living through death

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

Building Our Own Home: Three Months In

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In the months since defending my dissertation, I’ve changed gears a bit. I haven’t been reading much and I’ve done next to zero writing. That might sound bad, but I assure you, I’ve not been completely idle. You see, my family and I broke ground on our new home on June 30th. We’re building it ourselves. Here’s a few things I’ve learned:

1. Believe the people who say that it’ll cost more than you think. “Yeah, that’s just suckers talking,” I thought, “They don’t know me!” Yet, even though I meticulously budgeted everything I could possibly think of, tried to overestimate a number of things, AND included a $10,000 “extra stuff” line item, we are still just barely in budget… I expect that to change in the near future (This is in part because I recently decided to go with spray foaming the rim joists and doing dense pack cellulose for the walls and cathedral ceiling).

2. What the space of our home “feels like” during construction changes all the time. We dug the hole and thought, “uh oh… we’re building a closet!” The footings went in and it felt even worse! Now, with the framing complete, what we thought was a quaint little 24×30 home feels gigantic! Very disorienting.

3. These new little impact drivers are FANTASTIC! Also, I LOVE LOVE LOVE my Bosch compound gliding miter saw with gravity rise stand and accompanying roller stands. Last one… I can’t get enough of this little “Snake bite” nail puller tool. For a guy who has only had a flat bar in the past, it’s like I’ve discovered a magical tool crafted by the elves!

4. Some phases of the build are impressive and dramatic. Others are so very very not. For example, I just spent the last 8 days (10 hours a day!) installing roof venting on our cathedral ceiling. Were you to walk in there on day one and again today, you’d be hard pressed to see that I’ve done anything other than fill the house with sawdust and wood scraps!

5. I need to constantly remind myself what I’m grateful for since there is ALWAYS the next absolutely crucial thing to be very worried about. “I’ll calm down once we dig the hole and have finally settled on the orientation of the home. Then I can just relax and build!” “I’ll calm down once we get the walls poured so the cave ins don’t knock over my concrete forms. Then I can just relax and build!” “I’ll calm down once we get the structure dried in. Then I can just relax and build!” Now here comes winter… etc, etc, etc. Unless I check myself, I will NEVER calm down.

6. After nearly a decade of graduate school in theology, working long and hard doing physical labor while creating a very tangible object feels so very good!

7. Stacking all your Sheetrock right next to the wall in the basement, while being space efficient, comes with the liability that you’ll now have to move it all again when it comes time to do the electrical.

8. You can’t make all your decisions on the front end. Learn to make place holder decisions that allow the project to move forward and work to be flexible as the work continues. I so very badly wanted to have everything perfectly planned out from the beginning, but this desire nearly led to a mental breakdown. You can’t possibly have everything decided for at the outset since so many of these decisions are interrelated and depend upon actually feeling a space that, at best, is represented only two-dimensionally at the beginning. Make decisions that are “good enough for now” and revisit.

9. When exhausted, dirty, and overwhelmed, remember why you’re doing this. In our case, we want to be here. We love our community. We wanted to build ourselves because we want to learn, grow, and increase our self-sufficiency (and we could never afford this house otherwise!). And finally, we wanted to build THIS house because we want to live in a space that facilitates a life rich in the values that are important to us.

It’s happening, it’s hard, but it’s worth it!

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Written by Alex

September 25, 2016 at 9:05 am

It Is Finished!

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Yesterday, Monday, April 11th, between 9:30 and 11:30, I successfully defended my dissertation (I link to the full-text at the end of this post). It passed with no need for further edits and with a surprising amount of enthusiasm! It’s been nine years since I started my academic journey in theology. To be honest, the emotions are still trying to figure out what what they should be doing!

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The run up to my defense was chaotic. The person in charge of scheduling the defense was on maternity leave with no auto-response associated with their email address, so our request to schedule my defense (now already after the spring graduation deadline!) sat for an additional two weeks unanswered. When we finally got in touch with someone, things moved fast. Much faster than I was emotionally prepared for!

