Sunday, September 30, 2007

Travel. . . .

As I am traveling to the UK I will be unable to post for about a week. The next post will appear around October 7.

Peace be with you.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

VII Sexuality, Otherness and the Truth of the Self

Beyond Reactive Affect

Let me try to put this in more familiar language. What I am trying to say is that I think we have to treat the issues of sexuality as something more than a reactive affect, that is to say, defining one’s self by action or reaction, which is what happens when we get stuck in those odious comparisons and the absolutising that attach to difference. If the idea of a reactive affect is unfamiliar to you, think of the Pushmepullyou in ‘Doctor Dolittle’. That’s a reactive affect. Or think of a strip of paper pasted into a loop: it has an outside and an inside; it has two edges. The outside doesn’t talk to the inside, and the edges never meet. It’s like a tape loop: the message, the patterns, the songs are always diabolically the same. If, however, a half turn is made in one end of the strip—analogous to the ‘therefore’ in Phillippians 2:5-11, a metanoia—what is produced is a möbius loop that has only one surface and one edge, and there is neither outside nor inside.

Of course there is a stage in development where emerging awareness of gender difference seems very much like reactive affect, quite necessarily so. We do have to learn difference first of all.

But we also know that as long as emotion and identity are governed by reactive affects, life is problematic: the spiral is unable to take its true shape from Otherness. Integration and maturity are not possible until the Pushmepullyou, which is a counterfeit paradox, a contradiction, has been pulled apart, until we have found the stillness of Otherness from which the spiral arises and into which it disappears, the stillness of non-refutation where there is neither attack nor defense, identity or antithesis.

What I am trying to say is that I think that in our notions of gender identity, of the self, of sexuality and even of God, we need to be set free both from seeing them merely as reactive, and from the desire to nail them to any particular mast, for if we do try to fix them, we become blinkered and miss at least half the metaphors in the world. We seem to have great difficulty remembering that maturity has in large measure to do with being comfortable with ambiguity, and of course sexuality, as we have seen, is a metaphor in which différance spirals in a dance with Otherness.

Let’s go back to Ralph for a minute. Of course his ambiguity made him insecure. But there was no possibility, given his circumstance, that for the sake of feeling secure he could nail his sexual orientation to the floor like Linus trying to protect his blankie so Snoopy can’t steal it. And of course in the end this was Ralph’s great strength.

Circumstance took from him the possibility of using his sexuality as a transitional object that had deteriorated into a fetish. A transitional object is the technical term for a blankie, nu-nu, or a rubber duckie that is supposed to enable us to make the transition from the security of known relationships to those that are more ambiguous, but Linus classically turns his blanket into a fetish. And when we lack maturity, when we become fixated on something, particularly on our own sexuality, we are secretly and forever failing to make to make this transition, as we try to replace these childhood treasures.

Once Ralph had learned to be comfortable with the ambiguity that was part of the truth of himself, with his own différance and Otherness; once he got in touch with his solitude where he discovered the truth of himself and the glory, commonality and true intimacy to be found there so that he no longer felt pressured to acquire the transitional objects dictated to him by a childish culture, his whole life turned around. He was no longer subject to the tyranny that dictated that he declare his sexual orientation once and for all, which for him was impossible in any event.

Once he realized this, his anxieties about his sexuality disappeared, and his sexuality was free to animate his intention through the sea of différance, disappearing into and reappearing from Otherness, so that everything that was not himself as turned aside. The spiral of his self was free to dance in the dialogue of presence and absence with Otherness, and he was able simply to get on with life in a new key. His unique self was set free to find its appropriate responsive and ever-changing, yet always identifiable shape, untrammeled by stereotyping. There is a name for this: it is integrity.

It’s perhaps clear by now that I am convinced that the heated discussions of sexuality to date have been akin to one of those diabolical tape loops, skewed by a culture, particularly a religious culture, that wishes us to make fetishes out of what, in our arrogance, we presume to be knowable about people, the creation, and God. Frankly, I just can’t relate to God as a rubber duckie, no matter how exalted the language.

