living through death

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

Posts Tagged ‘love

A Hug from God (and Leo Buscaglia)

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Last week I wrote about Jean Vanier and his call for us to embrace those who are weak and different from ourselves. Along the way I brought up the work of Leo Buscaglia, a man who was known to stand for hours after his speaking engagements so that everyone who wanted to give him a hug could have the opportunity. Then, just yesterday, I began writing my dissertation chapter on Sebastian Moore. As I was collecting quotes for the section I’m currently working on I came across a quote that beautifully tied all these threads together. Spend some time with the connections Moore makes here. Are you the sort of person that people would stand in line for hours to hug?

We open ourselves to God, the ultimate cause of desire, “through the extension of intimacy, after the manner of Leo Buscaglia, to many people, especially to those disturbingly unlike ourselves in culture, etc. The basis of Buscaglia’s thought is this fact: the way to extend intimacy is to take initiates with people, to approach the stranger. What deters us from doing this is a poor self image and consequent expectation of rejection. What motivates us to take these initiatives is a good (that is, a true) sense of ourselves, which is the basis of my whole theology. (Let This Mind Be in You, 55.)

Leo Buscaglia

Written by Alex

March 24, 2015 at 11:57 am

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

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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.

Paul Tillich: Why Love Is a Constant Spinning

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Yesterday I wrote a post about a deep affinity between the deconstructive philosophy of Jaques Derrida and the activism of Thomas Merton. I concluded by suggesting that “love is a constant spinning,” by which I mean that love is always sensitive to the changing dynamics of the love situation, both in ourselves as the lover and within the object loved as the beloved. If love is to be authentic it needs to be seeking that which is real in the other from the place of what is real in our self. Love is a union of what is real. It cannot live in the house of pretense, superficiality, or caricature.

The reason that love must be a constant spinning—that is, a constant unresolved sensitivity to the concrete love situation—is that reality, be it the reality of the other or of our self, does not easily and obviously disclose itself to us. We live by way of mental concepts and images that, to varying degrees, are “relatively adequate,” to use David Tracy’s phrase. This relative adequacy stands in tension with the absolute drive within love to unite with reality.

The single most important text for me when it comes to this idea of love being a constant spinning is Paul Tillich’s words on Christ’s love and the overcoming of the absolute and relative tension in reason. If he’s too abstract for you, try the couple paragraphs that follow him. He says,

The law of love is the ultimate law because it is the negation of law; it is absolute because it concerns everything concrete. The paradox of final revelation, overcoming the conflict between absolutism and relativism, is love. The love of Jesus as the Christ, which is the manifestation of the divine love—and only this—embraces everything concrete in self and world. Love is always love; that is its static and absolute side. But love is always dependent on that which is loved, and therefore it is unable to force finite elements on finite existence in the name of an assumed absolute. The absoluteness of love is its power to go into the concrete situation, to discover what is demanded by the predicament of the concrete to which it turns. Therefore, love can never become fanatical in a fight for an absolute, or cynical under the impact of the relative. Systematic Theology V I, 152.

The phrase “love is a constant spinning” is an attempt to mirror what Tillich is saying here. It is an attempt to unite the absolute and the relative tensions in human thought and action. Love is absolutely a constant spinning. As long as life is moving, love never lands. It is always sensitive, always moving, as life itself moves.

Years ago dear friend and mentor of mine captured this insight in a way that has never left me. His name is Jim Bjork and he was a friend to countless young people as well as a potter. His pottery provided him with seemingly endless analogies between is craft and a life well lived. So if I may borrow a page from his book, what I’m getting at is that, like a potter who is endlessly attentive to the clay spinning on her wheel, to its texture, speed, shape, even smell, love is endlessly attentive. The novice who see his own ideas more clearly than the clay upon which he works will end up both personally frustrated and having to deal with a pile of mush. The difference is, of course, that eventually the potter’s wheel stops, whereas life moves on. Have a look at the video below for a beautiful look at the work of an attentive potter.

From this I hope it can be seen that, in both Derrida and Merton, their refusal to accept settled answers is not evidence of a superficial relativism, but rather it is the logical response to a deeper absolute, the absolute of love.

Petersen Pottery Company Spinning Nantuckets from Petersen Pottery on Vimeo.