I was given essentially a week and a half to prepare. I’d never been to one of these before, so I was faced with the added difficulty of not really having a concept of what I was preparing for. At the very least, I knew there was to be a 10 to 20 minute introduction that I would have to give. Seeing that fairly objective, and also feeling the most anxiety about the presentation element of my defense, I got busy cranking out a stellar presentation.

I worked my brain to exhaustion repeatedly over the next ten days. Then, with two days left to practice and read through my draft one last time, I finished my presentation and gave it a test run…

It took me THIRTY EIGHT MINUTES to talk through about a THIRD of it!

The word “doomed” floated across my mind. I imagined myself walking into the defense hall, shrugging my shoulders and saying “Well, I tried to put together an intro, but I screwed it up. What say we just state the title nice and clearly and move on to the questions?”

Instead, I got up early the next morning, retreated to the detached garage in the back yard, stoked a nice fire and proceeded to craft a stripped-down version of both my talk and slides. I began practicing that night. More practicing the next day was combined with an afternoon of reading my dissertation again (while Megan sewed the button back onto the only pair of dress pants that fit me anymore!) Megan and I hit the road at 3:00pm to stay with her sister and our brother-in-law near St. Paul. To bed early, then awake, unable to sleep at 3:30 am. And finally, after some tense traffic, we were alone in an empty auditorium awaiting the arrival of my committee.

“The work is done” I kept telling myself. “All that’s left to do now is relax and be responsive to your readers.” My body seemed altogether unwilling to take my mind’s sage advice, so I fumbled around fretfully arranging the podium and occasionally walked to the window to get my mind off of the stark surroundings. There was a bronze sculpture called “Living Hope of the Resurrection” in the small garden just outside. Its presence was a gift.

The gift was to increase, for just then Megan returned to the conference room with a number of my friends and colleagues who had arrived. The room quickly filled with graduate students, recently graduated friends, and finally my committee, Dr Lois Malcolm (my adviser) and Drs Amy Marga and Mary Hess (my readers).

The actual defense was a blur. I recall feeling deeply relieved that things were finally underway, and pleasantly surprised at the general enthusiasm and encouragement of my committee. My only regret is that I once caused Dr Marga to forget her question when a certain topic she touched on led me to turn and wink at my good friend Derek Maris in the audience. Maybe regret is too strong of a word, but I did feel a little bad about it.

In the end, my committee helped me to reconnect with the possibility that there may well be something important going on in my work. After years of these ideas being couched within a process that we’ve just been trying to just get through, it’s been easy for me to lose sight of what led me to these ideas in the first place. They pushed me to really think about how the theological method I’ve begun to chart has validity for both religious communities as well as for a culture that has largely ceased to give a rip about religious communities. I’m looking forward to the challenge.

Megan and I breathed a tremendous sigh of relief as we walked to the car, only to discover that we had gotten, not one, but TWO parking tickets… which turned out to be letters of congratulations that my Aunt Debra had snuck over sometime during the defense.🙂

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My Facebook feed has been a non-stop accumulation of well wishes and congratulations ever since the first word went out yesterday. What a tremendous feeling. Thank you all!

And now, for those who are curious, I present to you the final draft of my dissertation: Dying to Live: The Paradox of Christian Salvation, The Terror of Death, And Developmental Stages Theory. It is a mix of personal narrative and academic reflection. Many of you have been a part of the narrative it contains. It is my hope that the narrative will only continue and deepen. Thank you!

Moving: A Reflection in the Form of a Note to My Kids

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In 10 days we will be moving away from Rice, MN. We’ve spent 12 years of our lives here. One of the things that I am most deeply grateful for that has emerged from this time is the love that has literally been born into the world between you, Adrian and Brynn. Yes, Adrian, you are prone to being a know-it-all in the presence of your sister. And, yes, Brynn, you are prone to squealing and whining in the presence of Adrian. But from the first smile that crossed Adrian’s face when you were born seven and a half years ago, you two have shared a love that has been our joy to witness. And that’s probably what breaks my heart most about this move…