In fact, one reason that thinking people may find organized religion so off-putting is that their sense of Otherness is in very good working order, and to be asked to regress so that God takes on the form of some knowable transitional object, even under the most amorphous name such as Being-Itself, is simply more than they can stomach. The word ‘God’ itself becomes problematic. it isn’t a question of belief in God or not; such a question is a category mistake; it’s simply irrelevant. It is true that we need metaphors to talk about God, but as I noted above, we must never lose our sense of the Otherness that lies at the heart of metaphor, and into which metaphor elides. To do so is to find ourselves lying on hard kitchen griddle instead of reclining on the silk cushions of our pavilioned barge!

Or, more seriously, whether we choose either to reduce the transitional phase of our sexuality to a fetish and to be entrapped by it, or to be willing to relinquish these childish things and recognise sexuality as the animating metaphor for the intention that frees us for transfiguration, determines whether our lives are headed for annihilation or glory, whether we remain trapped in the stereotypes of a reductive culture or whether we are transfigured by integration within a context larger than our selves.

On our attitude towards our sexuality turns the decision to be locked into the individualism that ineluctably eventuates in the togetherness of fascism, or whether we discover ever greater depths of authenticity and solitude from which community is born, in which the elusiveness of truth, goodness and beauty take their natural shape in us and we know our most profound commonality and cohesiveness as a society in reverence for the Otherness in the other. True love, as Rilke pointed out, is the meeting of two solitudes who know the extravagance of walking unembraced. Not that our Otherness precludes embrace: indeed, lovemaking too reaches its transfiguration in o(O)therness.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

NCR Review of Pillars of Flame

National Catholic Reporter 2/17/89 by Aaron Godfrey

No matter how far we seem to develop politically and intellectually, the prejudices of our childhood lurk around the corners of our consciousness to surprise us when we feel most secure. I was brought up in the old, somewhat enlightened church before Vatican II, chomping at the bit, but conforming to the letter of the law, and engaging in not a little secret and subtle triumphalism.

Among the beliefs inculcated in parochial school was a sense of innate spiritual and moral superiority over those Christian churches that were products of the reformation—or, as I was taught, "the Protestant revolt." I also believed (though it may not have been specifically taught) that, because there was "no salvation outside the church," Protestant spirituality and mysticism were moot points and probably could not exist,

Pillars of Flame, a stunning book by Maggie Ross, An Anglican Solitary, has taken me by surprise and caused me to reevaluate completely a whole set of values I had taken for granted most of my life, and I am grateful for it.

It is also a good thing that Ross is not in the Roman church, because she undoubtedly would be the subject of investigation and condemnation by the Holy Office.....

...many of us deep down have accepted the silly notion that sexuality and spirituality are exclusive and that a real spiritual life can be led only by a person who has suppressed the sexual appetite that supposedly stands in the way of one's relationship with God.

Ross disputes and disproves the notion with great clarity. She points out that sexuality is in everything we do....[quote from book]...

Ross points out that 'lifelong celibacy cannot be imposed by law. It is a gift....(and) is significant in terms of personal meaning, not in terms of value or an absolute scale of holiness.'

The suppression of sex is power, and power is what the church has been about since the time of Constantine....

Ross indicates that the life and death of Jesus, and his humility, represent the model he intended for his church.... Perhaps more attention should be given to human needs than to the cold, iron magisterium that brings much pain to so many people.

Pillars of Flame is a thoughtful challenge to the dominance of male power in the church. It is a challenge that comes from the spirit and heart and one the reader must take seriously because the questions the author raises come from scriptural and patristic thought.

[Pillars of Flame: Power, Priesthood and Spiritual Maturity with a new preface by Archbishop Desmond Tutu is being re-publishedat the end of September by Seabury Books, a division of Church Publishing—see link.]

Thursday, September 20, 2007

VI Sexuality, Otherness and the Truth of the Self

The Paradox of Intention

This term has existed only since 1988, when Marvin Shaw published his eponymous book (Atlanta, Scholars Press). It describes a familiar and pervasive phenomenon that also includes a paradox of attention.

