living through death

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

Posts Tagged ‘Adventure

Sebastian Moore and the Paradox of Salvation in Human Desire: Introduction

leave a comment »

What is it that most animates human life? As children we play with friends and test our parents. As adolescents we begin looking for love and finding out “who we are.” As adults we raise families, engage in politics, build nations, make war, go on vacations, participate in religious communities, get a jobs, volunteer at charities, shop for insurance, buy McMansions or, perhaps, build tiny homes. Is there a unified drive that stands behind all of these activities? If Ernest Becker’s work is still top of mind, one might be tempted to answer that deep down it is all ultimately the fear of death that drives human activity. But if one looks closer it becomes apparent that before there can be a fear of death, there must be a desire for life. It is this limitless desire that makes our eventual perception of the actual limitations of life so unbearable. This is, once again, the existential paradox of human life, and it is this paradoxical relationship between conscious desire and the knowledge of death that drives the human animal.

In view of this, what theology of salvation could possibly be adequate to address this existential paradox? To be clear, I don’t mean by this question the much weaker problem of how to live a relatively decent life that measures up to our desires as we have limited them. What I am pointing at here is the crushing desire that leaves a lump in your throat and that makes all of life seem but a monotone facade once it has been experienced. C.S. Lewis points to this form of desire in his description of his first encounter with what he later came to call “joy.” His recounting is worth quoting at length.

As I stood beside a flowering currant bush on a summer day there suddenly arose in me without warning, and as if from a depth not of years but of centuries, the memory of that earlier morning at the Old House when my brother had brought his toy garden into the nursery. It is difficult to find words strong enough for the sensation which came over me; Milton’s ‘enormous bliss’ of Eden (giving the full, ancient meaning to ‘enormous’) comes somewhere near it. It was a sensation of course, of desire; but desire for what? not, certainly, for a biscuit tin filled with moss, nor even (though that came into it) for my own past.…[A]nd before I knew what I desired, the desire itself was gone, that whole glimpse withdrawn, the world turned commonplace again, or only stirred by a longing for the longing that had just ceased. it had taken only a moment of time; and in a certain sense everything else that had ever happened to me was insignificant in comparison. (Surprised by Joy, 16.)

Leaf on Frozen Lake Reno Near Glenwood MN It is possible that my reader will have no idea of what I am now referring to. This is to be expected since the great majority of our lives tends to be a focus on much more attainable and less puzzling objects of desire. Yet it is my claim that behind these particular desires there stands an unlimited desire in which all particular desires find their home and are given their meaning. Much more will be said about this in the coming sections, but for now, get in your mind the desire that drives adventurers and makes you long to be adventurous. Think also of the desire that moves all lovers and makes you want to be in love.

Such a form of desire is a problem because nothing in this world can satisfy it. And because its relationship to all other particular desires, as their ground and end, all particular desires are likewise caught up in the problem. We are left with a dilemma: Either we can avoid having the sweetness of this deep desire awoken in us and thereby attempt to avoid the ache of its lack of fulfillment in this life (like Tolkien’s Hobbits [with the exception, perhaps, of those of Tookish descent] we can steadfastly refuse to go on adventures!), or, on the other hand, we can open ourselves to this desire, knowing that in this life heartache will be our constant companion. I ask again, what theology of salvation could address such a situation?

This chapter will be an attempt to articulate an attempt to respond to this question. In chapter two we developed an anthropology by way of the psychological insights of Ernest Becker and Robert Kegan. There we learned that growth amounts to a repeating pattern of self-protective self-limitation and transcendence of these same limitations leading to greater freedom to explore new potential in thought and action. In chapter three we dealt with the question of truth from the dual perspective of reflection and response. There we learned that both he reflective and responsive activities of reason progress through a series of stages whereby the activities of criticism and doubt force reason into a paradox that cannot be met according to the resources of its current stage of reflection or response, but can only be transcended. The criticism and doubt from the previous stage are in this way answered, but not on the same plane upon which they had operated. In both cases a form of death preceded new life. Previous forms of knowing, desiring and relating were sublated into a more complex and embracing way of being.

