living through death

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

Introduction

leave a comment »

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.

A Brief Update: An Interruption Due to Productivity

with 2 comments

As regular readers may have noticed, the blog posts have been a bit thin as of late. I feel like I owe you and explanation. You see, something unexpected has happened. Out of the handful of reasons I had for deciding to attempt to blog my way through my dissertation, one of the main ones was that it had the curious effect of increasing my productivity. It put me in the right head-space. However, about a month ago, the effectiveness of blogging for productivity was supplanted by a nondescript little feature that was hidden away in my writing application. Allow me to introduce you to Scrivener‘s “Project Targets” panel:

Scrivener Project Targets

Now, Scrivener is an unbelievable writing tool in general, but this little feature has just done it for my particular psychological makeup. You see, I’m the sort of person who can move heaven and earth if you just give me a little feedback. The moment my wife and I bought a car with a real-time MPG gauge I instantly became a hypermiler. I bought a scale and a calorie counting app and lost 20 lbs (and mostly kept it off… though the latter stages of this dissertation have begun to take their toll!). About a year ago I downloaded Personal Capital’s financial tracking app and have radically boosted our family’s savings as a result.

Each of these scenarios involved a new source of feedback and resulted in dramatic change. Why? Prior to having some real-time feedback, it was just numbers in the void. It didn’t “feel” real. Real-time feedback made these nebulous abstractions an immediate, concrete, measurable, reality. It just so happens that this is just the sort of thing that has the power to motivate me. I still have a bit of a teenage mind, you see. Abstractions that float somewhere off in the future (like “finishing the dissertation!”) don’t hit my brain as being real. Scrivener’s project targets panel has addressed this problem for me.

As any dissertation writing website well tell you, the key to finishing a dissertation is that you don’t sit down to write “your dissertation.” You sit down to write a page or so. Every. Day. “The muse honors the working stiff,” as Steven Pressfield says in The War of Art. The beauty of Scrivener’s project targets panel is that it gives the “working stiff” a sense of a accomplishment and hope.

Its design is elegant and effective. First you set the word count target for your entire project. Next you set the date that you want to complete your project on. From there you select the days of the week that you plan to write, and that’s it! The project targets panel will calculate how many words you must complete every day to meet your total word count goal by the date you have specified.

From the motivational standpoint your daily goal is then simply to make that little red bar move across the screen and turn to a delightful shade of green as it goes! Better yet, if you exceed your daily word goal, every day after that will be calculated to reflect your over-achieving efforts!

So all that’s just to say that I’m now two thirds of the way through chapter 5 of 6, but I haven’t posted in awhile because I’ve been busy “movin’ the progress bar!” I aim to have this whole show wrapped up shortly, at which point I will then get to work posting the rest of my project here.

So if you’re a feedback nut and find yourself searching for the motivation to complete a large writing project, check out Scrivener and get busy movin’ the bar!

Written by Alex

June 10, 2015 at 11:25 am

Sebastian Moore: Christ & Salvation

with one comment

In the previous section we outlined Sebastian Moore’s theory of original sin. There he characterized original sin as a self-limitation of life that is necessary for our emergence into self-aware existence, but that gets stuck in exclusively that self-limited way of being. Growth beyond the relative safety of our socially-bound self-limitation is powerfully resisted, based, as it is, upon a fundamental mistrust of life that goes all the way back to the first experiences of being an autonomous reality separate from our mother. As both Becker and Kegan have helped us see, our fearful reliance on coping strategies formed along this developmental journey has the effect of alienating us from each other and from our own potential as life becomes more complex than the original conditions under which they were formed. We noted how these original conditions gave rise to the persistent human habit of attempting to find our identity by always measuring ourselves against others. Such is our “first focus” that we cling to because it is the world in which we first entered as self-aware beings. That being the case, it is understandable that our first focus easily becomes our only focus. However, our desire is unlimited, and for that reason our efforts to attain unlimited significance by measuring ourselves against limited others leads us to eat each other alive, as is amply reflected in the world’s constant war between the sexes, the social divisions that result from economic inequity, the conflict between racial, cultural, and religious others, and even the alienation between coworkers, family members, and friends.

The problem, therefore, consists of two parts. The first is that our true desire has been repressed. We easily settled for much safer forms of desire, and for that reason, we are easily led by the nose, allowing others to tell us what we should do, what we should love, and who we should fear. The second part of the problem is that for those whose deeper desire has begun to break through the surface of life, nothing in the world can satisfy it. Such people are like the Ebola virus, burning themselves up as well as the people around them with little regard for the impracticality of their actions.[1]

Moore articulates the Christian solution as being not so much the creative repression of a genius, as Becker argued for, or the unrepression of the insane, as Becker felt the evangelists of unrepression must end with. Instead, Moore shows how Jesus leads his followers on a two two-step journey that mirrors the two-fold problem of the human condition. Jesus first awoke his disciples to their true desires, but then, as the one who stretched out his life beyond the limits we set upon it, he revealed to them resurrected life. Or as he puts it in another place, “We are to become, first, honest, then cosmic.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 127.)