There is a name on the tip of my tongue. The harder I try to remember it, the more unavailable it becomes. Only when I concentrate on something else is there any possibility of recovering what is forgotten. If I do this, the recovery of the lost information is not guaranteed, but at least it becomes more likely. Cheating, that is, keeping my eye on the imaginary spot where the information seems likely to emerge while pretending to myself that I am concentrating on something else, won’t work, and just makes remembering all the more difficult.

The paradox of intention is operative at many levels of the human psyche in virtually every human situation. here is Shaw’s own description (p. 195):

"There is a universal and recurrent human experience in which the blocking of some sought for attainment leads us to modify our intention, and it is found to yield an unexpected fulfillment of its own; experiences of impossibility force us to abandon our pretensions and our intensity, and in this we surprisingly achieve either what we sought or a kind of contentment that we thought could only follow the conquest of that which blocked us. In either case, we discover that the goal is reached by giving up the attempt to reach it."

Shaw’s description gives us another criterion for maturity: the postponement of immediate gratification.

Lovemaking is a good example of the paradox of intention. Your intentionality has to be animated towards the Otherness of the lover, engaging that Otherness through the difference explored by touch, alert and responsive to the qualities of silence. And touch engages différance: the response of the lover is never predictable and never twice the same. In the dialogue through touch with the lover’s différance and Otherness, one is, paradoxically, dialoguing most profoundly with one’s own différance and Otherness. And the moment of orgasm releases the person into free-fall through Otherness, simultaneously the most intimate and the most solitary experience that we can have with another person. And it is precisely that shared experience of Otherness, not merely the physiological response, that is at the heart of the communion of lovemaking.

Or consider prayer. If you try to enter silence, it is guaranteed that you won’t. You have to find a way to suspend the chatter of self-consciousness. There are many ways into still-prayer, such as focusing on a single word or object, but prayer can also take us by surprise as it did one writer in ‘Talk of the Town’ in the New Yorker (November 11, 1985, p. 36):

"But occasionally, without being asked, time neither stops nor passes—it drops out of mind with such simplicity and secrecy that not until later do you understand the enormous gift you have received....

"As I walk by my rather disheveled garden in the country, I kneel to pull up a weed. I am called to lunch, and reply that I’ll be there in a minute. The shadows begin to pour around my feet, and the earth grows cool under my hands. A voice ring out from the house, ‘It’s suppertime!’"

Or think of sleep, one of the little deaths. If we try to grasp sleep with grim determination, we are condemning ourselves to insomnia. Or think of the many other situations in business or personal relationships, or in our interior lives, where the law of the paradox of intention is operative, particularly, as we have seen, in discovering play with différance and Otherness that leads to the continually unfolding discovery of the truth of our selves.

We have lost our sense of the importance of the unseen, and we have, in consequence, lost the art of discernment. Forgive me if I seem harsh, but daily I am engaged in damage control, trying to help people find freedom from these various tyrannies. And so, having rubbished some of these sacrosanct notions, I hasten to offer a rather different model of the self.

The Self

A few years ago the New Yorker published one of those quirky and wonderful long articles for which it is famous, about an unusual exhibit mounted in the huge old science hall that was built for the 1964 Word’s Fair on Long Island. This building was typical of its day: poured concrete, with fragments of coloured glass imbedded everywhere in its walls.

Within this extraordinary space, a scientist was trying to create a whirlwind. He knew that if he directed air currents from strategically located window fans, a spiral would form. The difficulty was making the whirlwind visible, because in the excitement of working under the mysterious kaleidoscopic light, he forgot that air is invisible.

The fans were in place and blowing, but no whirlwind was to be seen. To reassure himself that the whole thing wasn’t a mad fantasy, he turned them up as high as they would go and put a pan of water where the vortex ought to have been. The invisible whirlwind, now quite strong, promptly sucked up the water and vapourized it, suddenly becoming visible, dancing in the eerie light as it moved here and there, responding to vagrant air currents wandering through the vast hall, coloured by those marvelous chips of stained glass.

Now let’s think about spirals on a big scale. Out of the plasma in deep space, spiral galaxies form, each one unique. Each is made of billions upon billion of stars, clouds of gas, space-dust. At the centre of many of these galaxies is a black hole, a density. What these spirals, small and large, have in common is that, whirlwind or galaxy, each has a definite shape, a spiral, that seeks and relinquishes, uniquely appearing and disappearing, never repeating or repeatable, yet true to its intrinsic spiral shape, a dance of différance around an otherness, an emptiness, a still centre. Each is responsive to the environment that surrounds it. Each is composed of many elements; all are needed, none can be left out.