To this I now introduce the work of Sebastian Moore. Over the course of several books Moore has worked out a Christology that aims to answer the existential paradox that we have been articulating.[1] He stands firmly in the Augustinian tradition and is well known as a theologian of desire. Moore makes explicit use of Becker’s work, seeing in it a scientific anthropology that harmonizes with his own theological intuitions. What Moore adds to our picture is an explicitly theological focus on the dynamics of growth and salvation. Where Scharlemann and Tillich presented the dynamics of salvation in human reason, Moore provides us with a soteriology of desire.[2]

The basic shape of Moore’s theology is contained in his conception of Jesus as the liberator of desire. Moore characterizes human desire as having its origin in our original sense of experiencing ourselves as good. We will be addressing this aspect of Moore’s thought in the next section. This original experience of early childhood is progressively diminished along one’s developmental journey, and, as a result, so is the intensity and scope of our own desires. This is Moore’s theory of original sin. This idea will be explored in the section following our discussion of original desire. The first step in the process of salvation is then to reawaken our original sense of ourselves as good. But this reopens the problem we raised above, namely that unlimited desire seems to be a cruel joke within the limits of creaturely life. This leads to the final step. Having awoken unlimited desire, Jesus turns toward Jerusalem and the cross, teaching us to detach our desire from the merely creaturely dimension of life and lose it within the divine movement that courses through all life in freedom and grace. Before moving on to the first section on desire, I will close this introduction with Moore’s own tremendous summary of what he calls his “big discovery.”

The discovery is that Jesus awoke desire in his followers; that the desire he liberated is that infinite desire whose infinity we seldom sense directly; that this desire for life in its fullness chafes at life’s limits and so moves in a mysterious harmony with death…that this desire was altogether beyond the power to own, and so found its place-to-be in Jesus: the awakener of desire becomes its containing symbol. Thus the destruction, the dismantling, of the symbolic place of desire brought desire itself to the crisis that death will be for each of us. Living they died, were carried beyond this world, knew what the dead know. And the focus of this spiritual enlargement, its agency, was the crucifixion of Jesus. (The Inner Loneliness, 120.)

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] The Crucified Jesus Is No Stranger; The Fire and the Rose Are One; The Inner Loneliness; Let This Mind Be in You: The Quest for Identity Through Oedipus to Christ [2] However, this matter is made complex since the conception of reason we dealt with in our time with Scharlemann and Tillich includes the activity of desire in the both the reflective and responsive modes of reason, but perhaps especially in the responsive mode. Moore will speak often about the “awakening” of desire, which is essentially reason’s response to an objectival presence.

Last Night: Within Reach of a Solar Storm

with 4 comments

The conditions were perfect. This was the largest coronal mass ejection that had been aimed directly at earth in a decade. But I was tired, and the action was probably not going to start until after midnight. Lucky my social media chatter about the event attracted two friends of mine who were itching to see the auroras.

We set out for the darkest sky we could find down a minimum maintenance road past a sign that read: “Most people meet the Lord through prayer, but trespassing is quicker.” We parked the vehicle and set out to do some recon. As we made our way through the chilly March darkness someone said, “What left these tracks? They’re huge!” About then there was a thundering sound off to our right and the sound of a large body crashing through the brush. Our headlamps reflected in giant eyes as the beast lunged past us… a horse, unencumbered by a fence.

We set up near a field and the glow on the horizon briefly intensified into shimmering pillars of light before returning to a slowly fading glow for the next few hours. The rest of the night passed without event, aside from a somewhat confused encounter with a local man in his skid-steer at quarter to 1:00 in the morning. A perfect night.

The aroras light up the sky over central Minnesota during the St. Patrick's day solar storm.

More great Minnesota photography here!

Written by Alex

March 18, 2015 at 10:02 am

Jean Vanier: What does it mean to be fully human?

with 3 comments

What does it mean to be fully human? Everything I have ever written has in some way been aimed at this question. The paradoxical title of this blog points toward the answer. The same goes for the quote I highlight at the top of this page by Leo Buscaglia (If you don’t know who Leo is, do yourself a favor and watch some of his old talks on YouTube). Unlike the animal world which moves according to the relative ease of instinct, humanity lives by way of freedom in thought and action. But with the loss of instinct’s prepackaged game-plan comes the question: What does it mean to be human? What are we doing here? How should we spend this brief miracle of self-aware existence?

