living through death

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

Posts Tagged ‘Centering Prayer

It Is Finished!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Introduction

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A Brief Overview

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

Introduction

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

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

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

Liminal: Sunset over Rice Minnesota

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


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

Published: Prayer Does Not Work

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Last February I wrote that I had submitted a proposal for a paper on prayer called, Prayer Does Not Work: Paul Tillich and Centering Prayer. Today I just received word that it has finally been published. So without further ado, I will now tease you with the introduction before linking to the full paper that you can peruse at your leisure.

Prayer Does Not Work: Paul Tillich and Centering Prayer

The question “Does prayer work?” is, of course, the wrong question. If one answers “yes,” endless counterexamples can be brought to mind in order to demonstrate the naiveté of such an affirmation. But if one answers “no,” the role of prayer in the lives of countless saints and geniuses is given no explanation. The question does not go deep enough, but as easy as it is to brush the question aside, it is by no means so easy to banish the mindset that gives rise to it. In fact, I take no great risk in assuming that anyone who will eventually read this lives their life characterized by the spiritual mindset behind this badly placed question. I’m right there with you, and it’s killing us.

This is an essay for those for whom prayer has become a problem. I have in mind those who may have grown up with regular times of prayer, but who have long since ceased to pray, perhaps not fully knowing why. Or maybe they do know why. Perhaps at some point it was just sensed that the whole thing just didn’t work anymore, God, prayer, the whole bit. Gray Lava Field in South West Iceland As we grow up, our everyday lives become more and more predominated with a constant attention to how well things are working. Before we go to bed at night, we might hope that the alarm clock works, thereby ensuring we make it to…well, “work” on time. We change the oil on our vehicles, exercise our bodies, work on our relationships. Why? So things keep working. Everyday life tends to be a constant attention to making sure that life in general goes on working. If things stop working, however, we either get to work on a solution, or get rid of it. “It wasn’t working.” Is a perfectly sensible answer to a whole range of questions: “You have a new car! What happened to the old one?”, or, “How come she ended the relationship?” It can even be an answer to the question of why someone might choose to give up the whole project of life itself. And with that, we can see just how deep this goes. Not only can the many particular tasks of our life either work or fail to work, our life as a whole can be viewed in the same way.

Is it any wonder, then, that our prayer life easily finds itself under the purview of this regular and necessary frame of mind? Perhaps now that we’ve looked at a few examples it’s not even quite so clear to us why our original question is so badly placed.

Lutherans in particular have always been wary of works righteousness, and rightly so. But the space between salvation by way of moral effort and the drop-out mantra of “let go and let God” has never been an easy one to chart.[1] When we get the sense that our prayer life is missing something, it’s a great deal easier to vacillate between redoubling our efforts and being more disciplined, or just—to take the other approach to something that doesn’t seem to be working properly—stop bothering with it.

As a young man attending a Baptist seminary while working on my M.A., I had tried and failed enough times at the former path that I was pretty much resigned to living in the later state. But it was at that time that a rather unexpected thing began to happen. Through the writings of a Lutheran theologian, Paul Tillich, I came to discover a typically Catholic form of prayer. Though in its contemporary form this mode of prayer was after his time, it remains deeply resonant with his thought. I’m speaking here of Centering Prayer and I’ve come to see it as an interesting path between a crude form of sanctification by moral effort and the lazy caricature of “let go and let God.” In either case, I’d want to argue, prayer simply “doesn’t work.” In fact, the very term “work,” I hope to show, is a bad metaphor for what happens in prayer. I’d like to show how the theology of Paul Tillich and Centering Prayer subvert our usual notions of “work” and reorient the question of prayer toward a deeper question of the fullness of life. You can continue reading the full essay here.


[1] We can think, for example, of Paul’s conflicts with the “Judaizers” who felt he was being too lax on this point, as well as Augustine, who was warmly received by many cosmopolitan Roman citizens, as they felt his theology to be comfortably tolerant of persistent sin.

Written by Alex

January 5, 2015 at 4:03 pm

The Dissertation Has Begun: Here’s a Look Inside

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If you’ve ever asked yourself, “Just what is Alex working on anyway?”, today is your day. I present to you a link to:

A very short summary of my dissertation

With this public presentation of this summary, I am now entering a new phase. My intent is to share my ongoing work with you. I’ve been writing for the last few weeks now, and it’s become clear to me that writing my dissertation does not give me nearly the same level of pleasure as writing these short reflections. In fact, writing “for my dissertation” has proven to be about the most painful experience I’ve yet had in grad-school. So I’m going to see if I can trick myself and bring us all on a bit of a journey together. I’m going to attempt to draft the sections of my chapters as blog posts. I can easily see this falling apart on me, but at the moment I also think it might just be crazy enough to work. Stay tuned!

