living through death

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

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Moving: A Reflection in the Form of a Note to My Kids

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In 10 days we will be moving away from Rice, MN. We’ve spent 12 years of our lives here. One of the things that I am most deeply grateful for that has emerged from this time is the love that has literally been born into the world between you, Adrian and Brynn. Yes, Adrian, you are prone to being a know-it-all in the presence of your sister. And, yes, Brynn, you are prone to squealing and whining in the presence of Adrian. But from the first smile that crossed Adrian’s face when you were born seven and a half years ago, you two have shared a love that has been our joy to witness. And that’s probably what breaks my heart most about this move…

I remember last year at conferences, Adrian, Mrs. Davis—who tended to be rather serious—got a big smile on her face as she described how much you loved being Brynn’s big brother at school. She told me how, when “leading the line,” if you heard her voice, you would make the whole line slow down in the hall so that you might be able to wave at Brynn as she passed by. Then this year, Brynn, Mrs. Christensen told us how Adrian comes into your room every morning and gives you a hug and a high-five before he goes to his own room. Someday, when you have a little more experience in this world, you will realize just how beautiful these images are. These are the last days, however. In Fergus you will be going to different schools…

Last night I was not feeling well, so I was trying to go to bed early. You two were in your room with the light on just jabbering away. I had to go in and have you shut all the lights off (including your lava lamp) and tell you get to sleep. You were both sitting there in your jammies (Adrian in his dinosaur footies, and Brynn, you in your princess nightgown) coloring a Minecraft coloring sheet. Once I was back in bed, and for the next half hour, you then decided to sing songs to each other (I have no idea about what), so I had to go tell you to stop that as well.

ab

You both are pretty nervous about the idea of having your own rooms. You’ve slept in the same room together ever since there was such a thing as you “together.” You keep asking if we can just make one room for you in the new house. There is, of course, a part of me that would give anything to build you one room in our new house where you could always live as our children, singing to each other in your jammies, even while we tried to get some sleep. It goes without saying that you will always have a room like that in the hearts of your mother and I, and in the heart of God, I suspect, these days live on as much more than memories. But in this life, things move on. We grow up. We say goodbye. We become ourselves, often in quite lonely and difficult ways.

Leaving is hard. Growing up is hard. But it’s part of life. I’ve gone through it myself… I’m still going through it. So, a bit of advice: Never forget this love you’ve known. Look for it in your new home. Create it with the new people who will enter your life. Reconnect with it in the lives of those of us who have been with you from the beginning, mom and I, your brother, your sister, your grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, your first neighbors and friends.

So there we go. I’m so deeply grateful for the life we’ve had here in Rice. I’m so deeply grateful for the love that you’ve grown to know. May we only grow deeper in that love as we move into this next chapter!

Written by Alex

March 1, 2016 at 12:50 pm

Posted in Life

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

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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.

“Where were you?”

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It’s always been hard for me to part with objects that have surrounded the childhood of my kids. This morning was no exception. Today, as part of a recent de-cluttering kick, I walked to the curb with this infant car seat—the car seat that both our kids took their first voyages home in—and set it  in the trash.

Car Seat

I know I am not throwing away their childhood, but it reminds me of the easily overlooked fact that it’s already gone. Years later Brynn would often crawl back into this car seat as if trying to reclaim the security of her earliest memories. The trouble is, there’s no security there, not for Brynn, not for any of us. All we will ever have is happening right now, and that’s no stable ground. Hanging on to an old car seat won’t bring back the sweetness of an early childhood, but the ache I feel inside at this moment is pulling my attention back to this life that is still happening (So call your folks and tell them you love them!). We lose so much life without even participating in it! We are too busy trying to resurrect the dead past or filling our barns in preparation for an unpredictable future to notice the utter futility of an awareness thus restricted. Better to burn every pair of baby shoes, every love note from your spouse, every photo of the family that raised you, than to miss the moment in which you now sit that is calling your name.

* * *

This morning as the kids were getting ready for school, I told my son that he had done a good job getting his stuff ready and that I loved him. “I don’t care”, he said. So I did what the moment demanded. I grabbed him and tickled him until he nearly peed. Our neighbor boy who waits for the bus at our place said, “man, I never hear you guys laugh like that.” It was like someone punched me in the gut, but he was right. Every morning my head is full of the rush and worry that surrounds the completion of my PhD. This anxiety regularly bleeds over to how I am around the kids as they get ready for the bus. It won’t be long and there will be no more kids waiting of for buses, no more giggling when they should be reading, no more hugs and “I love you” signs made out the bus window as it drives away. Will I look back and ask, “Where were you?”

Written by Alex

October 7, 2014 at 11:05 am

Posted in Life

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Breaking God Talk

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[Warning: this is an especially geeky post]

God talk is an impossible possibility. This leads to all kinds of problems. Among them is a situation where many theists and atheists think they’re talking about God when they have not yet risen (or perhaps better, descended) to that level. The problems all flow from God’s eternality, and our non-eternality. I’ve been engaging this difficulty with a friend of mine via email. Below is a recent response by me to him. In the exchange “God talk” is being discussed as “the eternal.” I had said previously that religious belief was in a category of its own due to the eternal nature of its object. I said that religious belief needed to “transcend the categories of merely subjective and objective reflection.” He took issue with this, saying: 1) How can you know this? and 2) It’s impossible. The following was my reply.

