living through death

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

Posts Tagged ‘Contemplative Prayer

Borges and God: The Unrecognized Orthodoxy of Refusing to Speak of God

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Jorge Luis Borges, SicilyOur cultural moment has lost a classic insight. We have arrived at a place in history where we presume to know, straightforwardly, what we are talking about when we speak of God. Because of this, most Westerners think that religion is essentially a matter of whether or not we believe in this thing, the existence of God, let’s say. Combine this with the overwhelming advances in our scientific knowledge of the universe and you have a situation where most scientifically educated people see no real reason to believe in this thing, this God.

I’m one of them. That may seem odd since I’m a theologian by training. But that only demonstrates how confused the broader culture has become on this point, and therefore how confused the general meaning of “God” has become. In fact, my rejection of belief in this “God,” is not odd at all. My solidarity with the growing impulse in culture to disbelieve in this thing we call “God” is an essential feature of my discipline. We call this thing “an idol.” Forgive us for having not made this clear during the past few hundred years. Our ancient teachers, Augustine and Aquinas, have been notified of our behavior, and we have since received our due scolding.

The insight that has been lost, and which desperately needs to be recovered is as follows: God, as the eternal source of all temporal reality, is inconceivable. This is so because our conceptions follow from how we know things, and what we know is temporal reality, not, eternity. Thus, God, as eternal, is inconceivable. This has important implications for how we speak about God. Since our language represents concepts and our concepts are formed according to how we know things, this entails that our language about God will never rise to the level of what it seeks to name. There is no straightforward talk of God, which is to say that, strictly speaking, God is ineffable (That’s all straight out of Aristotle and Aquinas, in case you were curious).

An example of this confusion passed my way this morning. It was a beautiful interview with author Jorge Luis Borges on his beliefs pertaining to the transcendent and God. I found myself feeling sympathetic for him as he sought to find the right words to describe his outlook. He seemed to want very badly to speak of the divine, but felt that the way to do it was just not available to him.

In seeking to speak of the transcendent, Borges says,

I do think that it’s safer not to call it God. If we call it God, then we are thinking of an individual and that individual is mysteriously three, according to the doctrine of the Trinity, which to me is quite inconceivable.

Is this heresy? Not at all. It is an essential feature of Trinitarian thought that it is inconceivable. It’s not a description of things that exist in the world. It’s an inadequate formulation using temporal concepts that points to an indescribable reality beyond them. To see the inconceivability as a flaw in the construct is to miss the point. The great father of the church, Augustine, would have enthusiastically agreed with Borges on the inconceivability of the doctrine of the Trinity. Here’s Augustine after discussing the Trinity in “On Christian Teaching.”

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.

A final point is worth mentioning. Borges has what much of our culture has lost: a deep intuition of transcendence. It must be stressed that the early Christian doctrines were formed out of a culture that stimulated this sense. I’ve spoken of this repeatedly on this blog, and I don’t plan to stop anytime soon. The early Christians were steeped in a contemplative form of life in which prayer was essentially the regular practice of ego death. The philosopher Wittgenstein came to hold a view quite similar to Aquinas in which he argued that the meaning of a word is in its use. The form of life from which the words emerge designates their meaning. It must be remembered, then, that early Christian words developed in a context of contemplative prayer that stripped the mind of all images and concepts out of a passion to love God as God is in God’s own eternity, unobstructed by the limitations of our concepts. That is why they were always careful to stress God’s ineffability. They spoke of God, but always with the recognition that their speech was inadequate, though offered in love and praise.

I have a feeling that Borges would rather like this idea. Can you imagine what the world would be like if such a language, born of such a practice, were widely adopted? Would we, all of us, together, speak the divinity we sense in all the various particularities of our life with gratitude and praise, and yet never banish each other on the basis of difference? I pray for the day when we enter a freedom born of knowing that while our particular utterances always fail to reach the mark, our hearts might still break free in a love whose voice sings beyond words.

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Written by Alex

November 5, 2014 at 11:06 am

What the Church Needs: Letter to My Episcopal Church

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The following is my attempt to give constructive feedback to my local Episcopal Church as it undergoes what they call a “Missional Assessment” process. I served on the committee that went through the process, and as a relative new comer it was a fascinating process to witness. The Missional Assessment process is designed to tease out the sense of vocation in a particular congregation and to give some framework for helping that worshiping community further realize that sense of call. I served on the team that focused on “teaching.” Since I’ll be out of town for the last meeting, I submitted a few thoughts in writing. Here they are:

Our cultural moment is one largely characterized by opposing sides, both of which are quite clear on what they are affirming and denying. Those who are not given to residing on the polar ends of life are therefore left with few options, and not many of them possessing much by way of passion.