For a creature of instinct the question cannot arise, but for humanity, the question forms our very essence. To be human is to ask the question of what it means to be human. And with this question comes anxiety. Instinctual life has the character of unreflective security. Here thought, desire, and action are a unified whole. You can see this clearly in the lives of little children. For children, thought does not restrain desire and action (which makes them both delightful and maddening, depending on how much one must be exposed to them!). Anxiety emerges as this child-like unity is transcended.

Adult life is both reflective and insecure. In his classic book, The Art of Loving, Erich Fromm points to this separation from an original unity as the central problem of human existence. We long to return to this unity and have come upon many solutions that are only partially adequate. Of these solutions, he lists the temporary but intense induction of orgiastic states (either sexual or trance types), the surrender of the thrill and danger of freedom by way of conformity to a group, and the gratifying but impersonal immersion of the self in productive work. All of these solutions address the human problem, but they are all limited by the fact that they embody a sort of return to a past unity. As Ernest Becker put it, “The irony of man’s condition is that the deepest need is to be free of the anxiety of death and annihilation; but it is life itself which awakens it, so we must shrink from being fully alive.”

Jean Vanier

Only with a new unity is it possible for humanity to be “fully alive,” to be “fully human.” This new unity is a love beyond fear. It is fear that limits our capacity for love, and it is our limited capacity for love that keeps us separated from each other, from the world we live in, and even from ourselves. This insight stands behind my attempt to make a connection between the idea of adventure and salvation in a paper I presented in Oxford last year. Love tears down the walls that we have carefully maintained to keep ourselves safe. For this reason, I am delighted to hear that Jean Vanier has been awarded the 2015 Templeton Prize. He is the author of Becoming Human and is the founder of L’Arche, an international federation of communities for people with developmental disabilities and those who assist them. His message is simple: By inviting in those who are vulnerable and different, we can develop the capacity to embrace our own vulnerability, and in so doing enlarge our capacity for love, for being fully alive. I’ve taken my own swing at articulating similar ideas, but first, listen to his own words. They have the authority of a remarkable life behind them!

Update: I went on to write a bit more about this here.

The Dawn Wall and the Spirituality of ‘Wasting Time’

leave a comment »

You may have heard that last week Kevin Jorgeson and Tommy Caldwell climbed a 3,000 foot route on El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. It took them 19 days. If we’re honest, I think there’s something in all of us that wonders whether or not such an undertaking is really a praiseworthy use of one’s time. It’s risky, of course, but it also is completely unproductive. At the end of day 19, Jorgeson and Caldwell were still with us (thankfully), but so was the rock. The wars of the world continue, cancer still kills, and most of us (if we’re lucky!) are still going to work a nine to five job until we die.

Maybe that’s a part of why many people find such a feat to be so questionable. If we can picture the view from a few thousand feet above the valley floor at about the time the sun is going down, if we can imagine for a moment the feel of the cold stone, the smell of the wild air, perhaps we’re a bit resentful. Most of us are burning ourselves out trying to pay our bills, stay healthy, keep our marriages intact, all the while feeling helpless and slightly guilty by virtue of the fact that we are participating in a system that’s leading to global climate change, exploits foreign labor, and who knows what all else, and yet here are these guys just out screwing around on the rocks! Well, it’s enough to make one want to shout “GET A JOB!”

Brendan (author of Funny Shit in the Woods and Other Stories) posted a piece today that sought to challenge this mindset. He rightfully called attention to the fact that so much of the activity that we typically consider to be “productive,” when viewed from the perspective of the hilarious absurdity of our very existence, is, more often than not, at least sad and probably downright damaging to the world around us, to say nothing of ourselves. I attempted to make a similar point in the paper I presented in Oxford this last summer.

There seems to be a massive element of forgetfulness in the process of growing up. We are born into this world as children who play, yet we tend to get sucked into a system in which we work ourselves to death in the hopes that one day we might once again have time to sit in the grass and play. Tragically, along the way, it seems so many of us seem to forget that wonderful mix of curiosity, wonder, and the testing of potential and limits that is play. Instead we come to associate play with the things that adult life deems necessary for play, the “toys,” as it were. If you were lucky enough to go on family road trips as a child, you might remember how easily parents could turn even this form of “play” into something much more like work. For many a father, “making good time” was crucial to the “success” of the trip (even if everyone else in the car was utterly miserable). And so we must work even for our toys and, of all things, we must not waste time.