This notion of the spiral continually forming, responsive to its environment, made up of innumerable elements gathering around, disappearing into and re-emerging from a centre of otherness, is a model that is immensely useful for talking about the self. The spiral left alone to do its dancing, illuminated by diaphanous light, is the self free of embarrassed self-consciousness and shame, free of the tyrannies of culture and the unintegrated super-ego. ‘Look upon Me and be radiant, and let not your faces be ashamed.’ (Ps. 34)

By contrast let’s look at what happens to the ever-forming spiral of the self when it is not left alone: the unintegrated super-ego judges from its limited perspective that a particular air current is wicked; or it would like to leave out half the motes of dust because they are dirty, or the water, because it is uncomfortably wet and doesn’t want to be made visible. It decides it would like to turn off one of the fans, imperiling its existence; it decides that the colours are too diverse, that monochrome would be more interesting. The self-imposed cultural tyrannies to which we subject our selves apply pressures to the spiral of the self that bend it out of shape, or perhaps cause it to collapse altogether.

The truth of the self is more than the sum of its parts. First, the truth of the self can be discovered only in dialogue with the fullness of one’s self, the dialogue that begins with earthed knowledge and appreciation of the body. In the discussion above, this is analogous to knowable difference or the role of the griddle in the metaphor. Next, the truth of the self requires mature exploration of that richest of metaphors, sexuality, that animates all intention. This is analogous to différance. But above all, the truth of the self is found in the dialogue with one’s own Otherness, not in the dialogue with one’s own self-consciousness, but with the apparent self that disappears into and re-emerges from the Silence at the centre of our being in the movement known as perichoresis, by which is described the life of the blessed Trinity.

Thus, when we speak of being alienated from our selves it is not the truth of our selves from which we are alienated, but rather the presumptuous judgments of a superego tyrannized by what in its looped perception, it sees as different from itself and compares with itself. This judgement lies at the circumference of the circle, which is illusion, which is no where. We become alienated from our selves when we have lost the limitless and self-forgetful perspective bestowed by the focus of our intention in the dialogue with Otherness that takes us to the centre which is every where, and where we find our communion with others, the intention that is animated by our sexuality.

If mysticism is living the ordinary through transfigured perception, then this dialogue with one’s own otherness, with one’s own silence and ineffability, has a commonality with the dialogue with Silence that is union with God. Even more, it has commonality with that same dialogue with Silence and Otherness which is the truth of every other self, and it discovers this commonality as it awakens to the différance and ineffability into which the most ordinary material objects elide, as solid as they may seem to us.

To put this another way, what we have most in common is Otherness: the Otherness of people and the Otherness of creation is the same Otherness as the Otherness of God; we share the common centre of the circle that is every where. And if we are seeking the truth of our selves, this Otherness calls forth from us a reverence, a humility and respect, an awe before our selves, one another, and the creation that turns our gaze away from the comparisons of difference and finally relinquishes even the seductive metaphors of différance. Our most profound commonality with our selves, with each other, with the creation, is not effected by what we can know, but by what we can’t, the communing engagement with Otherness, ours, another’s, the creation’s, God’s.

Monday, September 17, 2007

More Comments on Pillars of Flame: Power, Priesthood and Spiritual Maturity

From Dr. John B. Cobb, Jr. Ingram Professor of Theology, School of Theology at Claremont:

It is one thing to contrast the God of love with the divine imperial ruler or the self-emptying life with the life of domination. It is quite another matter to explore the meaning of that contrast for the fullness of personal being and for the life and organization of the church. With the sensibility and wisdom formed in a lifetime of prayer, Maggie Ross minces no words in her critique of the contemporary church and goes on to propose changes so sweeping and so fundamental that, although it is hard to envision their implementation, one senses what a truly Christian church would be. Here is feminist Christian spirituality at its prophetic best.