I remember last year at conferences, Adrian, Mrs. Davis—who tended to be rather serious—got a big smile on her face as she described how much you loved being Brynn’s big brother at school. She told me how, when “leading the line,” if you heard her voice, you would make the whole line slow down in the hall so that you might be able to wave at Brynn as she passed by. Then this year, Brynn, Mrs. Christensen told us how Adrian comes into your room every morning and gives you a hug and a high-five before he goes to his own room. Someday, when you have a little more experience in this world, you will realize just how beautiful these images are. These are the last days, however. In Fergus you will be going to different schools…

Last night I was not feeling well, so I was trying to go to bed early. You two were in your room with the light on just jabbering away. I had to go in and have you shut all the lights off (including your lava lamp) and tell you get to sleep. You were both sitting there in your jammies (Adrian in his dinosaur footies, and Brynn, you in your princess nightgown) coloring a Minecraft coloring sheet. Once I was back in bed, and for the next half hour, you then decided to sing songs to each other (I have no idea about what), so I had to go tell you to stop that as well.

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You both are pretty nervous about the idea of having your own rooms. You’ve slept in the same room together ever since there was such a thing as you “together.” You keep asking if we can just make one room for you in the new house. There is, of course, a part of me that would give anything to build you one room in our new house where you could always live as our children, singing to each other in your jammies, even while we tried to get some sleep. It goes without saying that you will always have a room like that in the hearts of your mother and I, and in the heart of God, I suspect, these days live on as much more than memories. But in this life, things move on. We grow up. We say goodbye. We become ourselves, often in quite lonely and difficult ways.

Leaving is hard. Growing up is hard. But it’s part of life. I’ve gone through it myself… I’m still going through it. So, a bit of advice: Never forget this love you’ve known. Look for it in your new home. Create it with the new people who will enter your life. Reconnect with it in the lives of those of us who have been with you from the beginning, mom and I, your brother, your sister, your grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, your first neighbors and friends.

So there we go. I’m so deeply grateful for the life we’ve had here in Rice. I’m so deeply grateful for the love that you’ve grown to know. May we only grow deeper in that love as we move into this next chapter!

Written by Alex

March 1, 2016 at 12:50 pm

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Only Idolators Can Compare Gods: On Wheaton College and Dr. Hawkins

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Do Muslims Worship the Same God?

If you can answer “yes” or “no” to this question, you’ve got yourself a problem. And that’s exactly where Wheaton College has found itself thanks to the words of one of its professors, Dr. Larycia Alaine Hawkins. In her attempt to love her Muslim neighbors, she affirmed (citing Pope Francis) that Christians worship the same God as Muslims. Obviously the stakes are high here, particularly for an evangelical institution that holds mission work to be central to its calling. So now a beautiful act of solidarity and compassion has been turned into a big problem (funny how often that happens).

In a certain sense, this problem can be easily resolved. In another sense, it can’t. The easy solution is a theological one (Miroslav Volf takes a fiery stab at the difficult problem here). Since it’s still rather early in the morning for me, I will content myself to address the easy one. The trouble is that this whole discussion has gotten of on the wrong foot. To be as blunt as possible (too blunt, in fact!):

Only idolators can compare gods.

The Christian tradition has always held that God is strictly incomprehensible, a consequence of which is that God is “ineffable,” that is, beyond superlative and therefore beyond our ability to speak of as we speak of created realities. This point bears directly on the problem we are examining. The moment that God can be analyzed as a concept and compared to other concepts of God, one has stepped away from the classical Christian tradition. One has, as it were, brought God out of heaven and made God a thing within creation: an idol. Depending on the heart of one’s piety, this may or may not be a problem (see this stunning story by the Muslim mystic, Rumi (thank you Adam!), for what I mean). Even so, idols are dangerous! Once we seemingly have God—the ultimate truth and power—within our conceptual grasp, those we deem as serving another god must be outside the truth of reality. If one happens to be of a compassionate disposition, one will attempt to convert them to one’s own concept of God, if not… well, we’ve seen where that has been going lately.

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However, the alternative is not a necessary one. And this is true even in the face of the somewhat misinformed objection that Muslims are monotheists while Christians are trinitarian. Have we just run into some god concepts here? The non-catechized, non-theologian will be forgiven for thinking that we have. But in reality, we have just stumbled into strange linguistic world of theology.