Written by Alex

March 14, 2014 at 9:28 am

Jaques Derrida’s Religon & Thomas Merton’s Atheism: Love is a Constant Spinning

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Jaques Derrida and Thomas Merton have much in common, which is interesting because, on the face of it, they shouldn’t. One was a destabilizing atheist philosopher, while the other was an activist and Benedictine monk. The only way prevailing habits of mind are able to relate two men bearing labels such as these tends to be by imagining them behind their respective podiums, ready for another sensational debate (much like the “creation debate” I recently wrote about). “Prevailing habits of mind,” however, have much to learn from these two figures, but it’s not going to happen from a podium.

Jaques Derrida & Thomas Merton

Derrida and Merton through the Eyes of a Young Evangelical

I was among the evangelicals when I awoke to explicitly religious thought, and, like every community, there was a certain set of other groups that we were led to view as enemies. Among them were “postmodern philosophers,” the chief of whom was Jaques Derrida. The reason we worried about him was simple: Derrida’s deconstruction took away everything we possessed by faith via an endlessly destabilizing approach to truth. Rather than engage him, we just shook our heads. Whatever he was up to didn’t make any sense. He struck us as more pathetic and confused than dangerous. Normal atheists made sense. We lined up behind the mic to debate them. Derrida was a different kind of enemy, one we didn’t understand. Looking back, I think he would enjoy that he impressed upon us a feeling of “not understanding.”

I also remember hearing the name Thomas Merton during those years. Merton was not someone that we personally read; rather, he was someone read by some of the spiritual writers we read. We learned of him as a name reverently dropped from their lips. Something to do with “seven stories” and a mountain. In any case, it would have never occurred to me then that he and Derrida would have anything at all in common, especially something so deep as the heart of their religiosity.

The “Faith” of Deconstruction
and the “Atheism” of Faith

The other morning a friend of mine, Sara Lynn Wilhelm Garbers, drew my attention to a wonderful interview with John D. Caputo in the New York Times by Gary Gutting. Caputo is a “postmodern philosopher” and Derrida scholar. The interview was very engaging, as Gutting continually pressed Caputo with the sort of questions that an informed evangelical might ask.

In turn, Caputo did his best to show that the truth deconstruction is after is deeper than anything our settled concepts can grasp. For deconstruction, truth is always a moving target. As such, what Caputo calls Derrida’s “religion without religion” is likewise intended to be a dynamic idea rather than a settled label. The paradoxical form of this phrase immediately deconstructs itself. Whatever “yes” is stated is immediately followed by a “no.” If you try to resolve “religion without religion” into religion—“ah! So Derrida really is religious!”—then the “without religion” rushes in with its “not so fast!” The same operation occurs from the other direction if the phrase is resolved into “atheism.” Its paradoxical form is always drawing us in, but forcing open our conceptions. The goal of this operation is to foster an endless attention that is at all times actively disrupting our complacency or pretension.

A Tillichian Aside

As an aside, I can’t help but mention that this paradoxical operation is exactly that which lies at the heart of Paul Tillich’s theological rationality (something Caputo also rightly notes in the interview). Robert Sharlemann put the point well when he argued that, in Tillich’s thought, “the untruth of the Gods is precisely the essence of the true God, the one who is truth itself.

Back to Derrida and Merton

But we have a hard time with this notion since we can’t “do anything with it.” One wants to stop attending, grab a hold of something, and get to work. But this endless spinning doesn’t seem to give us anything but negativity. To this point Gutting asked,

Is there any positive content to his view of religion or is it all just “negative theology”? Is he in any sense “making a case” for religion? Can reading Derrida lead to religious belief?

The phrase “just ‘negative theology’” is telling, but the concern behind the phrase is understandable. In response Caputo does his best to describe the elusive positivity that necessitates the negativity.

In its most condensed formulation, deconstruction is affirmation, a “yes, yes, come” to the future and also to the past, since the authentic past is also ahead of us. It leads to, it is led by, a “yes” to the transforming surprise, to the promise of what is to come in whatever we have inherited — in politics, art, science, law, reason and so on. The bottom line is “yes, come.”