From Dr Mark Taylor, William R. Kenan Professor of Religion, Williams College:

Pillars of Flame is a remarkable work that merits serious attention. Maggie Ross effectively combines thoughtful reflection on spiritual experience with innovative theological analysis. This provocative book stirs the imagination and demands a response.

From the Rev. Dr. William Johnson, Albert V. Danielson Professor of Philosophy and Christian Thought at Brandeis University [later Dean of General Theological Seminary, New York]:

A blockbuster of a book! A theological event of the first magnitude. The one book one must read, as one prepares theologically and spiritually to meet the 1990s. Ross's book resolves most of the theological conundrums of our time, and she does so in a straightforward way, by re-introducing the notion of kenosis into our religious sensitivities. One of the few books written in our age which can be called indispensable.

[Pillars of Flame: Power, Priesthood and Spiritual Maturity with a new preface by Archbishop Desmond Tutu is being re-publishedat the end of September by Seabury Books, a division of Church Publishing—see link.]

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

V Sexuality, Otherness and the Truth of the Self

The Self

For decades I have been unhappy with the language we use about the self. We talk about true self and false self as if the self were a thing, split between two static templates, ever at war with each other. We have compounded our problems with neurotic guilt by conceptualizing in this way, and in the process we have allowed our selves to be tyrannized, often in the name of tolerance or healing or liberation. We talk, for example, about fulfillment as if that, too, were a fixed and known goal, and too often the stereotypes of fulfillment into which we must shape our selves are dictated by the hundreds if not thousands of self-help books on the market today.

The truth is that we find fulfillment only in the shift in perception from self-conscious narcissism to self-forgetfulness that attends the dialogue with Otherness. But instead of encouraging this shift into the healing dialogue with Otherness, the message that comes across from these books, usually without our realizing it, is that we are unfinished and flawed projects to be completed according to a regulation universal standard derived from presumption of knowability and control. These books tell us wrongly that self-consciousness alone, that is, what is immediately knowable and perceivable, determines the self, and that there are formulas by which it can be acceptably controlled—until the next self-help book comes along and points out something new that is wrong with us that needs to be fixed.

Such a view of the human person is a deathtrap. It has no reverence for what is ambiguous and ineffable in the human person, for what is différance and Otherness. It is a closed and narcissistic loop that renders us prey to the tyrannies of culture, fashion and, worst of all, the havoc these pressures wreak on our superegos. I have talked with too many women and men who feel trapped and inadequate because of the stranglehold their particular social milieu has on them in the name of self-expression.

Worst of all, we presume—and it is presumption in the worst sense with all the force that this word has in British English of an imposed arrogant ignorance—that we can judge in some absolute sense what in ourselves is good and what is bad, that this part is good and should be kept and that part is bad and has to go. Take anger, for example: it’s true that anger can be destructive to oneself and others, but it’s also true that anger can be a powerful glue for a psyche under pressure; it can provide energy for creative acts; and, focused as courage, it can be a transfigured and transfiguring force in the cause of social justice.

Or consider depression. It has been demonstrated that people who are depressed have stopped lying to themselves. Perhaps we cannot bear too much reality, but there is a fine line between healthy denial and unhealthy denial, and in a world such as ours, occasional shocks of reality are perhaps not such a bad thing.

Many is the artist who suffers from depression for a whole complex of reasons, but who begins to realise after decades of coming to terms with depression that it is somehow essential to the creative truth of the process. Its lethargy also allows the dross of exhausted metaphor and a burnt-out psyche to slough away, and the psyche to reorganize itself around the new metaphors that are emerging from otherness, to set out once again to seek the edges of a new metaphorical universe. We all know the symptoms; it’s a bit like postpartum depression; the task is finished, the advance copy of the book arrives from the publisher, and we are plunged into the abyss with the thought that we are stuck with what is already old stuff and we’ll never have another original thought as long as we live.

We make these judgments with our conscious minds, with our self-consciousness, as if what goes on at the self-conscious level is all there is, in spite of what we know about the complexity of human beings, which is just the opposite. What is expressed at the self-conscious level is only two percent of what goes on in the human person at best. And we compound this mistake by using our feelings as the criteria by which to judge our selves and our behaviour, feelings that are more often than not reactive and deceptive, or at least, our interpretation of them is too often reactive and deceptive.