P.S. do let me know how my dissertation summary strikes you, should you happen to take a peek!

Written by Alex

November 14, 2014 at 11:45 am

“Prayer Doesn’t Work” A Work in Progress

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Update: This paper has now been completed and published. You can view the paper in its entirety here.

Consider a mother praying to God for the life of her desperately ill child. Or maybe it’s a son, screaming at God to help his mother, the one person in the world whose love for him was unconditional, as she slips further into dementia. An uninvolved bystander may ask—though they themselves almost certainly will not—”Will their prayers work?” Now consider the title of a paper I am preparing to write: “Prayer Doesn’t Work.

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I was recently invited to write an article for the journal “Word and World,” a periodical devoted to the relation of contemporary theology to the demands of ministry. Ministers are familiar with the heart-broken plea of their congregants who come to them asking, “does prayer really work?” Prayer is often proclaimed as the lifeblood of a spiritual community, but for many, such talk seems at least cheap and often deeply wounding. The following is the proposal I submitted. I’ll be working on it over the summer, but I’ll be sure to post the results once I get it wrapped up. It’s a difficult topic, and one that I can’t look at from a distance. Hopefully I can manage something that will be more than simply “provocative.”

Lutherans have historically been ever watchful of “works righteousness” in their spiritual lives, and rightly so. Yet a strange thing has happened in my own prayer life. I have come to discover a typically Catholic form of prayer through the work of a Lutheran theologian, Paul Tillich. Though, in its contemporary form, this mode of prayer was after his time, it remains deeply resonant with his thought. I’m speaking here of Centering Prayer and I’ve come to see it as an interesting way between a crude form of sanctification by moral effort and the lazy caricature of “let go and let God.” In either case, I’d want to argue, prayer simply “doesn’t work.” In fact, the very term “work,” I’d wish to show, is a bad metaphor for what happens in prayer. I’d like to show how Centering Prayer subverts our usual notions of “work” and “submission” by a fundamental paradox that is God’s arrival in our own release which is at once our own true arrival in God’s release.

Written by Alex

February 24, 2014 at 12:01 pm

The Adventure You Are Called to

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How much of life do we miss simply because, though we are bodily present, our minds are worrying away in either the past or the future? How much do we miss by being beyond even those mental stirrings, placing our minds on auto-pilot? It’s hard to blame us, really; this life is often an anxiety producing experience. We carry guilt for our actions in the past. We worry about the possibility of a fulfilling life in the future. And often times all this worrying and longing strikes us as so fruitless that we’d just rather drown it all out with mindless noise. Notice, while alone in the car, how quickly we move to fill the silence with the radio. To be alone with ourselves is often a painful experience. And yet, to lose yourself by tuning out is boring. Life becomes little more than another trip to work, a sitcom, a beer, and bed.

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We Are All Self-Absorbed

The basic problem is what those in the world of psychotherapy and spiritual direction call “self-absorption.” Self-absorbtion is the basic human problem of being trapped inside your ego-organized self. But this is a funny thing, because to be trapped inside yourself (your ego-organized self), is, in another sense, to be separated from yourself (your fuller self, the self that is deeply integrated and connected with the world around you).

Often, we prefer life this way. The reason is that life within our ego-organized self has at least one thing going for it: It’s predictable. And to that extent, it’s safe. But the catch is that it’s predictable only because it’s the mental world we’ve personally crafted or bought in to. It’s filled not with the world that emerges as mystery, around us and from within us, but with our concepts of the world around us and with our concept of our own identity. It’s not the immediate experience of this moment, this light, this smell, this texture, but instead it’s “another tree,” “another trip to work,” another “white evangelical.” We’ve constructed this world since birth to deal with the chaotic unpredictability of life. To a certain extent, it even works, but its limits begin to show themselves in a brooding sense of dissatisfaction, boredom, and self-loathing. Underneath it all is the sense of a fuller life, of excitement, of a desire for that which we know not what, of adventure.

Wanting What We’re Scared of

The trouble is, getting in touch with that fuller sense requires courage. We need to learn to leave, at least occasionally, the relative safety of our ego-organized self, of our concepts. A tolerance for an encounter with the unknown, the unpredictable, the chaotic in life, must be developed. In short: We must have a capacity to endure the danger of adventure if we are to embark on the adventure of life that calls to us. It is for this reason that spiritual directors William Connolly and William Barry suggest that “Self-absorption is a concentration on weakness. The effort to help a person to look beyond herself is part of the appeal to strength that is the task of the spiritual director. [emphasis, mine]” (The Practice of Spiritual Direction, 51.)

