living through death

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

Posts Tagged ‘Spirituality

Introduction

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A Brief Overview

It is often thought that Christianity keeps its adherents in a state of perpetual immaturity. As a sociological fact, this may be hard to argue against. Much that goes by the name Christianity looks quite near to what Ernest Becker described as a fearful “death denying ideology.” In theological terminology, such ways of being amount to self-salvation programs. The terror of death drives us to avoid all forms of death. Yet, at the heart of Christianity stands one who chose his own death and encouraged his followers to take up their own crosses and follow him. Such an act, apparently, has an important role to play in an understanding of Christian salvation. In this thesis, I make use of developmental stages theory to illuminate what that role is. I argue that Christian salvation is founded on a paradoxical death that is best made sense of in light of contemporary developmental stages theory, in particular, at the thresholds of developmental stage transition. To illuminate this claim I trace out the logic across the rational, desirous, and active dimensions of human being. These dimensions are explored, in order, by way of Paul Tillich’s philosophy of religion, Sebastian Moore’s spiritual Christology, and the practice of Centering prayer. Taken together, it is concluded that Christianity has tremendous resources for helping its adherents come to grips with their death denying strategies and therefore enlarge their capacity for psychological and spiritual maturity.

Introduction

We are familiar with the story. The young person raised in a religious home goes off to college, or perhaps seminary, and loses their faith. For them and for their family back home, it is a painful and bewildering experience. Their minds fill with questions about how they could have gone so wrong. The parents wonder if they should have paid for the private Christian college, or if they did, their guilt is even more intense, and explanations, even harder to come by. Never would it occur to any of them that the maturing young adult might be actually embodying the very death and resurrection of Christ. It might even be the case that the parents’ resistance to facing what has actually affected their child puts them more on the side of the Pharisees than faith. How could this be?

At the center of this study stands the paradox of Christian salvation. Christianity is founded on the image of one who faced, engaged, and befriended the negativities of human existence, even the most radical of them all: death. In doing so, Jesus came to be called Christ the Savior. To follow this Christ, Christians are called to likewise lose their life in order to find it, to take up their cross and follow him. These are a vague and puzzling set of instructions. Perhaps because of this, the enormity of this paradoxical insight, as it pertains to spiritual growth and the way we deal with existential doubt, has hardly begun to be realized.

My aim in this thesis is to shed new light on the way that the paradox of Christian salvation transforms what appears as death, doubt, and faithlessness into new life during the normal course of one’s maturing spiritual life. I claim that developmental stage theories, specifically the work of Robert Kegan, provide us with a powerful tool to analyze and understand the formal dynamics of this spiritual development. I augment Kegan’s theory with the work of Ernest Becker, who focuses on the content of what keeps people and cultures clinging to self-destructive patterns of thought and action. We might think of Becker as providing a sustained analysis of why we are so often in the company of “those who seek to save their lives.” Becker helps us see that the often terrifying experience of psychological and, therefore, spiritual growth stems from an underlying fear of death (especially the death of our “self-esteem”) which lies well beneath the surface of our stated concepts and commitments. After setting up my analytical apparatus, I move to apply it to the rational, passional, and practical dimensions of human being by examining Paul Tillich’s philosophy of religion, Sebastian Moore’s spiritual Christology, and the practice of Centering Prayer.

Liminal: Sunset over Rice Minnesota

My aim from this work is twofold. My first goal is to develop a constructive theological proposal that shows how Christian salvation, when understood in its full paradoxical nature, unites the theoretical work of these thinkers with the practice of Centering Prayer. And, secondly, I aim to show how, contrary to our intuitions, a certain kind of death in the realm of our rational, desirous, and practical life (doubt, disaffection, and inaction) can lead through disintegration into a deepening maturity. This thesis will thus be dynamic enough to accommodate all stages of human maturation, while maintaining a focus on the universality of our fear of death as it takes on new forms at different developmental thresholds. By doing this, I hope to illuminate how Christianity possesses the theological resources to transform what is so often thought of as a loss of faith into an actual advance in spiritual maturity.


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.

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Sebastian Moore: The Emergence of Self-Awareness & Original Sin

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In the previous section we discussed two awakenings to God as the ultimate cause of desire. In this section we will be exploring Sebastian Moore’s answer to the question of why such awakenings are necessary in the first place. Indeed, why not think of the normal, run of the mill, sorts of desire we experience in everyday life as being normative, while bracketing off the sorts of desire experienced when falling in love or during rather exceptional mystical experiences, as being simply odd quirks of human psychology?  The answer that Moore gives us is, in brief, that desire as experienced by most adults is but the latest form of a process that has a long history. And once this history is gotten in view it is possible to see that calling the emotion we feel in our daily lives “desire” is much like calling Superman merely “Clark.” In laying out Moore’s narrative of the “history” of human desire this chapter will finally bring into focus Moore’s theory of original sin: the loss of our original desire and resistance to its recovery.