DSC_0167

How does Moore work this out? From what we have seen so far, we can view the story of the emergence of original sin as the story of the loss of the child in us, a foreshortened sense of our desirableness. (Let this Mind Be in You, 117.) In view of this, Moore encourages us to see the story of Jesus as the story of one who retains this child and, for that reason, is without original sin. We must also recall what was said earlier on the two general ways the problem of original sin is solved, namely, by way of indirect and direct awakening.

We are now ready to see the specific way that Moore conceives of Jesus as conquering sin. The basic pattern is that Jesus experienced his own desirability directly (union with the Father), and for that reason was able to bring about the indirect awakening of desire in those around him. Nothing too radical is on display at this point since these are the movements that, to varying degrees, occur between people every day. What makes the Christ event incomparable is its intensity and what occurred in the dramatic death of Jesus.

In terms of intensity, the Christian story is of one who’s experience of his own desirability was off the map of normal human experience. As Moore says, “his influence was the maximum possible within the limits of person-to-person contact. The charm, the magic, the allure of Jesus swept the whole range of human interaction, exhausted the possibilities of mutual awakening.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 117.) It was this spiritual mindset that enabled Jesus to utterly cut against the grain of expected social norms, pouring forth a compassion that had no limit. No fragile ego limited his ability to reach out toward the members of society that represent the elements of the (predominately male)[2] psyche that are repressed during its developmental journey: the opposite sex, cultural “others,” moral transgressors; and, perhaps even more significantly, those who are explicit reminders of death; the poor, the sick, and the political oppressors. This intensity produced a new hope for human existence. It created what Jesus called the “Kingdom of God,” and produced, precariously, heaven on earth. (Let this Mind Be in You, 117.)

However, this new hope collapsed in the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus. Since Jesus awoke those around him to the maximum extent possible within the limits of social arousal, there could be no comparable level of social arousal after Jesus. There could be nothing except for the other awakening: “the direct awakening of the sense of being desirable, by the One by whose desire we exist.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 118.) Moore sees the whole validity of the Christian message to hang on the series of encounters after Jesus’ death that gave rise to this awakening. This transition, so famously bungled earlier by Peter and the request of James and John (Matthew 16:13-23, Mark 10:35-45), was the “ah ha” moment that Jesus had been trying to instill in his disciples throughout his ministry, but it took his removal from the scene of creaturely existence and the disciples subsequent reflection on the nature of his removal for the insight to finally click. The cross effected for them the horizontal explosion of social (indirect) arousal into the vertical dimension of mystical (direct) arousal.

What was the nature of Jesus’ removal, and why does it matter to our discussion? Moore stresses, that the nature of Jesus exit from the scene of creaturely existence was that of one who chose their own sacrifice. This is not suicide, or even the passion of one who runs into a burning building to save another. The gospel memory is of one who “set his face towards Jerusalem,” in the full knowledge that his vocation was leading inexorably to his death. Moore sees the essential quality as being found in Jesus’ initiation of a final act of friendship with the ultimate enemy of human life: death.

For the sinful condition that is ours, death is repressed…, banished, ‘queered’, thrown outside the city. At the same time we know that this rejected status of death is the sign of our…lostness, of an incapacity-to-feel that we cannot deal with. To meet the one who connected with, who befriended, who claimed, this our rejected death, would be to encounter an enormous and incomprehensible love. This love of us in our wretched unconnectedness, shown in the embrace of what we reject in horror, is intellectually nearly impossible to understand, but our deepest and simplest knowing moves out to it. At the heart of the Christian experience down the ages, the uncomprehending sufferer stretches out to the free, willing, understanding sufferer. And thus outstretched, the uncomprehending sufferer can at last received the communication of the incomprehensible inflictor as love, and see this in the fact of the victim raised from the grave. (Let this Mind Be in You, 129-9.)

The significance of this cannot be stressed enough. We have seen that crux of Moore’s concept of original sin was the dynamic of self-limitation of our desirability (and therefore desire) that occurs during the process of psychological birth and growth, combined with our resistance to growing beyond that self-limitation. The result is our separation from each other, our potential, and God. More than that, it is not just “separation,” it is the creation of enmity, disgust, even horror at all dimensions of reality in ourselves and others that press beyond the edges of our self-created membrane. (See Richard Beck’s Excellent book “Unclean:%20Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and MortalityUnclean” for more on the role of disgust as it pertains to our capacity for offering hospitality) And at the root of it all stands the terror of death, for it is ultimately in response to the terror of death that our our fragile ego has been created. As it stands, humanity is largely arrested at its “Oedipal self-understanding.” We “take it for reality itself” and thus “impose on society and on the universe that distrust of life, that self-repression, which was once appropriate when we were engaged on the business of becoming separate and sexually distinguished selves.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 127.)

In other words, we set our own limit on the meaningfulness of our life in our refusal to grow…. We build an invisible wall round our life. Outside that wall, uncharted by us, is death. For what does it mean to be ready for death? Who is? To be ready for death is to be living life to the full, to its limit—which is death. We don’t live this life to anything like its fullness. And what this means is that we don’t believe in the glorious being that each of us is. Massively we repress the sense of our greatness and our desires, in consequence, are weak.…Thus we create a wall round ourselves, within which we live. And far beyond that wall is God’s limit on us, death, the threshold of his loving embrace. (Let this Mind Be in You, 127.)