Here we have the positivity that deconstruction presupposes. Deconstruction seeks the yes by way of the no. “The authentic,” the “really real” emerges, though is never grasped as a possession, by way of a constant “spinning,” a dismantling of the adequacy of our settled approach to it.

With that in mind, let us now turn to the words of Thomas Merton. Again we will see the negativity and underlying positivity in his words.

The true solutions are not those which we force upon life in accordance with our theories, but those which life itself provides for those who dispose themselves to receive the truth. Consequently our task is to disassociate ourselves from all who have theories which promise clear-cut and infallible solutions, and to mistrust all such theories, not in a spirit of negativism and defeat, but rather trusting life itself, and nature, and if you will permit me, God above all. “Letter to an Innocent Bystander”, in Raids on the Unspeakable, 61.

Merton calls this underlying positivity “God,” but it cannot be stressed strongly enough, that, for Merton, “God” is not the settled answer to the question. Merton is rightfully called an atheist to the extent that theism is construed as a settling of the question of existence with the answer “God.” God is just as much the positing of the question as the answer (a point I have tried to make clear in a previous post). This is integral to his reasons for arguing that “our task” is standing against any who presume to have settled answers. Like Caputo’s stress on the “yes” behind deconstruction, Merton also urges that the critical posture of the activist is not birthed from mere “negativity,” but from trust in the ongoing rationality that constitutes our very being. A rationality that, viewed from one angle, can never be spoken, and yet, viewed from another, underlies all speech. The “spinning” never ends, but it can be entered into faithfully, in hope, and in love.

Love Is a Constant Spinning

A few years ago in a PhD seminar, Dr. Walter Sundberg remarked to me that Paul Tillich’s book “Dynamics of Faith” is a master work of endless spinning. He keeps talking about faith, and you want to just grab him, give him a good shake and ask him, “Faith in what?” But the spinning never ends. Tillich never “lands.” I think that’s about right. (I take up this point in more detail in a later post.)

For both Derrida and Merton the situation is similar. A distrust of human pretension and complacency is the proper response to the encounter with a truth that emerges as gift rather than possession (a place we might “land”). God’s “yes” implies a “no” to any and all complacent or pretentious human attempts to claim truth solely for its own deployment. To be among “those disposed to receive it” we must live in attention, ever awaiting truth as gift. For my part, it has indeed been a gift to see at least one way that that these two ostensibly “ancient enemies” have a bit more in common than I’d once been led to believe.

Written by Alex

March 13, 2014 at 8:49 am

A Gift. A Deep Ache

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I am more or less incapacitated as I write this. A few moments ago I was picking up a few of things in my room before I settled in to get some reading done. In the process I came across an old picture frame that my son Adrian (who is now 7) had tossed on my bed since it was broken. As I picked it up to have a look, it was as if someone had grabbed a hold of my stomach and squeezed.

The photo was of Adrian as a chubby little guy, along with a small impression of his hand. I don’t know if it had something to do with the fact that the frame was broken, or the way the construction paper with his hand print had already begun to fade, but whatever it was, it got to me. I’m writing through tears.


This moment has reminded me of why I’m in the line of work that I am, why I spend my days reading, taking notes, and writing. I do it, because life matters—because love matters. Yet so much of life deadens us to this primal awareness! So much thought hides the significance of life behind walls of speculation. Wake up! It’s all around you! It’s in you! These are not the assertions of a man who’s hoping. These are the sounds made by one who’s been punched in the gut and for whom the world is now wavy with tears.

Every moment and every event of every man’s [sic] life on earth plants something in his soul. For just as the wind carries thousands of winged seeds, so each moment brings with it germs of spiritual vitality that come to rest imperceptibly in the minds and wills of men. Most of these unnumbered seeds perish and are lost, because men are not prepared to receive them: for such seeds as these cannot spring up anywhere except in the good soil of freedom, spontaneity and love. –Thomas Merton, 14.

Written by Alex

March 3, 2014 at 11:03 am

Posted in Theology

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…in a lifetime’s death in love…

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Men’s curiosity searches past and future
And clings to that dimension. But to apprehend
The point of intersection of the timeless
With time, is an occupation for the saint—
No occupation either, but something given
And taken, in a lifetime’s death in love,
Ardour and selflessness and self-surrender.

(T.S. Eliot ‘The Dry Salvages’, 5.)