Yet, if we imagine Jorgeson and Caldwell hanging high on the cliff face, then shift our vision to the harried lives most of us lead, is it really so difficult to tell who is wasting time?

Written by Alex

January 22, 2015 at 4:51 pm

Praying for Foul Weather

with 3 comments

Whenever I stay at my in-laws I bring my tent and sleep in the back yard. I just think it’s easier this way. It avoids all the suffering and tears that inevitably follow from spending more time inside with everyone else… not to mention the runny nose, itchy ears, and all the sneezing. I have pretty bad allergies, you see, and their old family farm house has a lot of triggers for me.

As a father of two young children and with all the commitments that go along with that role, It’s been fun to make our frequent trips to the family farm into mini-campouts. It’s also become my own little gear lab. I generally pray for foul weather, and get a kick out of testing my various gear combinations without the risk that would accompany pushing the limits further from shelter.

This talk of “pushing the limits” might sound a bit overblown for a guy who is camping in the back yard, but it should be noted that I live in Minnesota. When it’s winter here, even a walk to the mailbox can be an experience of “pushing the limits!” At any rate, I sleep outside year round, and when it came to Christmas this year, even I was pretty sure that I would not last the night outdoors.

Our first night there was unseasonably warm. It was slightly above freezing all day long. This did not please me since, as I said earlier, I pray for foul weather. My night out passed without event, but I was awoken suddenly by the voice of my wife, “Alex, Alex!!! Get up!!! You’re going to miss it!!!” Groggily, I fumbled with the zippers on my sleeping bag, tossed on my down puffy, and emerged from my crunchy tent. There stood my wife clad in nothing but mukluks, her nightgown and a smile (why doesn’t every night of sleeping out end this way?) The reason for her smile was obvious. The sky was aflame with the rising sun. We crashed through the crusty snow taking pictures and laughing. Sometimes I’m glad that I have allergies.

Megan with Sunrise on the Farm


It was the second night that my wish for bad weather was to be granted. Throughout the day the weather stations talked of the temperatures “falling off the shelf” and the arrival of high winds causing blizzard conditions. The winds were to arrive in the afternoon and temperatures were to reach -18°F as the night progressed. In hopeful expectation, I had brought two down bags (a 40° bag and a 15° bag) which I planned to nest one inside the other. For sleeping pads I brought my RidgeRest SOLite as the first layer, followed by my NeoAir Xlite. All of this was then to be snuggly inserted into my new single walled, 1 person, 4 season tent.

I had not personally slept out in conditions like this before. I’d done -8° with no wind, and a of couple years ago (again, during Christmas at the farm) I slept in an igloo with temps around -11, but igloos are famously warm by comparison, and wind dramatically changes things in the winter, so this really was going to be a different ballgame.

As the day went on, the predictions came true. The winds began to howl across the lake from the northwest, and the temperatures steadily dropped. Finally the time had come. With a nice full tummy of bacon wrapped li’ll smokies and and two shots of olive oil, filled my water bottle with hot water, grabbed my pee bottle and left the cozy warmth of the house for my tent.

It was perfect. The wind was surging through the trees with an enormous roar. It was like daggers, stinging any exposed skin. Off to bed. Getting situated with two bags, various bottles and all the zippers was a bit of a chore, but once settled in, it was a heavenly experience. All around me was this weather that we’d been worrying away at all day. To be exposed to it for even a short length of time would quickly kill anyone. And yet, here I was, in it, touching it, listening to it, tasting it. The tent shuddered against the wind, and the night went on.

At one point, I don’t know when, I woke up. To my surprise I was too warm. The wind was still howling. I got a nice shower of frost in my face as I unzipped my bags. “Need more ventilation,” I thought, so I unzipped the door. What greeted my eyes was much more than ventilation. The clouds had blown over and in their wake was a sea of icy stars flooding the sky. Not expecting that, I was gripped anew with child-like wonder. I spent the next several minutes with frozen hands fiddling with my camera trying to get a decent exposure before finally zipping back into my warm cocoon.