Moore reads the history of desire in human life through our developmental history, both corporately and individually. Psychoanalytic theory is one of his principle dialogue partners in charting this territory. He is particularly interested in how psychoanalytic theorists like Margaret Mahler show us how children grow into self-aware existence through a series of crises. The two crises that Moore focuses on most are the separation crisis and the Oedipal crisis. In both cases these crises represent a narrowing down of awareness and desire. This process of individuation is good in that it the process of identity formation, but it comes at the cost of losing the security of one’s original union with being, most obviously symbolized as the child within the mother’s womb.

The Separation Crisis: From “We” to “I”

The separation crisis initiates the human habit of always measuring ourselves against the reactions of others. Following Mahler, Moore describes the process by which the child with newly developed motor skills begins the ecstatic adventure of charting the world beyond the safety of the mother.[1] The crucial point here is that this exploration requires an enormous amount of emotional support by the mother. Just the right balance must be struck between encouraging the child to be on its own and remaining a stable security in the background. However, no mother can ever offer such a consistent, emotionally-supported send off. And to the extent this is true, the infant gets the unbearable message: “either be a part of me, or be on your own.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 71.) Thus, this separation, this first experience of what it is like to be “I,” is less than ecstatic. This dynamic that begins with the mother is then extended to all others. “The imperfectly separated individual existence looks continually to the other whence it has been unable clearly to pull away. Not knowing ourselves apart from others is our trouble, to remedy which we look to others!” (Let this Mind Be in You, 72.)

This initial phase in the birth of self-consciousness gives us the first part of our answer to the question of why our original goodness is more fundamental than our self-image (and therefore desire) as we experience it later in our developmental journey. It also explains why talk of our original goodness is puzzling to most of us, for, as Moore asks, “Why would anyone think of being him/herself other than the way they first came into consciousness? The world on which we first opened our eyes psychologically comes to be the world.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 72.) And to that extent, our emergence into self-aware existence impedes our awakening into luminous selfhood, for so long as we are looking to others for reassurance and measuring ourselves by their reactions, we are deaf to the “call from the depths of existence which says, ‘you are mine. You are not your family’s, your class’s, your race’s, your party’s. You are mine.’” (Let this Mind Be in You, 72.)

Discovery on Lake Michigan

The Oedipal Crisis: From Yes to No

The second part of the answer to our question comes from a complexification of the child’s now reduced sense of desirability. This is the Oedipal phase. Here, desire makes its first translation from an original oneness with the mother into interpersonal feeling. In a tremendously intense, sexually undifferentiated love, the child makes a total bid for the mother’s affection. It is here that the child encounters a “mysterious rival:” the father. The father is mysterious due to the fact that he has a claim to the mothers affection in a different way than the child. So not only is the father a rival, but he is a different kind of rival. (Let this Mind Be in You, 73.) The result of this asymmetrical collision is that the child’s total bid for the mother’s affection becomes a “no-no” and is repressed.[2] Of this repression Moore says, poignantly, that,

I suspect that this is an important part of that repression of our sense of being desirable which is the root of our weakened relationship with God, people, and the planet. That child’s total zest for life, the sense of being welcome everywhere without strings attached, meets its first great disappointment in the mother’s commitment to an ‘other’ in an ‘other’ way. (Let this Mind Be in You, 73.)

In Freudian terms, the culmination of this crisis results in the repression of the Id (the total love-bid now become a no-no and repressed), followed by the emergence of sexually differentiated identity (the Ego), which is modeled and reinforced after one’s parental role model (the Superego). (Let this Mind Be in You, 74.) In Moore’s thought, this forms the basis of his theory of original sin. Original sin, he says, “…is the universal, culturally propagated and reinforced, human response to the trauma of coming out of animality into self-awareness, into ‘the knowledge of good and evil.’” (Let this Mind Be in You, 88.) It is not simply the repression of our passionate nature that forms the birth of evil (as Moore reads Wilhelm Reich as arguing), but also the fact that “…in repressing our passionate nature we are discounting our desirability, which is our experience of ourselves as God’s desired.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 74.) Without this element, our passionate nature can still be interpreted as “desire from emptiness” and thus be open to all the problems that attend such an anthropology (e.g. relations of dependence).