It is exactly here that Jesus initiated the final breakthrough for his disciples. Though they remained uncomprehending throughout his life, the final intensification of their relationship with him at the last supper, followed by Jesus’ own self-removal as the object of their devotion, led to the ultimate crisis and transformation. Their awareness of the final enemy, death, had to be transformed, and when this occurred new life flooded back down through all levels of their awareness. Religious, cultural, and economic divisions were radically transformed in the new life that poured forth, as well as those of gender and social relations. Salvation was in this way an in-breaking of a hope that outstripped the disciples’ expectations that were possible under their former awareness. At the same time, their salvation consisted in the experience of a reunion with their own basic goodness. They knew themselves for the first time, as they come from the hand of God, “desirable because desired.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 118.)


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.

[1] These remarks remind me something Becker said. “…[H]uman heroics is a blind drivenness that burns people up; in passionate people, a screaming for glory as uncritical and reflexive as the howling of a dog. In the more passive masses of mediocre men it is disguised as they humbly and complainingly follow out the roles that society provides for their heroics and try to earn their promotions within the system: wearing the standard uniforms—but allowing themselves to stick out, but ever so little and so safely, with a little ribbon or a red boutonniere, but not with head an shoulders.” (The Denial of Death, 6.)
[2] Given the patriarchal nature of Jesus’ time we might expect that the social norms would mirror the psychological patterns of the male mind.

Some New Additions to the Blog

leave a comment »

I thought I would take a moment to let those of you who follow this blog know that I’ve made a couple updates to the site yesterday. I’ve added two new pages that I hope will make this blog a bit more accessible. Firstly, I’ve added a “Top Posts” page (look just to the right under the “Pages” section). There I’ve included a selection of posts that have continued to attract attention over time (as well as a few that just happen to be my favorites). During this long slog through my dissertation, you may enjoy looking back over some of my writings that are not been explicitly tied to this project. If you are feeling especially hardcore or nostalgic I’ve also added a page that has a complete listing of every post I’ve ever written stretching all the way back to 2009!

In addition to these new pages, you may also have noticed that I’ve added links to the various social media platforms that I’m on. I’d love it if you’d take a moment to connect with me there. The Facebook page is specifically set up for this blog, while Twitter will be a mix of things, blog, theology, and photography related.

Thanks to those of you who have been following along, and especially to those of you who have taken the time to comment. These are the kinds of conversations that brought me here in the first place, and I’m delighted to keep that fire burning!

Written by Alex

April 29, 2015 at 8:24 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Sebastian Moore: The Emergence of Self-Awareness & Original Sin

with 3 comments

In the previous section we discussed two awakenings to God as the ultimate cause of desire. In this section we will be exploring Sebastian Moore’s answer to the question of why such awakenings are necessary in the first place. Indeed, why not think of the normal, run of the mill, sorts of desire we experience in everyday life as being normative, while bracketing off the sorts of desire experienced when falling in love or during rather exceptional mystical experiences, as being simply odd quirks of human psychology?  The answer that Moore gives us is, in brief, that desire as experienced by most adults is but the latest form of a process that has a long history. And once this history is gotten in view it is possible to see that calling the emotion we feel in our daily lives “desire” is much like calling Superman merely “Clark.” In laying out Moore’s narrative of the “history” of human desire this chapter will finally bring into focus Moore’s theory of original sin: the loss of our original desire and resistance to its recovery.

Moore reads the history of desire in human life through our developmental history, both corporately and individually. Psychoanalytic theory is one of his principle dialogue partners in charting this territory. He is particularly interested in how psychoanalytic theorists like Margaret Mahler show us how children grow into self-aware existence through a series of crises. The two crises that Moore focuses on most are the separation crisis and the Oedipal crisis. In both cases these crises represent a narrowing down of awareness and desire. This process of individuation is good in that it the process of identity formation, but it comes at the cost of losing the security of one’s original union with being, most obviously symbolized as the child within the mother’s womb.

The Separation Crisis: From “We” to “I”

The separation crisis initiates the human habit of always measuring ourselves against the reactions of others. Following Mahler, Moore describes the process by which the child with newly developed motor skills begins the ecstatic adventure of charting the world beyond the safety of the mother.[1] The crucial point here is that this exploration requires an enormous amount of emotional support by the mother. Just the right balance must be struck between encouraging the child to be on its own and remaining a stable security in the background. However, no mother can ever offer such a consistent, emotionally-supported send off. And to the extent this is true, the infant gets the unbearable message: “either be a part of me, or be on your own.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 71.) Thus, this separation, this first experience of what it is like to be “I,” is less than ecstatic. This dynamic that begins with the mother is then extended to all others. “The imperfectly separated individual existence looks continually to the other whence it has been unable clearly to pull away. Not knowing ourselves apart from others is our trouble, to remedy which we look to others!” (Let this Mind Be in You, 72.)