Camping at -17°

I found out later that temperatures had got down to -20°F. Though I did not expect to make it through the night, I ended up being toasty warm the entire time. Unfortunately, I was not greeted by my wife this time as I emerged from my tent, but I was sure to return the favor by crawling into bed with her and giving her a chilly hug once I got inside. Sometimes I’m glad that I have allergies… sometimes.

Note: I wrote after Christmas in 2014 but never got around to posting, so all references to weather conditions are dated.

Written by Alex

January 20, 2015 at 11:04 am

Posted in Life

Tagged with , , ,

Adventure Become Prayer: Hiking Iceland’s Fimmvörðuháls Trail

leave a comment »

When life is made superficial by an awareness dominated by the routine goals and desires of everyday life, adventure can be an opening to the depth of life, and therefore to the experience of salvation. That, in short, was the basic argument of the paper I presented at the Paul Tillich: Theology and Legacy conference last week in Oxford (You can view my photography from this conference here, if you’d like). Upon wrapping up the conference, I then proceeded to take a late flight to Iceland where I drove southeast, finally coming to rest under the arctic twilight at 3:00 a.m. beneath Seljalandsfoss, a breathtaking cascade of glacial melt water. After 3 hours of sleep, I hitchhiked with a former F-16 pilot from Oman to Skogafoss where the Fimmvörðuháls Trail begins. Over the next 19 miles I would climb and descend 3,280 feet; pass endless stunning waterfalls; cross a glacier; walk directly over Móði, one of the two eruption craters from the 2010 Eyjafjallajokull volcano; and be endlessly stunned by the otherworldly beauty of the weathered volcanic remains of Þórsmörk. (For those curious, you can view the complete photo set of this hike here. If you’d like prints of any of these images, check out my print shop)

Water through Lava


The Fallacy of Self-Exemption

All the while I kept thinking about the words I had said at the conference. I had claimed both that adventure has the potential to deepen life, but also that anything in life—even adventure—can lose its depth and become superficial, ordinary, routine, “been there, done that.” When the latter frame of mind dominates our awareness our adventures become consumerism. We show up to our adventures looking to grab as many thrills for the least amount of effort so we can put them on like a suit and go home proving to our friends and family (and probably to ourselves) that we are authentic, daring, really alive. In this way, adventure is drug up from the depths and made to be merely superficial, a rather obvious form of pretension.

As I hiked along with my GoPro snapped to my pack and my giant DSLR bouncing conspicuously against my chest, I couldn’t help but feel the extent to which I was by no means innocent of my own critique. I noticed myself momentarily awestruck by some new feature the land presented me with: a waterfall, a flower, clouds forming all around me as the moist ocean wind cooled on its ascent… but then, just as quickly, I would anxiously reach for my camera. In that moment I had become a consumer. My anxiety about capturing the moment and my despondency upon missing it was evidence that I was trying to turn that unique gift into my own property. To the extent I lived in this frame of mind, my adventure had become superficial… an extension of merely everyday life.

In the Icelandic Highlands

Some Help from Walter Mitty

On the plane home I watched, for the second time, the slightly corny movie The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which, in spite of its campy style, remains one of my favorite movies of recent years. There is a moment where Sean Penn’s character, “Sean O’Connell” who plays an old-school photo journalist, is in the midst of almost capturing a photo of a rare snow leopard high in the Afghan Himalayas. As the ghost cat emerges from the rocks, Sean sighs with pleasure. He motions to Walter to have a look, but then he just sits there, gazing at the animal far across the mountain range. Walter is beside himself. “When are you going to take it?”, he asks. Sean replies, “Sometimes I don’t. If I like a moment, for me, personally, I don’t like to have the distraction of the camera. I just want to stay in it.” In that brief statement O’Connell captures the experience I was wrestling with on the Fimmvörðuháls. There’s no anxiety when you’re able to “stay in it.” You don’t need to worry about consuming the moment, or deciding how to pin it to your chest as a badge of your authenticity. That’s what makes Sean’s character so appealing: the absence of an anxious ego born of a deeper security. In the terms of my paper, such is the experience of salvation.