When doing theology, that is, when attempting to think and speak about God, one is engaging in an impossible act. We use words that have their origins within creation to speak of that which is the “source” of creation (scare quotes here to warn the reader not to mistake the word “source” for our creaturely experience of things that have a source, like children and rivers. See the difficulty here?).

To make my point by way of an authority a good bit more vast than my own, consider this remarkable passage from St. Augustine (For those unacquainted, Augustine is perhaps the greatest patriarch of the Christian church in history). After going into some detail attempting to explain the nature of the Trinity, he says the following:

Have we spoken or announced anything worthy of God? Rather I feel that I have done nothing but wish to speak: if I have spoken, I have not said what I wished to say. Whence do I know this, except because God is ineffable? If what I said were ineffable, it would not be said. And for this reason God should not be said to be ineffable, for when this is said something is said. And a contradiction in terms is created, since if that is ineffable which cannot be spoken, then that is not ineffable which can be called ineffable. This contradiction is to be passed over in silence rather than resolved verbally. For God, although nothing worthy may be spoken of Him, has accepted the tribute of the human voice and wished us to take joy in praising Him with our words. (On Christian Teaching)

Likewise, Pope Francis never said that Muslims worship the “same” God (as if God can be compared!). At a celebratory gathering in Rome of fraternal delegates of churches, ecclesial communities and international ecumenical bodies, Pope Francis welcomed the attendants by saying, “I then greet and cordially thank you all, dear friends belonging to other religious traditions; first of all the Muslims, who worship the one God, living and merciful…” For Pope Francis, steeped in the Christian tradition as he his, “The one God” does not designate a god concept, in the same way that the Trinity does not cash out a god concept. These are words and formulas that have as their referent the all-embracing reality, beyond, within, and through our frail creaturely experience. We call that reality God, even while warning that in doing so we, with Augustine, release any conceptual claim and speak, instead, with joy and praise.

Finally, it is worth recognizing that these linguistic maneuvers are patterned after the the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. The divinity of Christ consisted in, not in entering the world as a god to confront all other gods, but rather, manifesting the divine in the act of giving himself away, without limit.

This is what I see Dr. Hawkins attempting to do in identifying with those who are being marginalized and threatened by the dominant culture. And that’s the sense in which this whole problem cannot be easily resolved. The deeper root is not linguistic, but ethical and tightly wrapped within the prevailing power structures. Perhaps Wheaton would retract their suspension if a more nuanced understanding of these words, indeed, these ethics(!), could be appreciated? We can and ought pray for it. May Christ be with them as he is clearly with Dr. Hawkins.

What was that About?: God and Morality

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They say that if you can’t state your big idea in a few concise paragraphs, you have not really processed your big idea adequately. It’s been years since I finished my masters thesis, but I think I’m finally able to state briefly what it was about:

The question:
Is God necessary for morality?

My conclusion:
Yes, but not if God “exists.”

Why put it this way?

The problem lies in what “existence” has come to mean for us. If morality is said to hang upon the command/will of an “existing” being (i.e., one being—even the highest being—among other beings), then we cannot escape the fact that morality is arbitrary. This view comes with the additional problem that individuals who see themselves as knowing the mind of God, will therefore feel justified in enforcing God’s moral truth in spite of all indications that such actions are, in fact, producing great evil.

If, however, God is thought of, not as an existing being, but as existence-itself, then the deepest truth of reality—both within the world and within ourselves—will be a moral truth. Acting morally will coincide with ultimate fulfillment, not because a highest being decreed it thusly, but because such is simply the nature of reality (and God = “the nature of reality”). This view comes with the benefit that the deepest truth of existence-itself will always escape the grasp of any particular individual. Right moral action will need to be listened for within the varieties of existence, and it will be inappropriate to enforce one variety that is suitable for one form of existence against another.