This initial phase in the birth of self-consciousness gives us the first part of our answer to the question of why our original goodness is more fundamental than our self-image (and therefore desire) as we experience it later in our developmental journey. It also explains why talk of our original goodness is puzzling to most of us, for, as Moore asks, “Why would anyone think of being him/herself other than the way they first came into consciousness? The world on which we first opened our eyes psychologically comes to be the world.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 72.) And to that extent, our emergence into self-aware existence impedes our awakening into luminous selfhood, for so long as we are looking to others for reassurance and measuring ourselves by their reactions, we are deaf to the “call from the depths of existence which says, ‘you are mine. You are not your family’s, your class’s, your race’s, your party’s. You are mine.’” (Let this Mind Be in You, 72.)

Discovery on Lake Michigan

The Oedipal Crisis: From Yes to No

The second part of the answer to our question comes from a complexification of the child’s now reduced sense of desirability. This is the Oedipal phase. Here, desire makes its first translation from an original oneness with the mother into interpersonal feeling. In a tremendously intense, sexually undifferentiated love, the child makes a total bid for the mother’s affection. It is here that the child encounters a “mysterious rival:” the father. The father is mysterious due to the fact that he has a claim to the mothers affection in a different way than the child. So not only is the father a rival, but he is a different kind of rival. (Let this Mind Be in You, 73.) The result of this asymmetrical collision is that the child’s total bid for the mother’s affection becomes a “no-no” and is repressed.[2] Of this repression Moore says, poignantly, that,

I suspect that this is an important part of that repression of our sense of being desirable which is the root of our weakened relationship with God, people, and the planet. That child’s total zest for life, the sense of being welcome everywhere without strings attached, meets its first great disappointment in the mother’s commitment to an ‘other’ in an ‘other’ way. (Let this Mind Be in You, 73.)

In Freudian terms, the culmination of this crisis results in the repression of the Id (the total love-bid now become a no-no and repressed), followed by the emergence of sexually differentiated identity (the Ego), which is modeled and reinforced after one’s parental role model (the Superego). (Let this Mind Be in You, 74.) In Moore’s thought, this forms the basis of his theory of original sin. Original sin, he says, “…is the universal, culturally propagated and reinforced, human response to the trauma of coming out of animality into self-awareness, into ‘the knowledge of good and evil.’” (Let this Mind Be in You, 88.) It is not simply the repression of our passionate nature that forms the birth of evil (as Moore reads Wilhelm Reich as arguing), but also the fact that “…in repressing our passionate nature we are discounting our desirability, which is our experience of ourselves as God’s desired.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 74.) Without this element, our passionate nature can still be interpreted as “desire from emptiness” and thus be open to all the problems that attend such an anthropology (e.g. relations of dependence).

Once that is understood, then certainly we can say that repression is the origin of evil, and that what our transformation will consist in is the final befriending of all all that is in us that we have had to repress on our first steps into personhood. God is that infinite intelligence for which there is no such thing as evil. Evil arises out of our self-doubt on the part of God’s self-aware creatures. And the closer a person or a community comes to God, the more their ‘dark side’ becomes light. (Let this Mind Be in You, 74.)

And yet, to the extent that we remain “far from God,” much of life takes on a compulsive quality. As Ernest Becker has helped us see, viewed corporately, repression is culture. As such, to appropriate Robert Kegan’s language, culture functions as  a corporate “immunity system.” This partial view of our whole life, motivated as it is by the terror of death, thus compels us to live according to the biases of our family, class, ethnicity, and so on. For if we do not, we will leave ourselves open to the very threats that our collective immunity system was tailor made to protect us from. Seen in this light, Moore’s theory of original sin is not only original, but also universal.

The final point that needs to be understood in Moore’s theory of original sin is that it is not the limited, repressed life that we find ourselves in that constitutes our sin, but rather is it our decision to stay there, to say “this is all there is.” Life itself is a movement of growth and it is our resistance to growth that puts us at odds with life. In this way Moore seems to want to go further than Becker was able to bring himself. Our desire is made for more than merely the creative self-restriction that repression affords us. Desire longs for liberation. Failing this, Moore sees humanity as being “shut in” and “psychologically on top of each other.” Our desires are “limitless,” he says, “and need the limitless breathing-space of the spirit. Closed in, they make us mutually destructive.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 104.) In the next section we will consider Moore’s Christology which functions as his theological solution to this problem of original sin as the  narrowing of desire and resistance to its liberation.


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.

[1] For this narrative Moore is relying on the following Margaret Mahler’s book: The Psychological Birth of the Human Infant.
[7] Following R.D. Laing, Moore stresses that repression is not only forgetting, but forgetting that you’ve forgotten.

Interlude in the Form of a Dream: The Domestication of Terror

with 9 comments

I don’t normally begin my writings this way, but, last night I had a dream that shook me to my core. I will describe it to you shortly, but for now, I have a confession to make. For quite some time, I have been thinking and writing about the fear of death and all the various ways this fear limits our life and separates us from a fuller life with the world we live in, each other, and even ourselves. The problem is that I feel that I’ve begun to suggest that there is a relatively easy solution to the matter, namely, that we ought to simply “embrace our limitations” and accept our mortality. Unfortunately, this straightforward and easy sounding solution is, to use a technical term that a dear friend of mine is especially fond of, bullshit.