Eliot’s words marvelously point to the reason that a sort of “death” is so important to my developing work (of which I have written in the past). He’s grappling with the problem of the human spirit’s drive to grasp the eternal by way of its own finite resources. We can see the problem again in the very first lines of the preface of Immanuel Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason.”

“Human reason, in one sphere of its cognition, is called upon to consider questions, which it cannot decline, as they are presented by its own nature, but which it cannot answer, as they transcend every faculty of the mind.”

Consciousness of this problem has emerged repeatedly in the classics of human thought, both East and West. It pervades all dimensions of human being, from our knowing, as Kant points to, to our moral experience, to the dynamics of intimacy. What I’m working to help us see is not a “solution” to the problem, per se, but rather, I hope to help us see the problem itself and to point toward a response that disarms its destructive potential. Eliot is on to it.

When our finite consciousness is impacted by consciousness of the infinite, it stands before a monumental decision. Will we cling to the dimension of our normal experience and thus be tormented by its inadequacy? Or will we, trembling, in fear, and in love, risk undergoing the death that Eliot points toward? Our response to these moments are, in all their variety, the singularly great event in human life. It is the “occupation” of the saint to which all of us, in our own ways, are called. It is the process by which all things are made new, the end of the era of futile possession. It is only here that life becomes pure gift and our hearts swell with gratitude and compassion.

This tradition I’m working in has helped me make sense of Paul’s words “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself.” Whether or not these words carry any meaning for people in our time, I have no doubt that the form of life they reflect has the power to save us all.

Sunset near Rice, MN

Written by Alex

February 18, 2014 at 9:12 am

Knowing as Love

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I’ve been thinking about a quote on the topic of love by Thomas Merton today. What has made it interesting is that I’ve been thinking about it in light of the writing I’ve been doing elsewhere on the topic of knowing. Merton tells us that love is only perfected in being both received and released.

“The gift of love is the gift of the power and the capacity to love, and, therefore, to give love with full effect is also to receive it. So, love can only be kept by being given away, and it can only be given perfectly when it is also received.” No Man Is an Island, 4.

Merton TillichLove operates by way of this paradox. To receive it, one must release it; and to have the courage to release it, one must receive it.

In my writing on knowing I’ve been drawing on Paul Tillich’s conception of knowledge as “reunion” of the separated. On this point he says that “Knowing is a form of union. In every act of knowledge the knower and that which is known are united; the gap between subject an object is overcome.” ST I, 94.

What is interesting is that he goes on to elaborate the ways that cognition operates by way of a basic tension between mental postures detachment and receiving. Do you see the connection with Merton’s quote?

Both love and knowledge can fail due to a non-paradoxical reliance on only one element of this basic tension.

When knowing is merely detached it becomes lifeless and insignificant. In this technical and analytical distance, the question of “what’s the point?” is never answered, nor could it be, since any answer would be ever subjected to further critical analysis. Therefore, nothing new is ever received. All becomes merely theoretical.

On the other hand, when knowing becomes exclusively receiving, it passionately unites itself with anything that presents itself as interesting with no regard for the fact that reality often diverges from appearances. In its emotionally driven quest for truth, truth is in fact lost in the constant reception of representations (for those of you who receive email forwards from excitable relatives, you know what I’m talking about).

Examples of this tension and its failure fill the history of human thought, from ancient mythology to contemporary film, from the most crude inscriptions of ancient wisdom to the most refined scientific techniques. Both love and knowing fail by way of failing this central paradox.

If we refuse to give love away, we lose the capacity to receive it.

If we refuse to receive love, we lose the capacity to release it.

If we refuse to let our knowledge be free, we lose the capacity to receive it.

If we refuse to receive knowledge, we lose the capacity to free it.

At this point I hope it is becoming clear that what I am suggesting is that knowledge is a form of love. As such, their dynamics mirror each other. And for this reason we can even go so far as to replace the terms in Merton’s original quote, and perhaps by doing so expand our conception of rationality.

“The gift of knowledge is the gift of the power and the capacity to know, and, therefore, to impart knowledge with full effect is also to receive it. So, knowledge can only be kept by being given away, and it can only be given perfectly when it is also received.

Written by Alex

November 4, 2013 at 9:39 am