living through death

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

Posts Tagged ‘Spiritual Development

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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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