living through death

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

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From where does my help come?

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I’m still in the wilderness, so this will be short.

For those of you who feel as though your world has been torn open by the results of yesterday’s election, I offer, without comment, three items worth wrestling with/meditating on:

1. Richard Beck’s short post: The Kingdom of God, November 9, 2016

2. This:

anger

“What do most (if not all) of the emotions under the surface have in common? A sense of powerlessness. So which emotion in the graphic leads us to feel powerFUL? Yep. Unfortunately, angry behaviors just tend to lead to more of those emotions below the surface, fueling a cycle of powerlessness and the reactive, often control-bent, pursuit of (false) power. But true power comes through courageously embracing what’s below the surface—embracing our vulnerability.” -Shane Moe

3. And finally, this:

“Accept — then act. Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it. Always work with it, not against it. Make it your friend and ally, not your enemy. This will miraculously transform your whole life.” ― Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now, H/T Sara Mohs

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Written by Alex

November 10, 2016 at 7:22 am

Posted in Life, Uncategorized

Tagged with ,

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!

sunset-on-the-land

Written by Alex

September 25, 2016 at 9:05 am

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.

xory

 

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.

Some New Additions to the Blog

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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

Would You Like to Be a Part of This?

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I’m a theologian in an age when academic theology is undergoing dramatic changes. Gone are the days when one could expect to walk out of their PhD and into a tenure track academic position. As a result, my family and I have decided not to live the vagabond existence of chasing down temporary teaching posts wherever they happen to appear. We are instead going to attempt a new thing with our lives, the details of which remain largely unknown, even to us. What we do know is that our values tend to be along the lines of minimalism and the creation of more space for living into the adventure of our true humanity. Thomas Merton (whom I write about regularly) has been perhaps my greatest inspiration on this point.

Our Family on Mt. Rainier

Part of my contribution to this plan is to leverage my writing as one element in what I suspect will be a tapestry of projects. That said, I hope to join the ranks of those who have sought to communicate whatever wisdom academic theology has to a wider audience (at least I will after I finish blogging through my dissertation!).

Here’s a few ways we can help each other out:

• If you have appreciated my writings, and would like to be a part of keeping me at it, please consider a small donation.

• If that’s a little too intangible, perhaps you’ve enjoyed the original photography that use in my posts. If so, you might consider buying a print or greeting card of my work here.

• And finally, I’ve partnered with Amazon so that if you buy a product from them using one of the links I happen to post from this blog, I get a small cut. Either that or simply doing your Amazon shopping through this link will have the same effect (Don’t be scared off by the “draggerseats” prefix in that web address. That’s there because I have to host that link on one of my other websites since WordPress won’t let me post this link on the free version of this blog. What’s “Dragger Seats,” you ask? Have a look for yourself… Heck, I suppose you could buy a seat from me too if you’re one of those types!)

Your support will go toward helping us be a new reality, and hopefully share that vision with the world beyond our little family. And part of that is keeping me writing! Gratefully, Alex

Written by Alex

January 20, 2015 at 3:08 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Losing Your Religion: Ernest Becker & the Questionable Idea of the Maturity of Secularity

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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.


Since it’s a central theme of my study is to explore the concepts of growth and maturity, it’s important to see how Becker’s work makes conventional notions of growth and maturity problematic as they pertain to religion and culture. It is commonly assumed that “outgrowing one’s religion” and entering into the maturity of a secular frame of mind constitutes growth. However, Becker places the issue in such a way that this assumption becomes highly questionable. From what we’ve explored so far, it should be obvious enough to see the ways that the terror of death and the reflexive urge towards heroism allows one to easily view society as communal enactments of the ways that people earn their sense of cosmic significance within the relative safety of a mutually agreed upon structure. Becker puts the matter bluntly: Society is and always has been, he says, “a symbolic action system, a structure of statuses and roles, customs and rules for behavior, designed to serve as a vehicle for earthly heroism.”

This raises the question of whether society facilitates or limits human growth. To begin addressing this question, I propose three different ways that the idea of growth can be understood in this context. First there is growth within a mutually agreed upon hero system. Here one follows the “roles that society provides for their heroics and tr[ies] to earn their promotions within the system: wearing the standard uniforms.” But all is not mere conformity. As Becker points out, heroism is achieved by “allowing [oneself] to stick out, but ever so little and so safely, with a little ribbon or a red boutonniere, but not with head and shoulders.” Secondly, there is growth understood as moving from one hero system to another without recognizing the new system as yet another immortality program. Many conversion and deconversion experiences take on this character. Finally, there is the more radical form of growth that, for the first time, recognizes the nature of their own commitments and strivings as themselves elements of their own hero system. It should be noticed, however, that when this last step is taken, growth has moved beyond the threshold of what Becker calls “earthly heroism.” The matter is now religious in the deepest possible sense.

