Wednesday, July 18, 2007

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

There are many more of these counterfeits: they are everywhere. There is the confusion between grandeur and grandiosity, ever the peril of the religious leader; there is the confusion between dialogue and dialectic, ever the peril of Liberation theology. The line between them is subtle: dialogue can lead us through the narrow way to freedom, but to be caught between the opposing forces of a Marxist dialectic is just another murderous trap.

The subtext of many of these counterfeits is the confusion between individualism and authenticity. Individualism is dedicated to action, authenticity to being; the one rushes heedlessly; the other is content to wait for the Word in stillness. Individualism isolates; authenticity treasures solitude for the sake of the community and right action within that community. Self-reflection attempts change by constraint; self-forgetfulness opens to change by the self-emptying that is aspiration. Constraint focuses on the image that dissatisfies; aspiration elicits self-forgetfulness; constraint is the crushing burden of the law; aspiration is Elijah’s whirlwind. Each of us holds these subliminal models of power which, given the context, our woundedness, and grace, alternate in ascendency. In our solitude we can discover which predominates, and if we find our selves moving from constraint towards aspiration, we may know that love is casting out fear and salvation is at hand.

The danger of so-called conversion experiences, particularly in a consumer culture where self-esteem is bought at the price of self-respect, is that they often give us the impression that a task has been accomplished, that we will live happily ever after. The danger in this fundamentalist idea of conversion is that it gives the impression that everything is under control, when in fact what is out of control and can never be in control, what is unconverted and beyond our control to convert, is still powerfully at work in us, often refuting what we have professed and damaging others, though our repression may not allow us to see these affects. And at the root of this illusion of control we are denying the reality of death in all its forms.

Today, altogether too much emphasis is placed on conversion that occurs on a conscious level, and on spiritual discernment taken from material that irrupts into the merely discursive. There is the additional danger that mutual discernment, when it is not devolving into dominance and co-dependence, too frequently shrinks from the prophetic role, and as a result, discernment amounts to little more than “if it feels good, do it.” As Robert McAllister has pointed out, “Everyone at some time needs the strength of a friend who says, ‘Please don’t do that. It is not good for you.’“ We need to be careful that we do not give “the cold stone of counselling to one who needs the warm bread of concern.”

Moreover, there is a fallacy to which Christianity has succumbed from practically the year one, what I call the aesthetic fallacy. The aesthetic fallacy constructs a hierarchy of holiness according to static criteria. It is related to the Greek idea that to be united with beauty, matter must be shed; that beauty can never associate with what is ugly. This is in sharp contrast to the Judeo-Christian tradition that reveals Beauty willing to be marred for the sake of the creation.

The aesthetic fallacy in one of its manifestations says that the celibate religious professional is somehow elevated above the rest of humanity. In a similar form, it declares that there is a perfect religious template to which people must be conformed if they are to be complete, no matter that God created each of us as a unique being, or what forcing our uniqueness into a template means in terms of the cost in human lives.

The aesthetic fallacy is based on a mechanistic and linear opposition between true and false self, and the assumption that we can know which is which. It assumes we can know what bits of ourselves should be discarded, and that it is possible to discard them. The truth is that the self is more like stars and galaxies coming into being: all the elements are needed, those that we in our ignornace label “good” and those we label “bad”. The self is continually being formed by God in co-creative response to our deepest desires, and the rest of creation.

But here is something in us that likes to cling to the aesthetic fallacy, in part, I suspect, because it gets us off the hook. The aesthetic fallacy implies that only the elite can reach the static perfection of the true self. They are there for us poor hopeless slobs to admire. Secretly, this allows us to think, “If only the elite are holy, why should I bother?” We all know people with the failed monk syndrome. It is this creation-denying lust for mystique that is the source of the star system by which we are so dominated in our culture today. It is the elitist attitude of late antiquity, which, with gross inappropriateness, was stitched onto Christianity along with the philosopher’s robe.


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