All this, of course, is a way of talking about the pressure of a materialistic culture, a culture that encourages us to treat our selves as if we were jut another consumable, and what you see is what you get. This is the sort of objectifying of our selves that goes on when we are preoccupied with the comparative gaze attached to the linear loop of difference, in which we are so busy measuring our selves against our own projections onto the other person, projections governed by the abysmal standards of mass production, that we never take the time to look up or down or enter any context greater than our self-conscious perception, to open the loop.

For all our claims to want to be rid of hierarchy and have a more relational society, this linear, looping rigidity simply reinforces hierarchy: this is good, that is bad; this is better, that is best; I don’t have this, I’ll acquire that; this makes me one up or one down. This makes me feel bad; that will make me feel better.

We go shopping in the personality supermarket to try to acquire what we think will make us more attractive or more fulfilled according to the rigid stereotypes the mass-market society foists on us to give us the illusion of specialness, instead of abandoning these Hallowe’en costumes, and learning how to become only who we are, which enables the uniqueness of each of us to flower. This is to mistake individualism for authenticity.

To become only who we are once again requires the fundamental perceptual shift, the willingness to look away from our selves, which means we must learn not to doubt our selves as hopelessly flawed objects, but to trust in the Otherness that is at work in the heart of every human person, if only we will let it. And we let this Otherness work its transfiguring way with us by committing to it our deepest desires and then focusing our intention away from our selves and into this same Otherness that is the stuff of the world around us in the guise of familiarity. We all know this from descriptions of therapy or from Zen archery: we have to lose our embarrassed self-consciousness and self-judgement in order to function optimally.

Here is Pseudo-Denys’ paradox again: the more self-outpouring we are, the more completely we are our selves. And this self-outpouring must not be towards a desired object, but must follow the trace of longing into Otherness across the sea of ineffability, our intentionality the prow of a ship that turns aside all that is not the truth of our selves. This paradox has a name: it is the paradox of intention.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Comments on Pillars of Flame: Power, Priesthood and Spiritual Maturity

“There are no priests in the four Gospels or the genuine letters of Paul. That fact should make us rethink entirely the concepts of Christian ministry and community. Maggie Ross gives us a good way to start.” — Garry Wills, author of "What Jesus Meant"

"A passionate and searching book which unsparingly sets the Gospel in judgment over the popular Christian idolatries of our time." — Rowan Williams. Archbishop of Canterbury

“Like a jeweler taking out and displaying a dark and incandescent stone, so Maggie Ross holds up to us Christ’s priesthood, made alive among all his faithful by baptism. As she shows us this flashing jewel, we are summoned to the self-emptying that is central to our vocation and brought back to what we had once known, but forgotten, our priesthood to be. I am grateful to have my imagination once again set on fire.” — James Alison, author of "Undergoing God: Dispatches from the Scene of a Break-In"

“Maggie Ross argues cogently and persuasively that we should provide the world with the paradigm of the self-emptying leadership of Christ—not self-serving, not self-aggrandizing, but poured out in selfless service of others.” — Archbishop Desmond Tutu, from the Foreword

Friday, September 07, 2007

IV Sexuality, Otherness and the Truth of the Self


Between difference and otherness there is an interesting middle ground, a continuum, if you will—and let’s remember that a continuum is not linear like a spectrum; a continuum is multidimensional. For example, the universe is a continuum, but its elements can be studied by diffusing radiation through a spectroscope, which matches the distinctive light of each element with its counterpart in the total spectrum. The spectrum reveals only the identity of the element, not the element itself in relation to other elements, which can only occur in multidimensional reality. Looping occurs in linearity, whereas perichoresis occurs in multidimensionality. Looping excludes Otherness, while perichoresis requires Otherness.

