Monday, April 05, 2010

Jesus in the Balance: Interpretation in the Twenty-First Century V


We might say that the mind proceeds by narrative (normal, everyday consciousness), paradox (characteristic of stilling the mind) and reversal (transfiguration and new creation), which is also the form of the kenotic hymn. The insight research mentioned above sums up the operational paradox nicely. Experiments showed that a Zen practitioner was unmatched in solving insight problems, from "his paradoxical ability to focus on not being focussed . . . . He had the cognitive control to let go." A more familiar example of the mind's operational paradox is the word on the tip of the tongue. To have a chance of recovering the word, one must forget both the word and the fact that one is trying to remember. [15] One-pointed meditation is yet another useful model. Focusing on a word, or the breath or the task at hand allows our narratives to elide into silence. [16]

The work of silence, of which meditation is only a first and minor step, is organic. It focuses the mind away from itself. It has no hierarchy, no geometry. The problem in writing about it is that language is always self-referential, hierarchical and dualistic. To bridge this abyss, responsible religious language must always acknowledge its provisional character and continually refer back to the silence. [17] A related problem is that what we call experience, especially religious experience, is always interpretation. When we write about experience we are at yet another remove of interpretation; by contrast, the work of silence relinquishes all claims to experience.

There are many ways to bridge the gap between the organic nature of silence and the dual, reflexive nature of language. Some work by manipulating syntax and image; others create myth, folklore, parable. However else it is interpreted, we might think of the kenotic hymn (Phil. 2:5-11) in this way.

Paul introduces the hymn by emphasizing unity in diversity. He highlights humility, by which he means not hanging on to our idées fixes for the purposes of self-promotion and self-inflation. [18] Orientation toward the other is effected by having the mind of Christ, which is described in the verses that follow. [19]

Our self-consciousness coupled with our inventive rationality gives us the idea that we are little gods, each of us at the center of a little universe. If we cling to this illusory and anxious narrative, we become prey to manipulation, the push-me-pull-you of what other people think, our status, our possessions, our fame or lack of it. This is the level of noise. But it is very frightening to let go of illusion, what appears to be our life, our "equality with God." Here the RSV's "grasp" is a far more appropriate translation than the NRSV's theologically misleading "exploit". We do have a shared nature with God, but it is the opposite of what appears and what we attempt to hold on to.

To choose to enter silence, to let go of the illusion of power and control, is very like death. But it is this passage that sets "free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death." (Heb. 2:15) We must become willing slaves of a different sort, wholly given over to that silence where the observing I/eye is no longer present. This is faith, not propositional belief. Dread is appropriate: this is a "space for dangerous exploration and immense change." [20] This humbling, this letting-go of our ideas and stereotypes stretches and opens us far beyond what we imagine our selves to be; it is a crucifixion indeed.

Thus we enter the "therefore" of the hymn, the limitless space of gift and potential. Here is the tomb of our illusion and the birthplace of the soul, the transfiguration of our ordinary lives, of resurrection. Here we encounter the outpouring of love we call God engaging God's image in us, for it is our self-forgetful outpouring that is this imageless image. This engagement and its effects are known only in retrospect, of course, by hints, by the effects in our lives, for the observing I/eye is not present. There is no experience. This giving up of the illusion of security is the only security. It is not a place, there is no progress or achievement, only the kenotic gaze on gaze.



[15] Marvin Shaw, The Paradox of Intention:Reaching the Goal by Giving Up the Attempt to Reach It (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988).
[16] Martin Laird, Into the Silent Land (New York: OUP, 2006).
[17] Gillespie and Ross, "The Apophatic Image."
[18] Humility and humiliation are opposites.
[19] Note the sequence: in modern terms, it is not "program" that has priority.
[20] Williams, private communication.


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