The Possibility

It’s an interesting situation we’re dealing with. On the one hand, as you say, you can form a theoretical belief about the infinite that does not “mark it off as an object beyond oneself.” As you point out, I’m doing that when I say that the eternal “includes the reflecting self as well as the reflection.” You are right on both these points. And the fact is, there’s no way around it if we wish to go on thinking or speaking about the eternal in a discursive mode.

The Impossibility

Here we see the point where the trouble starts. Since these acts of thought can be performed, and because they are, in a sense, necessary, it is easy to think that by that very fact they are adequate. They are not. The eternal can never be talked about adequately because we are always in it, speaking, from it. (just like, as you point out, we are in our subjectivity. I’ll come back to that). Because of this there is no simply theoretical, no objective, no detached analytical knowledge of the eternal. This is why, I argue, religious belief is (or ought to be) in a category all its own.

The Paradox

Thus, religious beliefs (including atheistic religious beliefs) are sort of weird. They are irreducibly subjective, but they make universally objective claims.

From this, the terms we use to talk about the eternal need to mirror this weirdness. Their relative adequacy is constituted not simply by a their reflexivity, including the self as an object of reflection (“the eternal as the sum of all things, including myself”). No, as Charles Taylor points out, a radical reflexivity is necessary. The mind must try and fail to grasp as an object the very act of its own reflecting. This is what Robert Sharlemann pointed out as the genius of Tillich’s relation of human reason to divine revelation. In this attempt and failure, something of the eternal is paradoxically understood without being grasped. And from here, a sort of map is given for all further speech about the eternal. There is the attempt to speak of the eternal reality, the failure, and the pointing out of the attempt and failure (It’s rather Christological, if you think about it).

Transcending Our Subjectivity?

As for transcending subjectivity. The claim was that any relatively adequate term must transcend the merely subjective and objective modes. It was not that I have done this and have returned with the eternal Word. You’re right; it’s impossible (hence, what I said in the paragraph above).

How Can This Be Known?

To the question of how I know these things, two responses: 1. This question assumes that we are dealing with a theoretical question. As I’ve shown above, we are not. 2. It happens every time I pray. It is, as Sebastian Moore says, “intersubjectivity with the infinite.”

In closing, the following passage makes no sense if it is read from an “un-broken” frame of mind, one that has yet to meet the failure of radical reflexivity. But from the standpoint of one who as endured this paradox, it is a beautiful extension of the logic I have been describing in this post.

Moore

“The Really Poor” & The Man Who Quit Money

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“The surest asceticism is the bitter insecurity and labor and nonentity of the really poor. To be utterly dependent on other people. To be ignored and despised and forgotten. To know little of respectability or comfort. To take orders and work hard for little or no money: it is a hard school, and one which most pious people do their best to avoid.” Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 250.The Man Who Quit Money

This quote by Thomas Merton is the perfect encapsulation of a marvelous book that came out last year called “The Man Who Quit Money” In it, the story is told of Daniel Suelo whose life leads him to give up completely on the security of financial means. He does in fact become utterly dependent on other people. His efforts to share his own insights are ignored and ineffective. His God is deconstructed and lost. And yet, the quite compelling claim is that, in this, he finds salvation. In his own vulnerability and failure, an image of the good life emerges. It’s crazy, but it works. Why?

From the perspective of Ernest Becker’s work, the vulnerability described here gets the “really poor” further down the road of spirituality than the rest of us in that it removes so many of the things the rest of us take to be the source of our security and esteem. The reality of death (both on the level of meaning and biology) is not so easily denied for the “really poor.” For the “really poor” the attempt to be our own maker, the causa sui project, is systematically subverted.

Yet, it’s not mere destitution that is salvific, it’s the way such vulnerability removes our false securities and therefore opens up the possibility for true faith. In clinging to our false securities we never encounter the transcendent security that alone holds the power to enliven any and all things.

This can be seen in the following way. Naturally, we desire self-esteem (significance), security (freedom from the threat of ‘death’ in the broad and narrow senses), and control (the power to achieve esteem and security). The causa sui project seeks to fix these desires in either our own self or, when this fails, in some social or metaphysical power more durable than our individual self. The problem arises from the fact that we desire more than temporary and relative security and esteem. The unlimited drive of human self-transcendence leads inescapably to the desire for unlimited esteem and unlimited security. The sticking point lies in the simple fact that nothing in all created reality possesses the power to give us such esteem and security. “…[T]he skull will grin in at the banquet”, as William James said.

And yet, we try. The engine of the capitalist enterprise is fueled on our efforts, and the doctors of persuasion give their lives to inflaming the illusion. In the realm of politics, the the fear of insecurity and the promise of its removal are the basic carrot and stick used to goad us along. Even religion turns God and prayer into a technology that, properly manipulated, will secure one’s place in a heaven beyond and remove from life boredom, financial woes, and relational strife.

To become “really poor” flies in the face of this logic. To be “really poor” is to enter the insecurity, the lack of esteem. The terrifying claim is this: the only way our unconditional security and esteem can be laid hold of is by the release of all efforts to secure them, even, and perhaps especially, religiously. Much as Paul Tillich once said, only then is it possible for the God beyond God to appear as that transcendent security and source of unconditional esteem. Everything must thusly die in order to live. Daniel Suelo gives us a beautiful image of this movement. His life shows how, once freed from the causa sui project, everything can be returned to us as pure gift rather than possession, money, shelter, food, friends, lovers, nation, even God, even our very self. The only condition is that never again can anything be possessed. We must remain forever, “really poor” in whatever circumstances life brings. Only then will we be free. Only then will we be rich beyond understanding.

Written by Alex

September 12, 2013 at 10:09 am