Monday, June 04, 2007

II The Human Experience of God at Turning Points: A Theological Expose of Spiritual Counterfeits

[With apologies that the version of Blogger for Mac doesn't do accents or even italic]

This choice is at the heart of the topic I would like to explore with you this evening: the human experience of God at turning points; in a word, conversion. In theory, we are entering the decade of evangelism. In fact, because so much of our religious culture is now made up of counterfeits of the original truths on which it is based, preserving form and slogan with little content; because we have lost the passion of interior conviction and regard our commitments primarily in terms of careers, of the financial and numerical success of religion organised on a business model; and because we fail to realise that the theological method we employ determines the sort of God we end up with, we are preparing for ourselves a decade of disappointment and failure.

This paper seeks to expose a few of the counterfeits that we may unwittingly perpetuate in the name of God. By way of setting a framework, let me ask some very specific questions:

How does the experience of turning points or conversion relate to both Western experience and the human experience of God?

The turning points in our lives are times of chaos, searching, choice, creativity, loss of paradigms. They seem to offer opportunities for both grieving and celebrating. They seem to bring us to the brink of new freedom.

It seems that these are times when images are shattered, when one’s self-understanding is also shattered. What about the place of weeping in all this? What is our earthing in these times of chaos?

How does western culture, how do our churches, minister to these turning points psychologically, sacramentally, spiritually?

What about our tendency to avoid them, to try to “soldier on?” How can one live through these times when western culture is geared towards success in free market terms?

These uncertainties make the prospect of willingly undergoing conversion of ourselves, much less inflicitng it on others, distinctly uncomfortable. Yet at the outset, I would like to suggest that this fluid seeking of balance is itself the so-called goal of the spiritual journey, because it is only from the equipoise of conversion, of ready response, of eucharistic ungraspingness, that we become utterly focused on, confluent, co-creative with, and responsive to the love of God.

It might be helpful to visualize what I mean by this equipoise of ready response: some people have three-dimensional compasses on the dashboards of their cars that constantly bob about, responding to minute changes in direction the car has taken. Or think of a gyroscope in a guidance system in outer space. Except that this equipoise of conversion I am attempting to describe operates without polarity or artificial horizons. If we are to begin to find this balance of moving and responsive repose, we must give up all geometrical coordinates in human terms, such as up, down, inside, outside, progress, failure, achievement, and respond only to the coordinates of grace, which are found, like the crucified, in the experiences where we least expect them. This notion of equipoise also entails the essence of watchfulness, or searching. The loss of horizon is the loss of paradigms.

We commonly think of conversion as turning around from facing one direction or pole to its opposite. But this movement does not free us; it simply leaves us in another linear and dialectical trap.

Conversion is rather the willingness to give up the notion of God as a direction towards which we aim, to find the responsive equipoise that is conversion both in the continuum of spacetime and the interprenetration and commingling of spacetime with sacred time, or, in the words of the Czech philosopher Erazim Kohák, “the awareness of the absolute reality of being intersecting with the temporal sequence of its unfolding at every moment.” In a word, eternity.

This constant seeking of balance is the discovery of patterning in chaos from which creativity arises. I don’t think there is a grounding in this time of chaos other than the willingness to free-fall, or float-free, with the shards of our shattered images of God, each other, our selves, as space dust shimmering around us. Or, put in more traditional terms, this willing, widening perspective with its paradoxically increasing depth of field, is the humility of Christ.

How does western culture, how do the churches tend these turning points psychologically, sacramentally, spiritually? This is a complex question, but my experience of working with people from many traditions is that, with rare exceptions, institutions tend these turning points very badly, often destructively. The churches preach conversion but are often unwilling to steady us through the sometimes upsetting process. We are frightened by the sight of someone whose emotions and perceptions seem out of control.

We thus confuse the enforced psychological stability of the marketplace with spiritual maturity, which is often its opposite. One result of this clash of values is not only that the vast majority of spiritually mature people refuse to set foot in a church, but also that an ever-widening abyss has opened between the eucharistic community and the institutions.

Those who are leaving or alienated from the institutions are not primarily the indifferent, the lazy, the rebels. It is the committed who feel distanced from the institutions, those who are engaged in a self-emptying, self-forgetful way of life who do not wish to be distracted from their ministry by politics, or from their worship, their gaze on God from which true community is born, by entertainment.

These people are made to feel that they are second-class by certain clergy and other religious professionals in control, who are often so intent on their own ambition, their privilege and preferment, that they couldn’t recognise holiness or good theology if they fell over it. These religious professionals fail to see that those in the eucharistic community are offering a way forward through the many problems facing the institutional churches today because vainity refuses to allow them to recognise the true problem, which is themselves. No amount of evangelisation will stem declining numbers in the institutions until there is a fundamental change in self-perception by the ordained and the vowed, and the increasing numbers of non-ordained, non-vowed professionals who hold power in the churches and who, disclaimers to the contrary, regard themselves as the church.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

In a course I recently took at Notre Dame on patristic exegesis, the comment was made that the seminal text of the Hebrew tradition is Exodus, not Genesis. In reading your comments on turning points it strikes me that an exodus is what many people who are "praying with their feet" are in fact seeking. I firmly believe that the thinkers of the Enlightenment did humanity no favors by instilling a cult of androcentric progress that left out most of humankind, particularly the feminine half.

If you have not read it, may I recommend Diarmuid O'Murchu's book "Religion in Exile" which comports with your statement in your 2005 "Witness" article that I believe is truly profound; namely, that "We must always be able to question what we think and do in the light of outpouring Love WHO IS STILL ENGAGED IN THE COSTLY CREATION OF THE UNIVERSE..." To quote O'Murchu, "I wish to rediscover, and reclaim afresh, that quality of spirituality that transcends both place and word and empowers us to engage anew with the creative God who co-creates at the heart of creation."

I am writing my master's thesis on the prophetic vision of women religious and am centering on the lessons the laity can learn from those who, while mostly faithful to the hierarchal tradition, nevertheless often through the history of the church have provided the only consistent critical position of speaking the truth to power -- with love.

I look forward to your response to my thoughts. I have just discovered you via a "Weavings" article on Discretion. I copied Footnote #2 into my journal.

12:36 pm, July 07, 2007  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Thank you very much for your comment, and I will look for the O'Murchu book—and for the book you will one day write that will draw together all these good ideas fermenting in your MA thesis!

Perhaps the critique of the church can be offered only by those who have nothing to lose (the power of the poor)—which might also tie Exodus in nicely with Jesus' concern for the marginalized.

Another friend wrote the following, which you might find (grimly) amusing:

"Reminds me of the scene in Kazantzakis' 'Last Temptation of Christ' in which Jesus, having chosen to come down from the cross and marry and have a family, is wandering down the road as an old man when he runs across one of the proselytizers of the new religion. He says to the proselytizer, "I am that man you're talking about, and you've got it all wrong." The proselytizer responds:" You may well be who you say you are, but it doesn't matter. We've got our gig and we're going with it."

7:43 am, July 08, 2007  

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