Loss of Focus

This reference to religion “in the deepest sense” requires unpacking. In a recent article by Jonathan Jong, it is helpfully shown that Becker has essentially three definitions of religion in play throughout his work. Jong uses the clever shorthand of “religion,” religion, and Religion (with a capital R) to denote the following: “The first is an analysis of culture and civilization as immortality projects, means by which to deny death. The second, which overlaps with the first, is a characterization of religion-as-practiced (e.g., by adherents of the world religions) as a particularly effective immortality project vis-a`-vis death anxiety. The third is less social scientific and more theological; Becker argues for a view of God that is in the tradition of Søren Kierkegaard and Paul Tillich (and, arguably, Pseudo-Dionysius, Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas).” It is this latter sense I have in mind. In rough terms, the common thread that joins these thinkers that Jong mentions is the nature of their God as transcendent in the sense that God is considered to be beyond the frame of reference by which human reason operates. To mature to the point that all heroics, especially one’s own, are unmasked is to approach this threshold. This is to recognize one’s own creatureliness as it stands at the brink of an eternal void. To be off the map of earthly reason is to be exposed to the awesome terror of the Unconditioned, the highest possible heroism.

This, Becker thinks, is religion “not as practiced but as an ideal.” Save but for a few religious geniuses, the rest of us tend to earn our immortality within a system, or trading between them. This remains true here in the modern West where, in many ways, traditional religion has undergone a crisis of heroism. In our time we have witnessed the rise of Neo-Atheism and a general trend of increasing secularity. But secularity is no guarantee of a growing awareness of what one is doing to earn one’s self-esteem. In fact, secular heroics, while not subscribing to the second sense of religion that Jong identifies, seldom transcends the first. As Becker says:

It doesn’t matter if the cultural hero-system is frankly magical, religious, and primitive or secular, scientific, and civilized. It is still a mythical hero-system in which people serve in order to earn a feeling of primary value, of cosmic specialness, of ultimate usefulness to creation, of unshakable meaning. . . . When Norman O. Brown said that Western society since Newton, no matter how scientific or secular it claims to be, is still as ‘religious’ as any other, this is what he meant: ‘civilized society is a hopeful belief and protest that science money and goods make man count for more than any other animal. In this sense everything that man does is religious and heroic…

In view of this, movement between religion to “religion” is no guarantee of growth (though growth may be present). The only guaranteed measure of growth consists in the ever-increasing capacity to move from either of these two religiosities to the third. A person who merely moves from the religion to “religion” without making much progress at Religion risks (if they are reflective enough) becoming “the victim of [their] own disillusionment.” They become “disinherited by [their] own analytic strength.” By way of this strength they “put the accent on the clear, the cause-and-effect relation, the logical—always the logical. [They] know the difference between dreams and reality, between facts and fictions, between symbols and bodies.” Such a person thus

has no doubts; there is nothing you can say to sway him, to give him hope or trust. He is a miserable animal whose body decays, who will die, who will pass into dust and oblivion disappear forever not only in this world, but in all possible dimensions of the universe, whose life serves no conceivable purpose, who may as well not have even been born, and so on and so forth. He knows Truth and Reality, the motives of the entire universe.

In an highly refined and tortured way such an individual is heroically committed to to a rational framework in which everything has its place, even if they themselves do not. Their myopic god may have lost its name, but not its constricting hold on their soul. Is this growth? Potentially, for, in the willingness to accept a view of the world in which the self they had always known themselves to be has no real place, there begins to emerge a deeper unknown self from which the familiar self is looked at rather than through. This deeper self is not yet recognized, for it is now serving the role of being a window to the world, as the familiar self once did. From here it is not a long step from the “religious” to the Religious.

To sum up this section, we have seen how Becker’s framing of the idea (or ideas) of religion casts doubt on the generally accepted contemporary narrative that growing up somehow consists in casting off one’s childhood religion. Of course, for some, it may, but in such cases the reasons have more to do with individual contextual issues than any structural necessity. Becker helps us see that, whether explicitly religious or secular, growing into maturity has more to do with how honest we are about the ways we manage our death anxiety and seek after our self-esteem than it does with whether we frequent the synagogue or wherever it is that secular people go to ritualize their existence.

In my final post on Ernest Becker, we will play this same tune again, but in a different key. We will be exploring what Becker refers to as “the vital lie” of human character. Just as culture is a communal death denial structure, character is the personal manifestation of the same reality. In addressing this topic our goal will be to understand the tremendous costs involved in the process of growth. If the question is “in what sense must we die in order to attain new life?” Becker will be shown to provide a compelling answer.

Written by Alex

November 21, 2014 at 11:52 am

Reflections on “Reclaiming the Gospel of Peace”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by Alex

April 16, 2014 at 10:25 am