Why? The reason is apparent to anyone who has tried to boot-strap themselves into “living as if each day is your last.” The best of intentions are utterly impotent when faced with the powerful psychological forces that predominate nearly every second of our walking life. These forces suck the terror and wonder out of each moment, leaving us with an experience that is “normal” and “everyday.” It’s hard to live each day as if it’s your last because each day is already already slotted for playing our role in the cultural system that is designed (though not consciously) to keep life from being too terrifying and too wonderful, in a word: safe. And we are, all of us, committed to maintaining this safety! For that reason, the call to live each day as if it is our last gets transformed into a slightly renewed attempt to be nicer to to our kids, or perhaps taking that vacation day we’ve been putting off. But what it does not do (and how could it?) is reduce us to tearful abandon, shedding every last deadweight of normal everyday life and living into an intensity that only emerges when the illusion of safety is utterly torn away.

What does this tell us? It tells us that there are two distinct awarenesses in play and that language about the problem and solution can be appropriated on both levels but take on radically different meanings. There is the everyday awareness that we all, save but for a few exceptional occasions, inhabit (Becker will characterize this as life within the unreflective grip of our repressions) and there is awareness with all our defenses stripped bare. It is here in this latter awareness that our deepest problem lies, and for that reason only a solution that can reach here will be adequate. Needless to say, even exhortations of great seriousness to our normal everyday awareness to “embrace its limits, etc…” will be as effective as telling a solider on the front lines to “relax.”

So what drove this point home for me? I had already known it on an intellectual level. Thinkers in the Augustinian tradition like Martin Luther, Paul Tillich and Becker had already made the point for me, often in striking ways. Consider Becker’s words:

“In this way we realize directly and poignantly that what we call the child’s character is a modus vivendi [mode of life] achieved after the most unequal struggle any animal has to go through; a struggle that the child can never really understand because he doesn’t know what is happening to him, why he is responding as he does, or what is really at stake in the battle. The victory in this kind of battle is truly Pyrrhic: character is a face that one sets to the world, but it hides an inner defeat. The child emerges with a name, a family, a play world in a neighborhood, all clearly cut out for him. But his insides are full of nightmarish memories of impossible battles, terrifying anxieties of blood, pain, aloneness, darkness; mixed with limitless desires, sensations of unspeakable beauty, majesty, awe, mystery; and fantasies and hallucinations of mixtures between the two, the impossible attempt to compromise between bodies and symbols. …sexuality enters in with its very definite focus, to further confuse and complicate the child’s world. To grow up at all is to conceal the mass of internal scar tissue that throbs in our dreams. (The Denial of Death, 29.)

There it is. It was the dream.

* * * * * *

My family and I were just sitting down for supper, but the house we were in was different than the one we now live in. It was older, plaster walls, sort of a light blue colored paint, and arched doorways. The room was lit somewhat dimly, but nothing was overly amiss. As we prepared to say our meal-time prayer, my daughter Brynn realized that she wanted something from the kitchen, so she pushed away from the table and ran off. Adrian, true to form, followed right after her. This is a common theme in our home, and it was met with my own common form of annoyance. The kitchen was through a door that was across the table from me and down a short hallway, thus being out of my view. The soft clattering of dish-ware could be heard as they got whatever it was they were after.

Then, as often occurs when Mom and Dad are out of sight, Brynn starts crying. Her older brother, Adrian, is usually to blame. My annoyance is growing. Then, things get serious. Brynn’s whiny cry turns to wailing. It was not wailing in terror or in pain. She is crying out as if someone has just ripped the head off her favorite doll. My wife Megan and I shoot up from our chairs (things begin happening very quickly now). Brynn’s wailing is not stopping. We haven’t heard a thing from Adrian. Megan and I begin running towards the kitchen, then, as we reach the hallway, a bright flash goes off outside the house and everything is jolted by the concussion of a thunderous boom! At the same time, what sounds like someone taking a 2×4 and sticking it into the wooden spokes of a quickly turning wheel begins erupting from all around us. Imagine the sound of an engine that has been in an accident but is still running with the accelerator floored and mechanical parts violently tearing into each other.

We’re in the hallway now. As I enter the kitchen (Megan is gone), all the electricity goes out. Brynn is not there, nor is Adrian. I can still hear her wailing inconsolably. The sound is deafening. It’s night. I race down the stairs to the entryway. The sound of her is getting further away. As I reach the entryway the pressure all around me changes as a tremendous wind surges over the house. She’s not in the house anymore. A dog starts barking. I open the door to the outside to witness sheets of rain pouring down. Lightning is flashing. The trees are thrashing in the wind. The wooden spoke sound is relentless. Out through the rushing wind I can now just barely hear Brynn’s crying. She’s almost beyond reach. There’s no sign of Adrian…

children

It was here, at 4:45 in the morning that Megan woke me from my nightmare. Though my panicky breathing slowed within a few minutes, and though I knew immediately that it was “only a dream,” the visceral terror that accompanied the experience was slow to leave me. Like a child, I wanted nothing more than to cover my head with my blanket to keep the terror away. The hairs all over my body kept standing on end, repeatedly. And even as I write this, my body tingles at the memory. I had to write this down before the impact had worn off and it had faded into the pale categories of my everyday state of mind.