Quit the Neurotics of Normalcy

The good news is that you don’t need to go to a therapist or a spiritual director to begin to develop this capacity for the unpredictable, and therefore to more easily take hold of the fuller life that is so often buried within you. Here’s a few things I can recommend.

  1. If you are the outdoorsy type (and perhaps especially if you are not!), consider Alastair Humphreys’ philosophy of “micro-adventures.” The genius of his thinking here is that he helps you to get past giving excuses for never living adventurously because of the daunting nature of large-scale adventures.
  2. Unplug. We’ve all heard this before, but it’s true. Do it. Every now and again, try to drive, walk, or just sit without a steady input of artificial stimulation. If you looking for a serious challenge, attempt to take a detached stance to the mental train of thoughts that will immediately rush in to fill the void of silence (for a bit more on the benefits of silence, see my recent post here).
  3. Take Leo Buscaglia’s advice and jump out your bedroom window (at 37:03).
  4. Work on moving your relationship with your spouse from a relation of dependency to interdependency. Nothing will force you to endure the unpredictable than actual intimacy with another human being. And nobody is better at helping committed relationships on this journey than David Schnarch. His book “Passionate Marriage” is revolutionary (Note: not for the prudish, Esp. Chapter 10).
  5. Quit your job (self explanatory).
  6.  Consider contemplative prayer or a practice of meditation: Think number 2. on steroids. If the problem is being trapped inside your ego-organized self, contemplative prayer is the daily discipline in encountering God not in the known contents of your mind, but in the unknown mystery that comes before and stretches beyond you. Thomas Keating’s classic “Open Heart Open Mind” is a great place to begin.
  7. Ride your bike across Europe and Asia.
  8. Raise chickens in your backyard. The interactions you’ll soon have with your neighbors will alone bring all kinds of fun unpredictability.

The Spirituality of Adventure

Whatever you do, be gentle with yourself. All of us, simply by being born and growing up into this world, regularly live within the safety of our constructed worlds. And to a certain extent, such living is normal, natural, and healthy. But on the other hand, we also live in an era where our technological grasp on reality has given us the ability to fashion our very environment according to the whims of our mental constructions. It has become ever more easy, by virtue of the rapid changes in social and mass media, to mistake our constructions for “all that there is.” It is a rare thing for the natural world to break in upon us and force us to wake up to the unpredictable mystery in which we find ourselves. As a consequence, we find it ever easier to live merely within the limits of our constructions. We are bored. We are vaguely dissatisfied. But it needn’t be so. Life itself is danger and adventure! Sometimes all it takes is stepping outside the role culture has crafted for us for that feeling of wonder, awe, and an aching desire for that which we know not what to come rushing back to us.

May you live the adventure from which you flow and to which you are called!

Silence and the New

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Without silence we will encounter very little that is new in life. Without silence, our alternatives in thought and action will remain relatively restricted. Growth, both personal and relational, will be difficult. We will easily find ourselves “stuck,” seemingly doomed to run the same old scripts and face the same old problems. Without silence, life is noise, and we resort to various ways of dealing only in the sounds we like. Are these words about you? They are most certainly about me.

Silence

On a daily basis, I spend an extended period of time practicing silence. As I sit and tune into the background noise of my mind, it is shocking to realize how much noise is constantly going on. In one way or another, this background noise (which is really only just the surface) tends to revolve around various forms of seeking security, esteem, control, and power. Typically, these thoughts have a “pull” to them. It’s easy to feel once you get used to it, and once you do, you can locate the impulses that are motivating your thought and actions. In realizing this, you are able to see the ways that your alternatives in thought and action have been limited to exclusively the options marked out by the background noise of your mind, to your own personal narcissistic operating system.

For most of us, most of the time, this all goes on “behind the scenes,” as it were. Not being aware of the dynamics leads us to think that our occurrent awareness and the alternatives it hands to us is “just the way things are.” Not only is this not the case, it is a capitulation that is tearing our world apart.

Tuning into the background noise is really only a preliminary step in my daily practice. The real “work” begins when, now aware of the noise, I practice a subtle act of inner release. There is no violence here; it is not suppression, it is mentally letting go. It is practice because the mind is never really silent, thus the motion is repeated, again and again. Attention is to nothing-in-particular (which is importantly different from “nothing”), and only by intention is one able to maintain the discipline.

With practice, this pattern has the potential to accompany one in daily life. More and more, habitual thoughts and actions become relativized to an attention that is not immediately run through the grid of our narcissistic operating system and the limited alternatives that go along with it.

With silence comes openness to the new, and life is in its manifestation.

Written by Alex

January 21, 2014 at 10:41 am