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If, however, one rejects both that God exists and that God is existence-itself, that is, if one affirms that existence has no depth whatsoever, then morality evaporates. For the essence of a moral imperative is its promise of ultimate fulfillment (don’t think of “what happens when we die,” but “a truth or good worth giving everything for.”). If there is no depth to existence, there is no ultimate fulfillment. Reality is, at bottom, absurd. As such, all is provisional and, like a dog, we needn’t look too far beyond our own nose. In some ways this view is still an advance over the first position since, unlike the convinced believer who will plow through signs that they are on the wrong path as if they were God’s bulldozer, the nihilist, in their provisionality, is at least open to sniff out the changing conditions of their situation. We might remember that it is often the dogs who know the tsunami is coming even while the rest of us preparing our fishing nets. Yet the question still nags, who cares?

And it is my (perhaps “our?”) inability to escape that last question that ultimately leads me back to the second position. God, in this sense, is the source and the answer to the moral question that forms our lives.

Written by Alex

December 2, 2015 at 10:25 am

Thomas Merton: The Basic Sin of Christianity

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Being a Christian has never been easy for me. There have been numerous seasons where I’ve wanted to simply ditch the whole program. Yet, over the years, I eventually came to see that I had good Christian reasons for my dissatisfaction. This morning I came across a wonderful passage by Thomas Merton that helps illuminate what I mean by that. He suggests that Christianity is tempted with a single basic sin. He says that,

The basic sin, for Christianity, is rejecting others in order to choose oneself, deciding against others and deciding for oneself. (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, 172.)

It is a simple statement with powerful depth. With that single sentence Merton essentially captures all the various elements of my religion that made it nearly impossible for me to remain. From the stubborn defense of cherished readings of the Bible against other truth-seeking discourses (such as the empirical sciences) to the exclusivist theology in which only those who believed the right things would attain true humanity and avoid everlasting torment. All of these things amounted to the choosing and defense of oneself and one’s ideas over against the destabilizing possibilities that others represent.

Merton and the Dali Lama

During my own religious crisis, I would often say that what I wanted more than anything was truth. If my religion, and therefore the meaning of my life, was not in fact truth, I wanted to know that. While I was in seminary I encountered some who seemed much more keen on preserving the meaning of their life in the form of their religion. I was always unsettled and aggravated by such encounters. At the time, I interpreted it as a conflict between truth and Christianity, and as such I felt a growing pressure to leave Christianity. It would be some time yet before I came to see the conflict as having much more to do with the sin of self-justification.

Merton drives the point home powerfully:

Why is this sin so basic? Because the idea that you can choose yourself, approve yourself, and then offer yourself (fully “chosen” and “approved”) to God, applies the assertion of yourself over against God. From this root of error comes all the sour leafage and fruitage of a life of self-examination, interminable problems and unending decisions, always making right choices, walking on the razor edge of an impossibly subtle ethic (with an equally subtle psychology to take care of the unconscious). All this implies the frenzied conviction that one can be [one’s] own light and [one’s] own justification, and that God is there for a purpose: to issue the stamp of confirmation upon my own rightness. In such a religion the Cross becomes meaningless except as the (blasphemous) certification that because you suffer, because you are misunderstood, you are justified twice over—you are a martyr. Martyr means witness. You are then a witness? To what? To your own infallible light and your own justice, which you have chosen.
This is the exact opposite of everything Jesus ever did or taught. (Conjectures, 172.)

In contrast to much of what passes as Christianity in our day, Merton helps us see that the true mark of Christian faithfulness lies not in vigorous demonstrations of certainty, or in a zeal to defend the purity of the faith against the contamination of others (be they political, religious, or otherwise). Such are the machinations of self-preservation. True Christianity is just the opposite. True Christianity, like Christ, exposes our self-preserving tendencies. True Christianity cares little about whether or not it is true Christianity, for its eyes are no longer anxiously searching itself for its own justification. In the power of grace, one’s “self” is allowed to pass away, and others cease to be a threat. A posture of defense turns to a posture of hospitality.

This is not a form of Christianity that I have any temptation to leave. It is not open to my critique, but rather I find myself always exposed in its presence. But not only exposed, also accepted, and called by its beauty. It has been a long road, but I am deeply grateful for thinkers like Merton who have helped me see that what seemed like unfaithfulness was in reality the movement of a deeper stirring. I pray that we all might find such light to live by, beyond pretension, defensiveness, and fear.

