living through death

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

Posts Tagged ‘existence

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.

When the Question Is the Answer

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Moishe the Beadle, in Elie Wiesel’s Night, says that

…every question possesse[s] a power that [is] lost in the answer …

It’s a tremendous line. When it comes to things like virtue, wisdom, peace, faith, and humility, the first real step toward any of them is realizing that no answer to their implicit question is ever adequate. What is virtue? What must I do to be wise? How can I attain peace? In what am I to have faith? How do I know if I am truly humble? The subjection of every answer to further questioning can itself be a sign of the state that is sought.1

©alex blondeauTake, for example, just virtue. It turns out, virtue is just not the sort of thing that is well contained in an answer. As a settled answer it becomes law, and law, with its determinate nature, can only cover so much ground. The dynamic element of life always keeps law from ever attaining the status of virtue (legalism is no virtue). So, in a sense, there is no “answer.” But there is the question, and if we reflect on it, we might become aware that, when it comes to certain things, the question is itself the answer. After all, it was Socrates’ strenuous denial that he possessed wisdom that leads us to recognize his wisdom.

In virtue, faith, peace, wisdom, and humility, what is at issue is the precariousness of our life. The path to achieving any of them is to realize that they can’t be acheived by overcoming our precariousness. Rather, for their emergence in our life, our precariousness must first be accepted.2

In this way we develop the ability to live in the power of our questions rather than the weakness of any presumed answer.


1. This post emerged from a response to a thoughtful email sent to me by a friend of mine (who wishes to remain nameless).
2. I have Marvin Shaw to thank for helping to clarify what problem is addressed by this paradoxical motion. Marvin C. Shaw, The Paradox of Intention: Reaching the Goal by Giving up the Attempt to Reach It (Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1988).

Written by Alex

November 7, 2013 at 8:54 am

Speaking of God

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A good friend of mine recently told me that he needs to be able to conceive of God before it’s possible for him to believe in God. This got me thinking. We cannot conceive of anything apart from our ability to speak of it. How then do we speak of God? The way the situation is often put is that God is a being possessing a host of “omni”  properties (e.g. omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, etc…). Yet as we consider language of this nature it becomes clear that terms originating in finite existence are struggling to grasp an infinite reality. This can be seen when we consider what could it possibly mean to say that a being is present everywhere (omnipresence)? What results is actually a contradiction!

But what about other language we use to conceive God? We say God is love. We say God exists. We say God is a being, is triune, has a son, desires things, punishes the wicked, saves the faithful, and so on. Does our finite language run into similar problems with these ascriptions? Or are things more straightforward in these cases? Perhaps that’s a matter up for discussion, but for the time being I hope it can at least be seen that something puzzling happens when we speak of God. My basic thesis on this point is that the “something puzzling” is due to the “infinite” nature of the “object” under discussion and the finite nature of the linguistic tools we are using in trying to grasp it. In the interest of providing a framework for speaking of God under these circumstances, allow me to propose three types of God language.

  1. Natural Terms: Terms that mean exactly what they stand for but mean a reality that transcends the finite. For example: “God is the absolute.” “God is being itself,” “God is,” “God is that which is ultimately real,” etc…
  2. Analogical or Symbolic Terms: Terms that “participate” in the infinite reality they describe, but due to their origin in finite existence lead to absurdities if taken in their natural sense. For example: “God is all-powerful,” “God is all-knowing,” “God is personal,” “God exists,” “God is love,” “God lives,” etc…
  3. Metaphorical Terms: Terms that are not literally intended in most important respects, but which point toward a single conceptual identity located within some specific attribute (which itself most likely needs to be understood analogically). For example: “This was from the hand of God,” “God is our rock,” “God is a consuming fire,” etc…

What should be noticed is that category 1. contains a single affirmation which is affirmed in multiple ways. And here is what is important: That single affirmation is all that can be said about God with the use of natural terms. Every other affirmation must be understood symbolically (be it analogically, or metaphorically).[1] The reason for this found in the nature of language and the structure of existence. God, as the absolute, grounds the categories of existence but is not conditioned by them. Our language is an expression of the categories of existence and as such is capable of dealing with objects within existing reality, but that is where its use as natural language ends. To speak of the reality that is not conditioned as an object within existence, but is both immanent in, and transcending of, existence, is to be forced to put language to a use that strains and ultimately breaks its natural role.

But it must be broken. For to the extent we insist our natural language grasps God, we force what is ultimate to play by the rules of that which is not ultimate. This can be easily seen by looking at the history of Christianity. The failure to recognize the symbolic nature of language about God has lead to innumerable conflicts, including: the conflict between God’s knowledge and will, freedom and foreknowledge, love and holiness, existence or non-existence, transcendence and immanence, power and weakness, unity and plurality, the list could go on. In each case God is being made a subject to the categories of existence, an attempt is then made to affirm God’s ultimacy, and the result is (as we saw above) a contradiction or antinomy.

There is real insight to be had in each of the above mentioned conflicts, but they ultimately reduce to analyses of existence. This is the doorway to analysis of God, but it is not analysis of God as God. God’s ultimacy assures this.

The implications of this insight are far reaching and existentially important. I have, myself, only begun the process of sorting through them. Perhaps the most deeply felt worry resulting from this discussion is the impression that God is being made infinitely remote, as in deism, or perhaps irrelevantly present, as in pantheism. There is insight in each of these concerns, but ultimately they succumb to the same problem we have been mentioning all along. So where is God? As natural language the question defeats itself. As the cry of our heart, it wells up from, and draws us toward, our origin, condition and end.

May we continue to speak of God, but may we avoid having our symbols become idols.

In our present age this term is problematic, as it now carries with it the connotation of being less real. It might be said that something is “only” or “just” symbolic. What is thought to have a greater ontological standing is language that is meant “literally.” This is unfortunate and is symptomatic of the basic problem I am addressing. On this latter scheme, either God is a being in the natural sense of the term, or God is not real. Modern atheism rightly protests the existence of such a being and accepts the latter conclusion. My point is that the dilemma is a false one. Symbolic language recognizes that all particular being participates in ultimate being. Language is one more instance of this general assertion. As such, to the extent that language is used symbolically it carries within itself its own negation. If it did not, finite reality would be capable of bearing ultimate reality, or ultimate reality itself would be subject to the tensions and conflicts essential to existential being. This cannot be so. Symbolic language dies to itself as natural language and in so doing reveals its own depth. If natural language resists this dynamic, it becomes idolatrous for it seeks to elevate something finite to the level of the ultimate.

Written by Alex

September 17, 2010 at 12:09 pm

Posted in Theology

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Finding yourself

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Written by Alex

September 10, 2010 at 9:42 am

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