This is the mass of internal scar tissue that throbs in our dreams. Somewhere in there is the meaning of the terror of death. What could it possibly mean to “embrace one’s limits” and “accept one’s mortality” when one’s limits and mortality represent not the warm and cozy idea that “one day I will die,” but instead the utter undoing of all reason and submergence of our most cherished loves? There is no easy answer to our terror of death (nor is there a “difficult” answer, for that matter). And to the extent that I have given this impression, forgive me or consider me a fool.


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.

Written by Alex

April 9, 2015 at 2:30 pm

Sebastian Moore: The Structure of Desire

leave a comment »

Before we can see how Moore conceives of the paradox of salvation in human desire, we must first more fully develop his concept of desire. The basic distinction we need to begin with is between desire for particular things and desire as such, or, as he often puts it, the “whole context of desire” that manifests as desire for “we know not what.” He reads basic distinction through the classic theological tradition, as most notably formulated by Augustine and Aquinas, and also through the psychoanalytic tradition.

In the classic theological tradition an “exit and return” pattern is adopted from Neo-Platonic spirituality in which creatures have their particular nature because they are fallen from their original home in the divine One. Salvation is then thought to be a power that enables creatures to return to God who is the unity beyond the many particular things of creation. Yet, though our desire—having its origin in the divine—finds its ultimate fulfillment only in the divine, it nevertheless seems endlessly misdirected toward the fleeting things of creation. The love of God revealed by Christ thus enables a certain detachment from the merely creaturely dimension of reality, thus liberating love to be properly directed to the divine dimension in which all created reality participates. [1] This reorientation of one’s love simultaneously allows one to love creation in a way proper to one’s own creaturely nature, namely as an unexpected gift rather than a possession. In this way desire is moved from the known and the particular to the mysterious and eternal in all being.

Luminous Forest

Moore sees in the psychoanalytic tradition a similar motion. A central Freudian insight, which he deems to be very important, is that the child grows out of an undifferentiated “sea of delight,” a sort of “oceanic dream of self….” [2] Compared to the theological imagery we have just discussed, this undifferentiated state is analogous to the divine One prior to the fall, or perhaps one might think of it as the pre-fall state of Adam and Eve in the Biblical narrative, before the separation from intimacy with God occurred. This delightful background precedes desire as it later becomes channeled more and more into particular objects. Much like the Platonic imagery that infuses classical theology, the loss of touch with this original context of all-embracing goodness leads to a terror of death and fetishization of particular objects of desire. The process of the differentiation of desire, as we shall see later, is traumatic and dramatic. This drama plays itself out in the relationships the child negotiates with its first caregivers. Psychotherapeutic method seeks in various ways to heal the trauma that attends the birth of self-consciousness. Moore sees this most fundamentally as an effort to to reconnect the patient to the long neglected sense of self as good/desirable that largely resides beneath the surface of everyday awareness.

Out of these two traditions Moore creates his distinction between particular desires and the preceding origin of desire as such. The former, if fixated upon in the absence of a solid connection to the later, constitutes the core problematic of his analysis.

With this in view we can now see another crucial element of Moore’s thought, namely the distinctive way he relates these two modes of desire. His concept of generic desire, or “desire for we know not what,” inverts a commonsense idea of desire, namely that desire flows from an inner emptiness, or a lack. Moore objects. Desire, he wants to say, flows from an original over-abundance of goodness. To see his point, it is worth quoting him at length.

Wanting this or that cannot possibly be the start of the wanting process. It too must be preceded by a continuous condition of myself in my environment, a continuous wanting-I-know-not-what, a ‘just wanting.’ Now what is this ‘just wanting’ state? If we don’t reflect carefully, at this point, on our experience, we will say, ‘It is a state of emptiness wanting to be filled.’ But if we reflect, we see that this is the opposite of the truth. ‘Just wanting’ is a feeling good that wants to go on feeling good and looks for things to feel good about. This is very clear in the child. The child—like the dolphin—is a bundle of pleasurableness. Freud describes our original condition, moving in the amniotic fluid, as the ‘oceanic’ condition. Thus as we move, in our inquiry, from the definite, specific wants, back to the undifferentiated ‘just wanting,’ we are moving towards not emptiness but fullness. In the life of desire, it is ‘everything’ that becomes ‘this thing;’ it is not ‘nothing’ that becomes ‘this thing.’ (Let this Mind Be in You, 5.)

The basic structure is now in view. The task now is to show how this structure operates in human life.

Two Awakenings to the Ultimate Cause of Desire

Moore describes two basic ways that individuals who are living under the normal circumstances of focusing only on particular desires can be awoken to God as the ultimate mystery of desire. These two ways he calls “indirect” and “direct” awakening. The first is an awakening mediated through particular things, especially through intimate relationships with other people, whereas the second is not so mediated. In both cases a successful awakening has the same result, the liberation of desire and a reconnection with an immeasurable sense of self as desirable, that is to say, as good. Let us now briefly consider each of these ways of awakening.