Written by Alex

August 11, 2015 at 9:19 am

Introduction

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A Brief Overview

It is often thought that Christianity keeps its adherents in a state of perpetual immaturity. As a sociological fact, this may be hard to argue against. Much that goes by the name Christianity looks quite near to what Ernest Becker described as a fearful “death denying ideology.” In theological terminology, such ways of being amount to self-salvation programs. The terror of death drives us to avoid all forms of death. Yet, at the heart of Christianity stands one who chose his own death and encouraged his followers to take up their own crosses and follow him. Such an act, apparently, has an important role to play in an understanding of Christian salvation. In this thesis, I make use of developmental stages theory to illuminate what that role is. I argue that Christian salvation is founded on a paradoxical death that is best made sense of in light of contemporary developmental stages theory, in particular, at the thresholds of developmental stage transition. To illuminate this claim I trace out the logic across the rational, desirous, and active dimensions of human being. These dimensions are explored, in order, by way of Paul Tillich’s philosophy of religion, Sebastian Moore’s spiritual Christology, and the practice of Centering prayer. Taken together, it is concluded that Christianity has tremendous resources for helping its adherents come to grips with their death denying strategies and therefore enlarge their capacity for psychological and spiritual maturity.

Introduction

We are familiar with the story. The young person raised in a religious home goes off to college, or perhaps seminary, and loses their faith. For them and for their family back home, it is a painful and bewildering experience. Their minds fill with questions about how they could have gone so wrong. The parents wonder if they should have paid for the private Christian college, or if they did, their guilt is even more intense, and explanations, even harder to come by. Never would it occur to any of them that the maturing young adult might be actually embodying the very death and resurrection of Christ. It might even be the case that the parents’ resistance to facing what has actually affected their child puts them more on the side of the Pharisees than faith. How could this be?

At the center of this study stands the paradox of Christian salvation. Christianity is founded on the image of one who faced, engaged, and befriended the negativities of human existence, even the most radical of them all: death. In doing so, Jesus came to be called Christ the Savior. To follow this Christ, Christians are called to likewise lose their life in order to find it, to take up their cross and follow him. These are a vague and puzzling set of instructions. Perhaps because of this, the enormity of this paradoxical insight, as it pertains to spiritual growth and the way we deal with existential doubt, has hardly begun to be realized.

My aim in this thesis is to shed new light on the way that the paradox of Christian salvation transforms what appears as death, doubt, and faithlessness into new life during the normal course of one’s maturing spiritual life. I claim that developmental stage theories, specifically the work of Robert Kegan, provide us with a powerful tool to analyze and understand the formal dynamics of this spiritual development. I augment Kegan’s theory with the work of Ernest Becker, who focuses on the content of what keeps people and cultures clinging to self-destructive patterns of thought and action. We might think of Becker as providing a sustained analysis of why we are so often in the company of “those who seek to save their lives.” Becker helps us see that the often terrifying experience of psychological and, therefore, spiritual growth stems from an underlying fear of death (especially the death of our “self-esteem”) which lies well beneath the surface of our stated concepts and commitments. After setting up my analytical apparatus, I move to apply it to the rational, passional, and practical dimensions of human being by examining Paul Tillich’s philosophy of religion, Sebastian Moore’s spiritual Christology, and the practice of Centering Prayer.

Liminal: Sunset over Rice Minnesota

My aim from this work is twofold. My first goal is to develop a constructive theological proposal that shows how Christian salvation, when understood in its full paradoxical nature, unites the theoretical work of these thinkers with the practice of Centering Prayer. And, secondly, I aim to show how, contrary to our intuitions, a certain kind of death in the realm of our rational, desirous, and practical life (doubt, disaffection, and inaction) can lead through disintegration into a deepening maturity. This thesis will thus be dynamic enough to accommodate all stages of human maturation, while maintaining a focus on the universality of our fear of death as it takes on new forms at different developmental thresholds. By doing this, I hope to illuminate how Christianity possesses the theological resources to transform what is so often thought of as a loss of faith into an actual advance in spiritual maturity.


This post is a continuation of a series in which I make use of the blogosphere to motivate my dissertation free-writing. For context, read the short summary of my work here. There you will also find a table of contents with links to all the posts in this series.