This example signals the necessity for a significant shift in our thinking. And some of the misunderstanding in discussions of sexuality today arise from the fact that some but not all of us, and some but not all of the culture are familiar with, and, more important, have integrated these assumptions, the advances in physics that have shifted our ways of thinking from a Newtonian to an Einstinian universe. This means a shift from a two or three dimensional mechanical universe where cause, effect and entropy reign supreme and can be analyzed systematically by a mythical objective observer, to a multidimensional universe—twenty-two dimensions according to one version of super-string theory—a universe that is contingent, chaotic, relational and interactive, where time is a function of space and motion, and all space exists in each moment of time, where particles are said to make decisions, and indeterminacy is the rule of order, where paradox is the normal descriptor and where the observer is part of what is observed. In conversation, it means that one person may be thinking in a three-dimensional way using linear arguments, and another may be thinking in a multidimensional way using kaleidoscopic permutations, and of course in this situation they cannot possibly communicate

What I am trying to say is that we need to start thinking about sexuality with more rigour and accuracy than old-fashioned linear statements allow, that closed frame of reference that somewhat arrogantly assumes everything is knowable and can be accurately described and discussed in linear logic. It isn’t and it can’t, and the new way of looking at things reveals paradox as the most accurate mode of description. We’ll get back to paradox in a moment.

But now I would like to pick up on another notion from this new way of looking at the universe, which is indeterminacy. For example, according to Heisenberg’s famous principle, it is impossible to calculate both the position and the velocity of a particle. Light too is indeterminate: it can be observed as both waves and particles simultaneously. Particles are now talked of as if they made decisions, or, in the example of Shrödinger’s famous cat, the consequence of the experiment is indeterminate until the box is opened.

The same thing seems to happen with words. The French literary critic, Jacques Derrida, has used the word différance to reflect a similar indeterminacy, and I will use the French word to distinguish it from its homonym, difference. Indeterminacy, or différance, is much more notionally and linguistically pervasive than we in our insecurity might like to admit. Part of the human problem of maturation and relationship between individuals as well as among groups and nations, is the difficulty of moving gradually away from familiar concepts of sameness and difference, through the more problematical realm of mutability, ambiguity, or différance, to the ineffable, apophatic mental landscape where new connections are made and new insights are born. This requires us to relinquish both our narcissistic gaze on our selves and the comfort of concepts under our control, and to embark on the adventure of watching différance elide into Otherness. To make this shift in perception requires self-forgetfulness and a diminished role for the reflexive observations of self-consciousness.

All too often in our technological age, this mutation of language, ideas and self-perception into the uncertain area of différance and the dismaying vastness of Otherness is seen as a failure. Derrida is one of these people: he sees otherness as an ultimately closed system in which words become a senseless jumble of noise inducing the terror of a Mrs Moore in the Marabar caves. He seems to be aware of the inarticulateness of pain, but he does not seem to be aware of the liberating silence that comes from awe, that there is an infinite Silence accessible to human beings in which language has no existence even as an echo. We know this silence under the name of apophatic contemplation, or under its psychological aspect, as I hope to suggest, as the complete suspension of self-consciousness. But a closed system such as Derrida’s precludes understanding the death-wish as anything but a self-destructive descent into meaningless annihilation. It precludes jouissance, ecstasy, transfiguration, except, perhaps, as a ball playing off the walls in a spherical game of roulette, and it thus perceives only the dark mirror of nihilism.

Those of us who are familiar with the mystical tradition know that Derrida is missing—or perhaps refusing to admit—something essential. The disappearance of the isolating, luciferian autonomy of surety and language, the refocusing of intentionality and relinquishing of our apparent selves into Otherness, is coronal, that is to say, having used every one of our gifts to its utmost capacity, their elision into Otherness, far from being a failure or nihilism, is supreme fulfillment, and from the stillness where we wait, our gifts re-emerge from Otherness transfigured. ‘I will send forth my Word and it will not come back to me empty.’

But back to différance for a moment. If gender is difference, which is to say, something that can be known, then what is différance, or undecidability, in relationship to gender? Just as our awareness and notions of the universe change as we mature from the Newtonian to the Einstinian view, so does our perception of our selves. The problem is that the culture doesn’t often mature as fast as some of its constituents do, and, as I noted above, one of the fundamental criteria of maturation is the ability to be comfortable with ambiguity, with différance and with Otherness. So: difference, différance and Otherness.