Once that is understood, then certainly we can say that repression is the origin of evil, and that what our transformation will consist in is the final befriending of all all that is in us that we have had to repress on our first steps into personhood. God is that infinite intelligence for which there is no such thing as evil. Evil arises out of our self-doubt on the part of God’s self-aware creatures. And the closer a person or a community comes to God, the more their ‘dark side’ becomes light. (Let this Mind Be in You, 74.)

And yet, to the extent that we remain “far from God,” much of life takes on a compulsive quality. As Ernest Becker has helped us see, viewed corporately, repression is culture. As such, to appropriate Robert Kegan’s language, culture functions as  a corporate “immunity system.” This partial view of our whole life, motivated as it is by the terror of death, thus compels us to live according to the biases of our family, class, ethnicity, and so on. For if we do not, we will leave ourselves open to the very threats that our collective immunity system was tailor made to protect us from. Seen in this light, Moore’s theory of original sin is not only original, but also universal.

The final point that needs to be understood in Moore’s theory of original sin is that it is not the limited, repressed life that we find ourselves in that constitutes our sin, but rather is it our decision to stay there, to say “this is all there is.” Life itself is a movement of growth and it is our resistance to growth that puts us at odds with life. In this way Moore seems to want to go further than Becker was able to bring himself. Our desire is made for more than merely the creative self-restriction that repression affords us. Desire longs for liberation. Failing this, Moore sees humanity as being “shut in” and “psychologically on top of each other.” Our desires are “limitless,” he says, “and need the limitless breathing-space of the spirit. Closed in, they make us mutually destructive.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 104.) In the next section we will consider Moore’s Christology which functions as his theological solution to this problem of original sin as the  narrowing of desire and resistance to its liberation.


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] For this narrative Moore is relying on the following Margaret Mahler’s book: The Psychological Birth of the Human Infant.
[7] Following R.D. Laing, Moore stresses that repression is not only forgetting, but forgetting that you’ve forgotten.

Silence and the New

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Without silence we will encounter very little that is new in life. Without silence, our alternatives in thought and action will remain relatively restricted. Growth, both personal and relational, will be difficult. We will easily find ourselves “stuck,” seemingly doomed to run the same old scripts and face the same old problems. Without silence, life is noise, and we resort to various ways of dealing only in the sounds we like. Are these words about you? They are most certainly about me.

Silence

On a daily basis, I spend an extended period of time practicing silence. As I sit and tune into the background noise of my mind, it is shocking to realize how much noise is constantly going on. In one way or another, this background noise (which is really only just the surface) tends to revolve around various forms of seeking security, esteem, control, and power. Typically, these thoughts have a “pull” to them. It’s easy to feel once you get used to it, and once you do, you can locate the impulses that are motivating your thought and actions. In realizing this, you are able to see the ways that your alternatives in thought and action have been limited to exclusively the options marked out by the background noise of your mind, to your own personal narcissistic operating system.

For most of us, most of the time, this all goes on “behind the scenes,” as it were. Not being aware of the dynamics leads us to think that our occurrent awareness and the alternatives it hands to us is “just the way things are.” Not only is this not the case, it is a capitulation that is tearing our world apart.

Tuning into the background noise is really only a preliminary step in my daily practice. The real “work” begins when, now aware of the noise, I practice a subtle act of inner release. There is no violence here; it is not suppression, it is mentally letting go. It is practice because the mind is never really silent, thus the motion is repeated, again and again. Attention is to nothing-in-particular (which is importantly different from “nothing”), and only by intention is one able to maintain the discipline.

With practice, this pattern has the potential to accompany one in daily life. More and more, habitual thoughts and actions become relativized to an attention that is not immediately run through the grid of our narcissistic operating system and the limited alternatives that go along with it.

With silence comes openness to the new, and life is in its manifestation.