The Episcopal church has the resources to be a haven for these people, if we can learn to recognize it and articulate it. I think much of what has been said in the summary thus far is good [They’d sent me a document summarizing our progress so far], but there are two things I’d like to highlight, one is a caution, the other is a challenge.

In the first place, my past experience makes me wary of initiatives to help train congregants in how to conduct “one on one conversations.” [one of the recommendations] Invariably, what I’ve seen from efforts of this nature amounts to little beyond the impartation of a few sociological tricks and some rather superficial theology. Training, such as it is, ought to be training to be the kinds of people from whom the “mission of God” flows freely as a result of a genuine inner awakening. Such awakening can result only from our own “inner-crucifixion.” What is encouraging to me is the way that St. John’s possesses the theological and traditional resources to stimulate this very act. The contemplative tradition is nothing if not “training” in the self-death necessary for the flourishing of authentic relationships. This resource ought to be tapped into and expanded upon. There is a hunger for it since it opens up the depth of life without the superficiality and fanaticism that many fear about religion.

Now for the challenge. What the church needs (I am so bold to suggest), on the level of teaching, is the ability to articulate a vision of passionate faith that preserves the divine mystery. The culture currently deals in alternatives. Either one is passionate, or one is reasonable; either one is certain, or one is sure of nothing; either we each make our own autonomous decisions, or we submit unthinkingly to some arbitrary tradition. Etc…

The Episcopal Church, to my mind, is uniquely situated to speak a new word into these alternatives. Rather than being the merely “rational, relative, autonomous” liberals who hide behind a mask of traditional forms (as the caricature goes), the Episcopal Church has the potential to be grasped by the heart of the Christian tradition that cuts past each of the alternatives I’ve put forth. The Episcopal Church, can, in a way that most others cannot, live passionately into a tradition whose one certainty is the mystery that is revealed in releasing our quest for certainty, thus opening a rationality predicated upon a mystery that precedes both the autonomous self as well as the very structure of the historical world.

This is not easy to get across, because “teaching” resides on the superficial level of life. It resides in human language, concepts, and relationships. What I’m suggesting, however, is not on that level. It is wisdom: the dynamic understanding of that level’s relationship to the divine mystery, which precedes and transcends it. Contemplative spirituality is a practice in that dynamic relationship. The next step—so as to avoid the charge of acquiescing to “mere practice” with no concern for truth—is getting in view a theoretic framework that gives a home to the practice. In other words: Theology.

And so ends yet another attempt by the theologian at brevity and clarity. My apologies!

Alex

Written by Alex

October 8, 2013 at 11:46 am

Reflections on Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation: Chapter 2, “What Contemplation Is Not”

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Friedrich David CasperThis post is part of a series of reflections on Thomas Merton’s book New Seeds of Contemplation


It is difficult in our day to understand the God that contemplative prayer encounters. When Merton says things like, “The question [of God] is, itself, the answer. And we ourselves are both.”, (4) it seems as though Merton is simply assuming the existence of God, then naming our reality as a divine reality. Yet what if one denies such an assumption, as many in our day do? Contemplative prayer then seems to become a sort of refined practice in wishful naval gazing.

It is impossible to escape this charge according to the prevailing categories of the modern mind. This is why Merton says “The only way to get rid of the misconceptions about contemplation is to experience it. One who does not actually know, in his [sic] own life, the nature of this breakthrough and this awakening to a new level of reality cannot help being misled by most of the things that are said about it.” (6) The reason for this lies, at least in part, in the fact that the experience of contemplative prayer breaks open the very heart of the modern mental approach to existence.

In this meditation Merton goes straight to the cognitive heart of modernity. “Nothing could be more alien to contemplation”, he says, “than the cogito ergo sum of Descartes. ‘I think, therefore I am.’ This is the declaration of an alienated being, in exile from his own spiritual depths, compelled to seek some comfort in a proof for his own existence(!) based upon the observation that he ‘thinks.'” (8) The very same thing applies to the God that Descartes discovers. To the extent that God is for us the conclusion of an argument, God remains forever an external, ever-dubious thing.

“For the contemplative there is no cogito (“I think”) and no ergo (“therefore”) but only SUM, I Am.” This is not the assumption of God, like a premise assumed in an argument. It is an awakening to the realization that we are are “grasped” before we even attempt to grasp God. Strangely, there is an important sense in which this realization does not bring solace to our lives. In awakening to this reality we realize that, unlike the assumptions in our old arguments, we no longer know what God is.

