living through death

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

Posts Tagged ‘Vulnerability

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.

Sneak Peek: Death, Doubt, and Salvation

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The following is the introduction I’ve just finished hammering out for an upcoming paper I will be presenting in Baltimore at the American Academy of Religion conference. It also is shaping up to be the heart of my dissertation work. Perhaps for that reason, this did not come easily to me, but I’m pretty happy with it now. I’ll post the full text to my site after the conference, but I thought I’d offer you a sneak peek. Feedback is always welcome!

This paper argues that it is the fear of death and meaninglessness that drives us to seek salvation in some power greater than our own limited powers. However, since nothing we can point to, talk about, or conceptually define is able to overcome death and doubt, the threat of death and doubt is largely driven from our conscious awareness. In this state of blindness, salvation can be bought more cheaply. The consequence, however, is that life must be lived within the limits of our cheap salvation; for the fullness of life runs to the limit of life, and this limit, death, is something we simply cannot face. Under such conditions, intimacy, both in the form of cognitive union and human relationships, is impossible. We are too committed to living our illusions to risk being that vulnerable.

The question I seek to answer is therefore one of salvation. Faced with these circumstances, what could ever have the power to save us? What could grant us the courage to be weak, and therefore lay our defenses aside, creating the conditions for intimacy and life to its fullness? My conclusion is that the paradox of Christian salvation is such a power. In order to show this I will be introducing two different examples of this paradox in action. The first is its appearance in a philosophical mode, namely that of Paul Tillich’s treatment of reason and revelation. The second is its appearance in the mode of desire. Here we will consider the psychoanalytically influenced Christology of Dom Sebastian Moore. Finally, these threads will be brought together by suggesting that the practice of Centering Prayer can be thought of as a sort of daily training in this paradoxical salvation.

Written by Alex

October 10, 2013 at 1:51 pm

To Love Is to Die

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Why do I see death as so central to my work? In short, it is because death is what love requires. Unless we die psychologically to our ‘self’ that grasps constantly for esteem, security, and control—that self that is constituted by a sense of lack—we cannot love fully. And unless we live out of a transcendent confidence that fears not even our own physical death, we cannot love fully. Without undergoing this inner death, fear and a sense of lack will ever separate us from each other.

©Alexander Blondeau

There’s also the fact that, as a theologian, I’m in the risky business of doing something rather dangerous. I’m in the business of analyzing the meaning of, and engaging in the practice of, speaking for God, the infinite.

Again, I see the idea of death as being central to this task. To speak for the infinite, for God—as Jesus and Christianity claim to do—is to speak for “all that is” insofar as it is. This is so because the infinite includes all. To speak for God is not to speak for oneself as finite, as a creature. As such, one must die psychologically, and be prepared to die physically to one’s finitude, to one’s creatureliness. This is what Jesus did. This is what the church must do.

Death happens to us all at some point, but to live for the infinite, for God, is to provoke it. The fearless intensity of life that results threatens the fearful dynamics of separation and self-preservation that characterize most of our world. And to this we say, “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.” This is the death that speaks for God, the death of the lover of all.

Written by Alex

October 3, 2013 at 10:29 am

“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

Prayer and “The Quartet of The Vulnerable”

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Today on his blog  Experimental Theology, Richard Beck posted about a delightful phrase he came across in Nicholas Wolterstorff’s book, Justice: “The quartet of the vulnerable.” He uses it to describe the Biblical injunction to care for the poor, the foreigners, the fatherless, and the widows. As Beck says, “The quartet is mentioned, in bits and pieces, all through the Old Testament. One passage where the whole quartet appears:”

“Zechariah 7:9-10a This is what the Lord Almighty said: “Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor.”

Image“The quartet of the vulnerable.” I like that. These are the ones who lack the securities that the established of society take for granted. It’s interesting to think how the community is urged to extend compassion and support in their time of lack. In my own work I’ve been reading a great deal about the paradox of salvation (the loss of self that leads to the finding of self), and it strikes me that this movement of support being given to those who lack conventional support is formally identical to the practice of contemplative prayer.

In this form of prayer one intentionally induces the vulnerability that is described here. The usual mental securities (which are, more often than not, false securities) are released. We become the widow, the fatherless, the foreigner and the poor in prayer. And it is here, in this place of desolation, that we are encountered and supported by the God who is beyond our fathers, husbands, national structures, and financial security.

If the mental motions of prayer and the physical movements of justice are thus identical, I think here we can see that solitude and action need not be thought of as in opposition, but rather as two manifestations of the same divine movement.

Written by Alex

July 18, 2013 at 11:01 am

Posted in Theology

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