities to share this joy with loved ones back home, rather than opportunities to prop up one’s ego.
Keeping Adventure Alive in the Everyday
In the end, my Icelandic adventure largely confirmed the intuitions I had when writing my paper, but what impressed me was how easy it was for my adventuring to fall off into the superficial. Much like the wandering mind during prayer, my everyday awareness was constantly reasserting itself even after being repeatedly knocked back by the wonders of my hike. Considering how difficult it was for me to shake this habit (It is most certainly still with me, even as I write this), I don’t suppose it would be too surprising for one to adventure for weeks on end without hardly denting their superficial frame of mind. I suppose for this reason, I may need to think more on how to further qualify this argument that I am still rather keen to make.
All the same, with the help of my wife, and other close family members, I’ve been away 10 days. I’m just now working to get back into the rhythms of my everyday life. It’s been delightful to notice how, like any adventure turned to prayer, the everyday life one returns to will never be the same. I am filled with a new enthusiasm for keeping my mind tuned to notice when merely everyday life threatens to deaden me to the adventure that lies always right beneath my nose, in the throbbing center of every moment we live… each shared glance… every waking child… a breath, a touch, a sigh.
The last walk to school with Adrian and our neighbor friends has come and gone. Summer is here, which for me means that my son, Adrian, is here. As any grad student with kids knows, trying to find a way to be both a good academic and a good parent, even amidst ideal circumstances, more often than not feels like an exercise in impossibility. Toss in the imposing demands of comprehensive examination preparation (which I will be sitting for in August) and it’s enough to stimulate a panic attack. For that reason, my friends, I’m going to have to check out for a few months.
During that time I’ll be flying off to England and Iceland to present my paper on Paul Tillich, salvation and adventure in July (which I’ve got nearly wrapped up.) The Iceland portion of that trip has now simply become an attempt to make good on all the adventure talk I’ll be spouting off about in my paper. I’m trying to convince my old friend Jon to join me. There may be a motorcycle involved. We’ll see. I hope to have my paper on prayer finished before I leave. And after all that, Megan, the family, and I will be heading out West to parts unknown for a family road trip of some kind. I look forward to getting back into the swing of things on the other side, as I’ve found the practice of blogging to be good for me on a number of levels.
I’ve got a couple posts that are still in the works, one of which is an appraisal of Dan Gilbert’s studies on happiness. Looking forward to sharing those with you when I come back up for air!
Best wishes on your own summer plans, whatever it is they may be!
The return of life to the recently frozen landscape has been slow in coming. Just these last few days the song birds have started reappearing. We saw the first Gold Finches on Saturday, then the Orioles, and finally today we were awoken by the sound of a Mockingbird. May it gladden your day as it did ours!
If the elemental question, “Who am I?”, is one that resonates with you, this chapter is a gold mine. Here Merton begins to unfold the heart of, not only this particular book, but his life-long intellectual and spiritual obsession: the contrast between authentic and inauthentic human being, what he often calls the “false self” and the “true self.”
The Truth of Self and God via the Death of Self and the Gods
In talking about the self, Merton is talking about God. His God is framed by his quest for identity, and his quest for identity is framed by God. What is especially interesting is the way he connects these terms. It is often heard that we will find our true identity in God, but Merton recognizes that this is dangerous talk. How can we know that what claims to be the will of God really is God and not merely the egoism of yet another impostor, another false self?
Merton’s way of addressing this begins with the idea that God is a reality that we are both separated from and inescapably united with. In the same way our true self is a reality with which we are both separated and inescapably united. When we live out our lives in the realm of our false self we live under the dominion of false gods, false powers that make false promises and false demands. “Live here and you will be happy and safe.” “Work here and you will be respected.” “Make enough money, then you will know freedom.” When, however, we are reunited with our true self we simultaneously live out of the truth of ourself as well as God. Merton here calls this “a union of deep wills” in contrast to the superficial separation of our routine life. Merton’s trope of choice to describe the transition from this state of estrangement to reunion is “death.”
We must learn to realize that the love of God seeks us in every situation, and seeks our good. His incurable love seeks our awakening. True, since this awakening implies a kind of death to our exterior self, we will dread His coming in proportion as we are identified with this exterior self and attached to it. But when we understand the dialectic of life and death we will learn to take the risks implied by faith, to make the choices that deliver us from the routine self and open to us the door of a new being, a new reality (15-16).
The Contrary is Not the Truth
This talk of our “exterior self,” “routine self,” and “false self” that must be died to, however, easily misleads us. It conjures up the idea that the only true way of being is somehow removing ourselves from the limits of spatio-temporally determined being and flouting all routine. This is not likely what Merton meant given the fact that when he wrote these words he was living as a Trappist monk—a life of routine if there ever was one—which included the vow of stability that committed him to living out the rest of his life at the Abbey of Gethsemani.
