Thursday, June 28, 2007

V 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]

Here we come to the essence of biblical epistemology: if you lust to grasp and control and turn into object (this is the true definition of the words lust and rape, which are counterfeits of sexuality), you obviate any possiblity of receiving the wisdom of what you have lusted after. You may end up with certain so-called empirical data, but only in the humility of relationship can there be wisdom and reciprocal self-emptying love.

By contrast, in the context of spatial thinking it becomes more possible to have a language of clear distinction that at the same time does not destroy engagement. The danger arises when linear thinking becomes so dominant and exclusionary that it creates a closed system. A closed system is a trap, and salvation is opening and liberating from traps. There is no salvation in a closed system.

A hierarchical system that has become master instead of servant feeds on or rejects everything around itself in order to support and perpetuate its self-inflation. It does not compromise. Instead, it violates all with which it comes in contact. A dominating hierarchical system is self-reflective; it decorates itself to distract observers from the glaring fact that, like evil, it has no substance and generates no energy of its own. As its energies diffuse, it is in a constant state of collapse. Like evil, a closed hierarchical system accuses, devalues and divides in order to maintain its structure. Such a system is noisy, because in the Silence of still-prayer we come to truth, and this hierarchy gone amok has an enormous stake in our believing that there is only one way, the hierarchy’s way, of perceiving “truth”.

The nuclear stalemate is a classic example of this kind of hierarchy at work. Absolute power not only corrupts absolutely, but possession of nuclear weapons is absolute power in terms of the destruction of all life as we know it. The mere possession of nuclear weapons is inherently and insidiously corrupting. In the churches—all of them, not just Rome—there are always those people who insist that our loving God is the demonic puppetmaster at the top of this sort of hierarchy. They insist that this god zaps byzantine emperors off their horses and gives people AIDS.

That some who call themselves Christian adhere to this model of God is particularly ironic since Jesus spent his ministry undermining the authority of those in Judaism who had bound the people of the God of mercy with the shackles of the law.
The puppet-master rules by fear, and it is fear that drives us into the illusory security of a closed system, which is death. When we worship the puppetmaster, we try to control the illusory Controller. Presumptuous control beyond the capacity of the creature is the sin of the Garden.

The French philosopher René Girard has pointed out that the pursuit of the sacred is too often this pursuit of the demonic, the pursuit of control and being controlled, the pursuit of force and violence and the sacrifice of scapegoats. And the Greeks do not have sole claim on this controlling god: it appears as a strand in both Hebrew and Christian scripture that is often used to enforce the grim rigorism of puritanical and legalistic closed systems; it appears in every human group and every human heart, the projection of our fear, our violence, and our greed.

The antidote to religion become demonic is the model of power that is the humility of Christ. It is the humility of Christ that is our center and stillness in the chaos of our turning and conversion. It is the humility of Christ that shows us a God willingly wounded in the mystery of the divine kenosis, shown in the Word spoken for us who is both First and Last. “God is most God on the Cross and most Man in the resurrection,” wrote Karl Barth. It is in the cry of dereliction that God is most deeply revealed, for dereliction is God’s experience of God. Even God has to let go God’s ultimate idea of God in the divine kenosis.

It is as if God’s speech is a wound in God, within which the creation comes to be and is cradled. God’s willing woundedness is without hope of healing, as we commonly understand that word—for healing is the sign of finitude. In the Apocalypse, one of the heads of the beast has a mortal wound that is healed, and all follow it in wonder. Of course this does not mean we should not seek healing for our hurts and ills. But too often we use so-called healing to shore up our hyperreality, to reinforce our denial of death.

Mere turning will bring healing, but it is a willing and permanent commitment to conversion, to entering our wounds so that they may be united with Christ’s, that enables transfiguration. In resurrection Christ’s wounds are open. The wound into which Thomas is invited to thrust his hand is not covered over or closed or scarred or fixed up, but open and deep and glorified. The resurrection is the sign and celebration of the transfiguration being wrought by God’s willing woundedness in the crucifixion of the Word.

Monday, June 18, 2007

IV 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]

But what happens when we try to capture the vision, when we turn it into a commodity? One paradigm shift is from spatial thinking to linear thinking. There was a nice illustration of this shift in the New Yorker, except that the author is describing the shift the other way round, from linear to spatial thinking, which is the movement in conversion. Gene is an astronomer:

"In his mind’s eye, Gene holds a peculiar vision of the solar system, and it is not any solar system that I had ever heard of. In schoolbooks, the solar system is pictured as a series of flat concentric circles centered on the sun, each circle representing the orbit of a planet. In Gene’s mind, the solar system is a spheroid: a dynamic, evolving cloud of debris, filigreed with bands and shells of shrapnel, full of bits and pieces of material likely to be pumped into long ellipses and tangles, and wobbling orbits, which carry the drifting projectiles all over the place--minor planets that every once in a while take a hook into a major planet, causing a major explosion." [“Dark Time” by Richard Preston, The New Yorker, October 26, 1987, p. 72.]

To link this shift of persepective with the city/desert image, linear thinking tends to emerge in the city, and spatial thinking tends to emerge in the desert, the simplest reason being the difference in the ways our vision is focused by each environment, just as it is focused differently by the lane between hedgrows, and the open landscape.

The importance of spatial thinking cannot be overemphasized. We recently have shifted from a mechanistic to a contingent view of the universe, and we live in an age when scientists are naming newly-discovered particles “blue” or “strange”. It is ironic that hard science, as opposed to academic theology, has taken the lead in understanding the need to balance spatial thinking and linear thinking; poetry and hard logic. They are not mutually exclusive. And we need to think hard about what new theories, such as so-called chaos mathematics, have to tell us about theological method, for the method we use determines the sort of God with which we end up.