Adventure Become Prayer

A major point of my paper was that salvation, as it appears through adventure, has the potential to enlarge our capacity to endure the unknown and the unknowable. And this was the other realization I had as I trekked over the Icelandic highlands: If one is able to let the consumerist mindset fall away, adventure becomes prayer. Each step, each breath, takes on the form of attentive expectation. One’s eyes begin scanning the horizon, even the ground beneath one’s feet, for the unfolding gift of life’s ongoing newness. As one settles into this sort of prayerful movement, absolutely nothing is “been there, done that.” All things are new, unexpected. One walks in gratitude. Photos become opportunities to share this joy with loved ones back home, rather than opportunities to prop up one’s ego.

Waterfall on the Skoga

Keeping Adventure Alive in the Everyday

In the end, my Icelandic adventure largely confirmed the intuitions I had when writing my paper, but what impressed me was how easy it was for my adventuring to fall off into the superficial. Much like the wandering mind during prayer, my everyday awareness was constantly reasserting itself even after being repeatedly knocked back by the wonders of my hike. Considering how difficult it was for me to shake this habit (It is most certainly still with me, even as I write this), I don’t suppose it would be too surprising for one to adventure for weeks on end without hardly denting their superficial frame of mind. I suppose for this reason, I may need to think more on how to further qualify this argument that I am still rather keen to make. All the same, with the help of my wife, and other close family members, I’ve been away 10 days. I’m just now working to get back into the rhythms of my everyday life. It’s been delightful to notice how, like any adventure turned to prayer, the everyday life one returns to will never be the same. I am filled with a new enthusiasm for keeping my mind tuned to notice when merely everyday life threatens to deaden me to the adventure that lies always right beneath my nose, in the throbbing center of every moment we live… each shared glance… every waking child… a breath, a touch, a sigh.


More amazing iceland waterfall art for sale here.

Written by Alex

July 21, 2014 at 11:19 am

In Process: “Paul Tillich, Salvation, and Big, Unnecessary, Crazy, Travel Adventure”

with 3 comments

Tillich ConferenceThis past year I’ve dabbled a bit on the relationship between adventure and salvation (here and here), but I have now been given the opportunity to do a more focused treatment of these ideas. I was recently informed that a proposal I submitted to a conference in Oxford, England called, Paul Tillich: Theology and Legacy has been accepted. I had basically written off the possibility of going due to the expense, but at the last minute I decided to toss together a few of these crazy ideas and see what happened. Below is the proposal I submitted. I’ll be flying over in July to present the paper which I am currently working on. I’ll be sure to post the full paper once it’s finished. Stay tuned.

Update: I’ve since uploaded this talk to my academic papers page. You can also read some of my post-conference reflections that were hatched while hiking Iceland’s Fimmvörðuháls Trail here.

Paul Tillich, Salvation, and Big, Unnecessary, Crazy, Travel Adventure

Paul Tillich emphasized that salvation has a paradoxical form. Among a growing community of people, the cultural quest for salvation has recently taken just such a turn. Rather than keeping the evils of death and meaninglessness at bay via the comfortable promises of a technologically manipulated environment, some have taken it upon themselves to, instead, quit their jobs and embark upon incredible journeys in some of the harshest environments of the planet. They thrive on rather minimal preparation, entrust themselves to the kindness of strangers, and frequently change their plans. From bicycling 30,000 miles home, across Siberia—in winter, as Rob Lilwall did, to more humble “micro-adventures” as Alastair Humphreys encourages, these adventurers have at least one thing in common: They encounter an intensity of life that the normal mode of technologically-dependent life systematically subverts.

What I hope to argue is that this movement points to the experience of salvation in our time. Tillich’s thinking on salvation was often framed by the ideas of what he called structure and depth. These were the terms he was thinking in when he described culture as the form of religion and religion as the depth of culture. The basic problem that he identified is that religion has been artificially separated from culture and that culture is then ever in danger of losing its depth. Thus, if salvation is the dynamic encounter of the depth of being within the structure, and if the structure has lost its grammar of depth, then it is understandable that people will go looking for depth elsewhere. And we might expect that they will do so precisely by spurning empty cultural forms. I hope to show that these individuals represent a theologically interesting enactment of the fragmentary overcoming of estrangement in our time.

Written by Alex

April 17, 2014 at 11:14 am