Indirect Awakening

Before all else, says Moore, we long to be desired. More precisely, we long to be desired by the one whom we desire. (The Fire and the Rose Are One, xiii.) This longing flows from a certainty of being desirable. This is a counter-intuitive statement, but it shows itself when we are spurned by one we love. We become angry and indignant which proves that, deep down, we really do have come concept of our desirability. (Let this Mind Be in You, 14) This makes no sense if consider this desirability as being based on a notion of self-awareness that looks at oneself as an object. Indeed, we often do not feel desirable when we reflect on ourselves in that way. This deeper concept of our own desirability flows from Moore’s idea of our unfathomable inner-goodness that we often cover up. Such desire flows from a concept of self-awareness that looks “with” the self, not “at” the self. Problems of self dis-esteem flow from looking at the self, which is a rationalization of one’s very being. (Let this Mind Be in You, 13-14.)

From this sort of psychological sleep, the experience of desire for another has a way of reconnecting one with their own sense of desirability. As Moore says, “…when you feel drawn to another person, that is your own sense of your goodness expanding. There is always, in the attraction to another, the feeling of a larger life opening up in myself.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 14.) Moore traces this movement through several steps. First one is attracted to another. In this attraction, their own sense of their desirability is awoken. But this is only the beginning, for one wants their desire to be fully exercised in having the other be also attracted them. This can only happen, however, if the other person comes under the power of the first person’s goodness and beauty. This awakening, in turn awakens the other person to their own desirability. It is at this moment that the relationship moves from a relation of dependence to interdependence. In the early stages of mutual arousal, interdependence happens with ease, but if the relationship is to grow, one’s own self-affirmation (which is the power that attracts the other) needs to persist in order to avoid sliding back into an unsustainable relation of dependence.

This new moment, of self-acceptance in a love relationship, is the crucial moment. It is the watershed in all human relations. It is what most of us most of the time stop short of. For this is the vital point at which our belief in our goodness is not strong enough to carry us forward. It is always some, often subtle, self-rejection that hinders us from believing in another’s finding us attractive and from seeing that the other does so when this happens. (Let this Mind Be in You, 27.)

When our belief in our goodness persists in interdependent relationship “…each is affirming, is accepting, is appropriating, his or her own goodness as working in the relationship.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 27.) Desire has now been transformed “…into an investment of myself in a developing shared life, a commitment of myself to the unpredictable in hope.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 28.)

It is here that we see the paradoxical nature of a stage transition. In moving from dependence to interdependence one is actually entering into a new dependence (though qualitatively different from the former dependence). As Moore says, “…it is a dependence on the total mystery that constitutes me, this unique good person, and supports my investment of my goodness in the risk-laden adventure of intimacy. The anchor of my new hope is goodness itself.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 28.) These words sound familiar as they contain elements of two different stage transitions that Scharlemann mentioned in the previous chapter.

Another thinker who has done a great deal of work on this particular transition, and who has made explicit use of Moore’s theology, is David Schnarch. As I have mentioned earlier in this thesis, Schnarch is a psychotherapist who specializes in merging the disciplines of marital and sexual therapy with a particular emphasis on the dynamics of desire. He makes use of the idea of “inherent paradox” to help his patients see that they have, in fact, become “too important to each other” because they have ceased to grow beyond a dependency relation to each other. He calls this state “emotional fusion,” and though this state has the merit of regulating the anxiety of those in the relationship, the negative result is that desire evaporates. (Intimacy and Desire, 44-46.) Because partners lack the confidence in their own fundamental goodness, they cannot stand the anxiety of upsetting their partner beyond a certain point. Difficult issues are thus left unaddressed, and the couple contents themselves with elements of the relationship that are not as problematic, but which (owing to their safety) also tend to be quite boring and lacking passion. Some spend their whole adult life in this lifeless anxiety management system, but for others, something within refuses to accept such a circumstance. These are the one’s who either leave their partner or end up in therapy. Schnarch’s tactic as a therapist is just what Moore has previously indicated: He attempts to help the couple feel their own desirability/goodness that exists prior to the validation of their partner, thus enabling the courage to face the difficult elements within themselves and their relationship. [3] Interestingly, Schnarch has found that in the process a spontaneous spirituality is birthed in such couples. (Passionate Marriage, 382.)

The basic movement of the indirect awakening of God as the ultimate mystery of desire can now be seen. From desiring another, to the exercise of desire in a relationship of interdependence, to desire become hope in the total context of desire. The self is thus moved from an experience of isolation to a “partnership in the energy that unites persons in love.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 20.) This, argues Moore, is life in the Spirit. “Spirit [is] inter-life, the mysterious energy that flows between persons”. It is participation in this energy that “opens us to God, [and is] at once the opening of our desire to God and God’s point of entry into us; our way of opening, God’s way of entering.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 25.)