Merton evidently thought that living a life constituted by an intensification of routine and external limitations had something to do with connecting with his true identity, with God. He was convinced that the truth of both God and ourselves can only be received in freedom, spontaneity, and love. It is a tantalizing paradox, then, that to connect with this truth he committed himself to what looks like the very opposite of these qualities: obligation, routine, and isolation.
Salvific Death by Normalizing the Abnormal
The genius of monastic life is the way it both recognizes that conventional life is founded upon the determined quest for freedom, spontaneity and love, and upon recognizing this, it systematically frustrates this quest. But why? Outside the monastery we are living every moment of our lives trying to attain these qualities. We are working hard. We are praying. And yet each moment we think that we have grasped satisfaction, it fades away. We are left unhappy, frustrated, tired, empty. What the monastic life does is remove the illusion that we will ever attain true satisfaction via our attempts to possess true satisfaction. The monastic life is arranged from the inside out to render the very quest impossible.*
Does it seem depressing to you? Your days of being off on a whim to travel the world are forever over. Your clothes are the same every day… and the same as what everyone around you wears. The routine is unrelenting. Do you see why the idea of “death” comes naturally to mind in describing this way to the truth of self and God? Listen now to his words:
The mind that is the prisoner of conventional ideas, and the will that is the captive of its own desire cannot accept the seeds of an unfamiliar truth and a supernatural desire. For how can I receive the seeds of freedom if I am in love with slavery and how can I cherish the desire of God if I am filled with another and an opposite desire?… I must learn therefore to let go of the familiar and the usual and consent to what is new and unknown to me. I must learn to ‘leave myself’ in order to find myself by yielding to the love of God. If I were looking for God, every event and every moment would sow, in my will, grains of His life that would spring up one day in a tremendous harvest (16).
Can you begin to hear what he is after? The answer to the question “who am I?”, the answer to the question “Who is God?”, is received in every moment as new life. It is unknown to us. It is like the joy of an unexpected present that doesn’t fade upon opening it, for we never stop opening it. Our sin is that we grab at it; we strive to make it known, make it ours to control, a possession. The gift of our life becomes like a small holiday bonus put toward paying off already incurred credit card debts.
The Dead and the Living
It’s a strange thing that the dead should be most fully alive. But Merton and those few like him certainly give that impression. It makes a certain kind of sense, for who is the most free to be spontaneously present to the moment in love but the one who has nothing to lose by being there.
May we be open the the courage that sheds all these false-securities and so awakens us to the gift that is ourself, fully present in the center of God’s love.
*As an aside, that monasticism cultivates detachment by means of ascetic practices might well be simply an accident of history. In a culture dominated by ascetic practices it might be imagined that salvific detachment might better come via a hedonistic practices that risk tarnishing the carefully crafted ascetic image. If the reigning metaphor was death, salvation would come by way of life. The point is that neither asceticism nor hedonism are ends in themselves; rather, each of them, under the right circumstances, might serve to open one to the ever abundant love in which we live.
This past year I’ve dabbled a bit on the relationship between adventure and salvation (here and here), but I have now been given the opportunity to do a more focused treatment of these ideas. I was recently informed that a proposal I submitted to a conference in Oxford, England called, Paul Tillich: Theology and Legacy has been accepted. I had basically written off the possibility of going due to the expense, but at the last minute I decided to toss together a few of these crazy ideas and see what happened. Below is the proposal I submitted. I’ll be flying over in July to present the paper which I am currently working on. I’ll be sure to post the full paper once it’s finished. Stay tuned.
Paul Tillich, Salvation, and Big, Unnecessary, Crazy, Travel Adventure
Paul Tillich emphasized that salvation has a paradoxical form. Among a growing community of people, the cultural quest for salvation has recently taken just such a turn. Rather than keeping the evils of death and meaninglessness at bay via the comfortable promises of a technologically manipulated environment, some have taken it upon themselves to, instead, quit their jobs and embark upon incredible journeys in some of the harshest environments of the planet. They thrive on rather minimal preparation, entrust themselves to the kindness of strangers, and frequently change their plans. From bicycling 30,000 miles home, across Siberia—in winter, as Rob Lilwall did, to more humble “micro-adventures” as Alastair Humphreys encourages, these adventurers have at least one thing in common: They encounter an intensity of life that the normal mode of technologically-dependent life systematically subverts.
What I hope to argue is that this movement points to the experience of salvation in our time. Tillich’s thinking on salvation was often framed by the ideas of what he called structure and depth. These were the terms he was thinking in when he described culture as the form of religion and religion as the depth of culture. The basic problem that he identified is that religion has been artificially separated from culture and that culture is then ever in danger of losing its depth. Thus, if salvation is the dynamic encounter of the depth of being within the structure, and if the structure has lost its grammar of depth, then it is understandable that people will go looking for depth elsewhere. And we might expect that they will do so precisely by spurning empty cultural forms. I hope to show that these individuals represent a theologically interesting enactment of the fragmentary overcoming of estrangement in our time.