Written by Alex

January 21, 2014 at 10:41 am

Ultramarathon Running as Spiritual Practice

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tony-anton-krupicka-twin-peaksThere is a nearly naked man who runs up mountains. He does it for a living. Those who meet him in the high country often remark that encountering him was much like meeting Jesus. A nearly naked, funny-sunglasses-wearing, mountain running, fast, Jesus. His name is Anton Krupicka. He’s a self-trained, top-tier, ultra-marathon athlete, who lives in Boulder Colorado (as such people tend to do). Not too long ago I heard him comment on the idea of human limitation. As one who does a lot of thinking about limits, runs on a much more modest scale, and who also enjoys mountain based adventure, I’ve found myself coming back to his words often. You can hear it from his own mouth here, but what he said was this:

I’m not sure if anything is possible in life or in running, but I think that… I actually think that there are limits. But I don’t think that nearly anyone actually reaches their personal limit, be it physically or mentally, when it comes to endurance sport in the mountains. It’s mentally, that’s how we push ourselves is through our mind, and our bodies are so much stronger than we ever give ourselves credit for.*

It’s from words like this that we can understand the way that endurance running becomes “spiritual” for so many. If spirituality is thought of as essentially self-transcendence, then what Anton is on about here is an example of just that; the “self” that is transcended is the self-limited-self. (Doing this in the mountains doesn’t hurt much either, I’d add). As I’ve reflected on this, I’ve had Krupicka in conversation with Benedictine monk, Sebastian Moore. Moore extends and amplifies Krupicka’s thoughts on limits beyond physical endurance, but the same dynamics are in play. He also gives a provocative answer to the question of why, as Anton suggests, we never reach our personal limit. He says,

…we set our own limit on the meaningfulness of our life in our refusal to grow…. We build an invisible wall round our life. Outside that wall, uncharted by us, is death. For what does it mean to be ready for death? Who is? To be ready for death is to be living life to the full, to its limit–which is death. We don’t live this life to anything like its fullness. And what this means is that we don’t believe in the glorious being that each of us is. Massively we repress the sense of our greatness and our desires, in consequence, are weak.… We stay very near the known and the familiar. Thus we create a wall round ourselves, within which we live. And far beyond that wall is God’s limit on us, death, the threshold of his loving embrace. (Let This Mind Be in You, 127.)

Moore’s modest suggestion is that we never reach the limits of life because the limit is not simply “as fast or as far as one can physically run,” nor is it “the happiest we can possibly be,” or “the maximum pain threshold.” His insight is simple and radically reframing. The reason we never reach our limit is that our limit is death. One’s personal limit is therefore “running one’s self to death.” Understandably, then, we construct a “safer” world in which to live. We create our own self-limited-self.

Not only do most of us not run ultra-marathons, most of us don’t venture into the mountains at all… there’s bears and such out there, you know. And for that same reason most of us never experience the truly religious quality of 3,000 feet of open air between us and a turquoise alpine lake below (not to mention having a grizzly roar at you on its hind legs from 25 yards). But forget mountains for a moment. The same is true for life in general. As Ernest Becker so wonderfully made clear, society itself is, in part, the corporate construction of the self-limited-self. It gives us a limited set of roles to play, and a basic monitory system with which (if we work hard, etc) we can purchase security and leisure (Insurance policies, cars with air-bags, security systems, vacations, weekends, health-club memberships, and so on). Our fear of death, our terror of our own limits, creates an ego-organized-self and a communal system. In contrast to these self-protective dynamics we have these crazy people like Krupicka who radically chase after their own limits by embracing the risk of the chase.

I think also of Daniel Suelo who, as Mark Sundeen recounts in his biography, renounced the use of money after realizing that “Money perpetuated the fantasy of immortal earthly life, the illusion that we could determine the future.” (The Man Who Quit Money, 224.) These figures really are “crazy” in a sense. In their own way, they reject the “normal” self-limiting scheme that society creates for us. Their insanity reminds us that earthly safety is an illusion, and that the ‘happiness’ realized in the quest for it is a lie. In doing so, they reject the fear that drives the system by embracing the object of fear: the limits of life. Freed of its horror, the limits of life become something to be played with rather than attacked or repressed. That’s the radical paradox of all this. By embracing that from which our “normal” quest for happiness flees, the fullness of life is allowed to emerge. Just as Moore said, “To be ready for death is to be living life to the full, to its limit–which is death.”

This was a new insight for me… that the fullness of life might be thought of as a life freed to live all the way to the limit of life, death. It can be said another way: the fullness of life is possible only in freedom from all the infinite number of ways that we fear death. Sit for a moment and reflect on the innumerable ways that your own life is shaped by an attempt to stave off death. Really think about it; ponder the ways that each of those decisions limits you and separates you from “the dream of yourself” and from others. Now, picture nearly naked, funny-sunglasses-wearing, Jesus running amongst the peaks. He’s not someone else. He is you.

P.S. Don’t miss this recent mountain running film featuring Anton and produced by Joel Wolpert. *Incidentally, Radiolab recently had a delightful (as always) short on the relation of our minds to pain in runners.