Direct Awakening

Though our desire has its source in our own basic goodness or desirability, we typically sense it indirectly through the “symptom” of desiring an other. (Let this Mind Be in You, 35.) But there is another way for our desirability to be felt, and this is what Moore calls a direct awakening of desire. Here desire breaks the rules and reaches out towards “nothing in particular.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 35.) It is not a matter of “I am wanting such and such a thing,” but rather, it is a matter of “I am.” This experience of desire is simultaneously the experience of one’s own desirability. No object has aroused it, rather “its very center has been stirred.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 43.) For this reason, a direct awakening of desire reverses the order of desire as normally experienced in indirect awakening. Rather than the self coming to experience its desirability in desiring another, here the self experiences its desirability first, then, like a river overflowing its banks, other objects of desire are caught up in the flood. (Let this Mind Be in You, 43.)

One might think to ask towards what this direct awakening of desire is aimed since, as we have noted, it has no object. Clearly language is strained at this point, but the only adequate answer is that “it is with ‘what makes me desirable’ that I seek intimacy,” (Let this Mind Be in You, 35.) the cause of my being and goodness. In line with classical theology, the only reality that makes desirable what it desires is God. It is God alone that “…directly arouses my self-awareness as desirable; that which, not as object desired but as subject making desirable, causes in us that desire for we know not what which is the foundational religious experience.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 36.) The intensity of this experience is certainly lost amidst this academic prose, but for a moment consider what it would be like to experience all the various forms of your erotic engagements with friends, lovers, and even the glory of nature, at its source. (Let this Mind Be in You, 38.) This, Moore encourages us to see, is the heart of religion, even while it turns conventional notions of religion on their heads. It fact it is often the case that when people first taste this experience they feel that conventional religion no longer speaks to them. Why? Because this awakening brings with it “a sense that I am in myself and not relatively to other people and to my culture and race.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 38.)

This breakthrough is what Moore calls the discovery of luminous selfhood. It is not necessarily a religious experience, he says, but it is spiritual. For it to become a religious matter one must answer “yes” to the call of longing that emerges. This latter choice, says Moore, is what constitutes religious faith. The result is a life lived in love, for “Love is desire decided for.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 40.)

From this distinction between an awareness that is dominated by knowing oneself always as measured against the responses of others and an awareness that is dominated by knowing oneself directly as good, somehow chosen, and beloved, Moore makes a distinction between two types of religiosity: Romantic and Mystical religiousness. Romantic religiousness takes its point of departure from the first mode of consciousness. Here religious truths are spoken of “by spinning a web of speculation and beautiful thoughts out and beyond this sure base. It’s up in the air, controlled only by the person’s fancy as he/she conjures up a God who is like Grandma but infinitely better. So it’s romantic. It’s building castles in Spain.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 39.) Mystical religiousness, on the other hand, renders ordinary consciousness questionable rather than taking it as its point of departure. “Its religious thinking is not up in the air, romantic, moralistic pious guesswork whose only anchor is ordinary social consciousness, but is deeper [and] more real.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 39.)

Romantic religiousness has the great risk of painting a picture of God that “evokes an experience of being loved first by another person in whom we are not interested—which is one of the most negative experiences we have.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 45.) Mystical religiousness is not about “loving others,” but about “turning them on.” What we desire most is to be desired by one who excites us, and in a religious context this boils down to being Christ for people. Jesus did not “love people,” rather, “he allowed God to show him to people as his beloved, desirable because desired from all eternity. As each of us is.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 46.)

Those who experience direct awakening become means of grace for others. And what “we call grace, or the new creation, is that movement within people whereby the infinite desire which constitutes them in being (the ‘first creation’) happens for them, happens in their consciousness, happens as a new empowering of the heart.”[34] Thus, whether first mediated through human relationships, as is most common, or awoken directly, the goal is the same: the liberation of desire by making contact with desire’s ultimate cause, the love that courses through the entire universe.


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.

[1] Augustine stressed that this is a process that is never completed in this life. As he says in the City of God, “For to be quite free from pain while we are in this place of misery is only purchased, as one of the world’s literati perceived and remarked, at the price of blunted sensibilities both of mind and body. And therefore that which the Greeks called ἀπάθεια, and what the Latins would call, if their language would allow them, ‘impassibilitas,’ if it be taken to mean an impassibility of spirit and not of body, or, in other words, a freedom from those emotions which are contrary to reason and disturb the mind, then it is obviously a good and most desirable quality, but it is not one which is attainable in this life.” (The City of God, 410.)

[2] Moore will later be critical of Freud because Freud called this desire that precedes the desire for particular things “the unconscious.” Moore sees Freud as having “made the common mistake of thinking of self-awareness as having oneself as object of awareness”, thus, “he had to call the fundamental condition that precedes all our [desirous] activity the ‘unconscious’.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 6.) For Moore this fundamental sense of desire is not unconscious, but instead, is a mode of consciousness that, though seldom present to us, can be reconnected with though meditation. (Let this Mind Be in You, 10.) Indeed it is this fundamental desire that is the deeper stability that all therapy directs itself toward. (Let this Mind Be in You, 14.)

[3] For Schnarch this basic idea is interpreted through the idea of “differentiation” as first developed by Murray Bowen, but expanded upon in Schnarch’s own work.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 71 other followers