I would now like to suggest that sexuality lies in the mutable, motile, indeterminate realm of différance. Let’s try for a new definition of sexuality, one that opens it up instead of restricting it. Sexuality is the animator of intention, whether that intention is mundane or mystical, whether, for example, it is directed towards the care of our ordinary bodily needs, the sustaining energy of commitment to a person or a task, or the longing that leads us into the transfiguration of Otherness—which, we must emphatically note, is given to us through the body, not accomplished by its rejection.

Sexuality is a metaphor precisely because of this différance, and I must digress here for a moment to explain what I mean by metaphor because it is perhaps a departure from what many people think of as metaphor. A metaphor is a landscape, rather like a Mary Poppins picture that you can step into if you choose. It is an illusory landscape with illusory boundaries, but because it has illusory boundaries, it gives the illusion of a safe place in which we may imaginatively explore notions and experiences that might otherwise seem too dangerous. If we go deeply into a metaphor, it dissolves and we find our selves in a new metaphorical universe that is waiting to be explored. Thus the experience of writers whose books are dead to them after they’ve been published. The metaphorical world that gave birth to the book is now, for the author, a dried-out husk even as it may be a life-giving calyx for the reader; for the author, its metaphorical space has been exhausted and left behind for new territory, preparation for the next work.

In addition, metaphor is earthed in some familiar object. Consider, for example, this metaphor: ‘the sun’s heat reflected off the hot griddle of the sea.’ Somewhere in the background of this metaphor is an ordinary griddle, but it is obvious that this mundane household object has little importance except to establish a trigger for the imagination.

The metaphor does not oblige us to do more than stand on the sidewalk with Mary Poppins, looking at the chalk drawing, speculating on the heat reflecting off a flat, hard, grey sea. However, if we are more adventurous, in our imagination we can step into a small boat and begin to drift across the vast expanse of salt water, hopefully armed with an umbrella and ice water at least, or perhaps we suddenly find our selves on a pavilioned barge with peacock fans swayed by invisible hands soundlessly moving the dead air around us, drinking wine chilled in snow brought from distant mountains, and grapes from the plain. You see what I mean.

Where is the kitchen griddle in all of this? Its importance has long since fallen away. It is precisely the shape-shifting character of metaphor, its différance, that reveals its otherness, and we must never lose the background perception of otherness that lies at the heart of every metaphor, which is both its context and that into which it elides, or we shall find our selves trapped.

Sexuality as a metaphor, then: I think the relationship of gender and sexuality is something like this. Gender, for all its difference, is something familiar, something that can be known. It serves a similar function to the ordinary kitchen griddle in the metaphor of the sea. Gender earths the metaphor of sexuality and then loses much of its importance as imagination and intention become animated in a play of presence and absence with Otherness. And as you can see from the example, it is this différance, this mutability, that liberates the metaphorical imagination.

At the same time, we mustn’t forget the metaphors we call masculine and feminine, which are ways of talking about the relationship of power and vulnerability and without which life and literature would be very dull indeed. I am not suggesting that we get rid of them, but rather that they were once a descriptor paradox such as we find in quantum physics or in Ralph’s statement, ‘I’m gay but I’m not,’ that has been mistaken for a botched premise by a linear culture, dismantled and its elements misused as templates into which people try to cut themselves and others to fit, like the ancient Greek bandit, Procrustes, who chopped or stretched his captives to fit his diabolical bed. But this is perhaps the subject for another lecture.

I want to come back to this relationship metaphor between gender and sexuality, but first it is important to talk about one or two other words that I will use to try to help us think about the human puzzle in a somewhat different way.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Publication: Pillars of Flame: Power, Priesthood, and Spiritual Maturity

PILLARS OF FLAME: POWER PRIESTHOOD AND SPIRITUAL MATURITY by Maggie Ross, with a new Preface by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, is published this month, September, 2007, by Seabury Books.

Originally published in 1988 by Harper and Row, this book anticipated the crisis which institutional Christianity faces today. It is a radical book in that it addresses the root issues, theological, psychological, pastoral, that church officials refuse to acknowledge, and it points the way forward towards a profound spiritual and institutional renewal.

This book has received endorsements from James Alison and Garry Wills, among others.