There isn’t any reason we can’t have the desert in the city, that is, that we can’t have spatial thinking as the primary, inarticulate, poetic, subliminal matrix within which linear thinking plays. But everything about the city tells us that it is oh-so-much easier if we just settle for linear thinking, following our noses along tightly logical lines, consuming or rejecting what immediately appears in front of us acording to the limited criteria that it is in front of us, and it makes us feel good or not.

Linear theology leads to such absurdities as so-called natural law that has nothing to do with the way God in fact made the universe. Among other tragedies, this so-called natural law has not only spawned the ecological crisis, it continues to ignore new information from microbiologists about the androgynous, multivalent sexual continuum within which all humans live, and in its denial has condemned a whole segment of the population. The homophobic seem unable to perceive that in addition to condemning people of same-sex orientation, they are also condemning God for making the world according to the divine wisdom instead of according to their pinched human prejudices. It is the pain of this prejudice that has created the AIDS epidemic in Europe and America: in the West, a large measure of blame can be laid right on the doorstep of the churches and their presumptuous claims to know the mind of God. And that Christianity has made us deathly afraid of our bodies almost goes without saying.

But there are even deeper reasons for us to be conscious of spatial and linear thinking. These two kinds of thinking represent two models of power, and each of these models of power leads to maturity or immaturity, salvation or a dead end, love or fear, and to each are tied attitudes that link death and power. For this reason alone—and there are many others—we need to get rid of the terms "spiritual director" and "spiritual direction" once and for all. The nuances of these terms immediately set up a hierarchical model in the unconscious that predisposes the relationship to dominance, co-dependence, and immaturity.

In the hierarchical model of power, linear thinking predominates. While linear thinking is necessary for survival, it is appropriately used only as a handmaid to spatial thinking. Because linear thinking creates a hierarchy of ideas, it is exclusionary and inherently dualistic. Thus, no matter how well-intentioned, linear thinking cannot reflect the God of unity and communion, since in order to process ideas, it must make fluid notions into static objects for the purpose of ranking and grading. By positing God, by turning God into object, it drains both life and engagement from that which it is examining—and God in essence is life-enhancing and in ungrasping relational engagement.

Monday, June 11, 2007

III 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]

The failure to nurture conversion occurs just as often on a one-on-one basis as on an institutional one, and too often so-called spiritual directors assisting someone’s conversion process panic, or grow bored or, worst of all, refuse the necessary suffering-with, and leave the directee floundering, or even in a psychiatric ward. There are experiences of God that mimic psychosis, but they are rare, and we have only to look at poets like Cowper and Christopher Smart to know profound religious sanity, though condemned by society as mad. They had the humilty and wisdom to discern that while God was surely in their often terrifying experiences, their experiences were not God.

With these factors in mind, it is impossible not to be aware that someone intent on profound, permanent and continuing conversion should be prepared for a long and solitary uphill journey, swimming against the current all the way. People willingly undergoing profound transformation scare other people to death, in whatever context they are found, for the need and willingness to change implies failure by society and the system on some level and, “how can one live through this when western culture is geared toward success?”

The people who do persevere in their ordinary, mysterious way, reflect the God whom we know as the inviolable vulnerability of Love who indwells us most particularly as we free-fall into transfiguration, guided only by the coordinates of grace. But having said that, there are still Eco’s observations. There are still the toys called “Transformers”; there is still a disproportionate fascination with technology that fails, technology both material and religious; technology that, given too high a priority, offers us a secular answer to the religious question. We need to remember that religion sometimes can be a help on the way, but is not itself the way.

Conversion has often been illuminated by the symbols of the desert and the city. In the story of Abraham’s journey, indeed, in all of the Bible we see the recurring human temptation to settle for sterile surrogates for God, represented by the city, instead of the fecundity that can arise only from unknowing, represented by the desert. I would like now to try to go beneath these familiar symbols in order to explore some of their foundational notions and illustrate the human experience of turning points, in which occur the most profound experiences of God.

If the responsive equipoise of conversion is in fact the goal without polarity—we should not think of it as a static point—then what are we turning from and what are we turning to? The vision of God which draws us, like God’s promises to Abraham, can be glimpsed only from afar. Each time we think we draw closer, the vision presents a new aspect and context, the mirage that stood between us and it dissolves, and we are left always at a new square one. If, like Abraham, we seek surrogates, to live without paradox, we are tempted to turn aside from the true vision and settle for one seeming aspect of God on to which we clamp as firmly as possible. Having succumbed to this temptation, when we carefully unclench our fingers to peek at what we have caught, we discover we have killed it, or that our hand is empty after all.

This is the story of Sodom, of course, that mordant satire on the idolatry of the great shopping mall at the end of the Dead Sea, the consumer culture that can inculturate religion only as commodity by attempting to grasp an aspect of God. This consumer parable is told in a sexual metaphor with all the resonances of the multiple meanings of the verb to know ranging from wisdom to sexual intercourse and rape, and all the paradoxes that we have seen throughout the Abraham saga of knowing that produces sterile surrogates which must be cast aside for fecund unknowing. We can follow this knowing/unknowing theme right down through pseudo-Denys, Eckhart, and Lady Julian to those who are picking through the smoking ruins of the Enlightenment, trying to figure out what went wrong.

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.