Here we “…may or may not mercifully realize that, after all, this is a great gain, because ‘God is not a what,” not a “thing.” That is precisely one of the essential characteristics of contemplative experience. It sees that there is no “what” that can be called God. There is “no such thing” as God because God is neither a “what” nor a “thing” but a pure “Who.” He is the “Thou” before whom our inmost “I” springs into awareness. He is the I Am before whom with our own most personal and inalienable voice we echo “I am.”(13)


Click here for more in this series of reflections.

Written by Alex

July 25, 2013 at 9:19 am

Reflections on Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation: Chapter 1, “What is Contemplation?”

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This post is part of a series of reflections on Thomas Merton’s book New Seeds of Contemplation


Not too long ago I read Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain. Though I thought it was a beautiful book, I couldn’t shake the feeling that, spiritually, it was a sort of young man’s book. It struck me as overly excited about Catholicism and relatively quick to criticize other traditions. (but this may say more about my own concerns than the book’s potential) I had heard a great deal about Merton the spiritual master, so I was somewhat disappointed. At the same time, this is to be forgiven, I think, as Merton really was a very young man when he penned that now classic work. Realizing this, I was eager to get my hands on some of his more mature works.

Just yesterday I received my copy of New Seeds of Contemplation, a much later collection of spiritual reflections. Merton grew up indeed! Here is the figure I was expecting to find. Granted I have only just begun reading it, but all narrowness seems to have vanished and every ounce of passion appears as the passion for God as through yet beyond all concrete being. This is worth spending some time with.

Chapter 1 is a brief meditation on the meaning of “contemplation.” After painting the beautiful image of creation as God asking God’s self a question and contemplation as God’s answer to God’s question he continues…

The life of contemplation implies two levels of awareness: first, awareness of the question, and second awareness of the answer. Though these are two distinct and enormously different levels, yet they are in fact and awareness of the same thing. The question is, itself, the answer. And we ourselves are both. But we cannot know this until we have moved into the second kind of awareness. We awaken, not to find an answer absolutely distinct form the question, but to realize that the question is its own answer. And all it summed up in the one awareness—not a proposition, but an experience: “I Am.”

Screen Shot 2013-07-19 at 10.13.43 AMBefore Paul Tillich opened my eyes to the classical theological tradition, this sort of language would have made no sense to me. It’s not rational in any linear sense. Merton is here speaking the language of paradox. Under usual rational circumstances questions are not, by definition, answers. Questions seek to gain new knowledge about things from which we are separated. But in the classical tradition when when it comes to God, God is not something from which we are separated, at least not in the usual sense. Prepositions and articles become tricky at this point. Here God is not a being, but being-itself. In the language of Aquinas, God is simple. God is God’s own existence in contrast to all creatures whose existence is dependent upon something other than themselves. For us, this means that to the extent that we have being, we participate in God. God is the end of the chain of dependency, though not as the final link in the chain, but rather as the unnameable mystery that grounds the entire chain from the first link to the last. In this way of understanding, to ask the question of God cannot be anything other than an expression of God’s self, for all that is has its source, subsistence, and end there.

This is why “[c]ontemplation is also the response to a call: a call from Him Who has no voice, and yet Who speaks in everything that is, and Who, most of all, speaks in the depths of our own being: for we ourselves are words of His.”

Merton thus calls us not to a new argument, demonstration, or proof, for such operations only make sense if God is separate from us. Instead we are called to a new awareness, an awareness of the sacred within both ourselves and all that is. The deep question behind our deep questions is thus an expression of eternal Being within created being. And to this extent there can be no creaturely answer, for only the eternal can answer the eternal. The best we can manage is to be encountered by (made aware of) this mystery while ever remaining the limited creatures that we are. To achieve this form of awareness we must release all efforts to accept anything creaturely as eternal, including and especially our conceptual ideas about God and ourselves (Think of what Jesus did to the concepts of divinity that his disciples nurtured). This is part of the way that the eternal question contains its own keys, for the eternal within us will expose the pretensions of all creaturely contenders for divinity. The moment of awakening occurs once the field has been totally cleared, when every last false security has been unmasked or released, this is the moment of realization that only the eternal can ask the eternal question and that we are its voice. Such is not an entrance into creaturely security, for there is none, rather it is the acceptance of eternal mystery and the curious sort of freedom it brings.


Click here for more in this series of reflections.

Written by Alex

July 19, 2013 at 10:13 am