"Before you can search for truth, you must be interested in finding it." -Miroslav Volf

Thursday, December 6, 2012

It's...That...Time of Year: Paper Writing

I don’t have much to say at the moment as most of my mental energy is being poured into final papers. But I wanted to share some gems from Thomas Merton encountered in my research. I’ve been exploring Merton’s engagement with Taoism and Zen Buddhism and his appropriation of each for Christian spirituality.

This is first of three papers in process. I’m also working on a comparative methodological study of Spener (17th German Pietist theologian) and Schleiermacher (18th century German liberal theologian) as well as a comparative ethical study of Luther and Aquinas (more dead guys) applied to contemporary church discipleship/spiritual formation. A nice diversity of topics...a little spirituality, a little theology, a little ethics. Though I think when all is said and done, the Merton paper (which has been the most ambitious and time-consuming) will have been the most fun.

Some Merton gems before I get back to work:

From Thoughts in Solitude on learning and growing:

Living is not thinking. Thought is formed and guided by objective reality outside us. Living is the constant adjustment of thought to life and life to thought in such a way that we are always growing, always experiencing new things in the old and old things in the new. Thus life is always new. (28)

From Thoughts on the East on Zen and a very American problem:

We in the West, living in a tradition of stubborn egocentric practicality and geared entirely for the use and manipulation of everything, always pass from one thing to another, from cause to effect, from the first to the next and to the last and then back to the first. Everything always points to something else, and hence we never stop anywhere because we cannot: as soon as we pause, the escalator teaches the end of the ride and we have to get off and find another one. Nothing is allowed just to be and to mean itself: everything has to mysteriously signify something else. Zen is especially designed to frustrate the mind that thinks in such terms. The Zen “fact,” whatever it may be, always lands across our road like a fallen tree beyond which we cannot pass. (40)

From Thoughts on the East on Tao and (as I interpret Merton) on an appropriate epistemic humility, on control, and on mystery:

If there is a correct answer to the question “What is the Tao?” it is: “I don’t know.”…The whole secret of life lies in the discovery of this Tao which can never be discovered….The world is a sacred vessel which must not be tampered with or grabbed after. To tamper with it is to spoil it, and to grasp it is to lose it. (12)

From The Asian Journal on the value of interfaith dialogue (Merton concerned himself with dialogue about practice more than about doctrine):

I believe that by openness to Buddhism, to Hinduism, and to these great Asian traditions, we stand a wonderful chance of learning more about the potentiality of our own traditions….The combination of the natural techniques and the graces and the other things that have been manifested in Asia, and the Christian liberty of the gospel should bring us all at last to that full and transcendent liberty which is beyond mere cultural differences and mere externals. (xxiv)

Okay, enough quote bombs. Back to work.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Why I Want to be a Vampire

My wife says I have to write about this. So here goes. The context is that we just went and saw the final Twilight movie last weekend…our first trip to the theater since July. Clara has understandably challenged our frequent movie-going lifestyle of the pre-Clara era. Though to be fair, Clara actually does really well in the two movies we’ve taken her to…sleeps through it all.

Okay, I’m not a Twilight fanboy, to clarify. Though I was admittedly looking forward to the final flick of the series. And I enjoyed it. So there it is.

Why I want to be a vampire. There’s a scene in the movie (possible though not probable spoilers ahead) in which Bella, newly “vampired,” is hunting in the woods. Part of her self-discovery of her new abilities includes her realization that she possesses a strong awareness of her surroundings. We the viewer see through her eyes the intricacy and beauty of the nature around her. It is reminiscent of the attentive mind of Annie Dillard but certainly with a far greater perceptiveness than Dillard possesses. After all…Dillard isn’t a vampire, I don’t believe. Just a writer.

There’d be some downsides to being a vampire, for sure. My daughter might be at risk of getting eaten. I think I’d really regret that. I really like Clara. As a daughter, I mean, not as food.

But becoming a vampire—in the lore of Twilight—is a kind of awakening, a baptism, a new awareness. While vampires are in some sense dead (I think, if I understand the mythology correctly, sorry Twilight geeks, forgive my uncertainty), their death is in ways a movement from frailty to strength, from ignorance to awareness. Vampires can more clearly see things as they are. They don’t just see a tree but seem to really understand that it’s more than just a tree.

I wonder if I were immortal like a vampire, and had this heightened awareness of beauty and complexity, of the sacredness of creation, if I might spend my days just learning, watching. I only have so much time in my day, my year, my life, and so much I have to do. I don’t always have time to savor the world around me. I have to produce, be active, make things happen. Right? That's life, isn't it? But if I were a vampire—and thus had long life and strong senses—I’d probably spend my days learning to enjoy, to watch, to see, to delight in the endless beauty screaming out from the created (and still being created) world around me.

That’s why I want to be a vampire. Or, at least start acting more like one...but maybe not in all ways. I tried gelatinous pig’s blood when I lived in China. That was all the blood I think I'll ever need.

Oh, and, for the record, I’m still “Team Charlie.”

Also, here are a couple old pics from July that Joann thought were relevant to the topic. I was trying to play Clara like an electric guitar. That's my rock star face. Although, now I see that it makes me just look, um, "thirsty." Perhaps the transformation has already begun.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Thankfulness (Or, I Drank a Bottle of Wine Yesterday)

Joann and I toasted our glasses before our Thanksgiving meal yesterday (the first turkey I’ve ever cooked...turned out well, if I may so). We actually always practice a “toast of gratitude” before our meals. This is partly because typical pre-meal prayers weren’t working for us anymore, but we didn’t want to complete negate some kind of pre-meal, religious, awareness-producing ritual. Asking God to bless our food and bless whatever else came to mind in that particular prayer seemed to be losing its meaning for us.

While I’m sure there are ways to re-infuse meaning into such a prayer, we have, for this season at least, opted for a toast, raising our glasses (or an applesauce jar and a maple syrup container when we forgot to grab beverages for our breakfast-for-dinner meal earlier this week) while taking turns mentioning something for which we’re grateful. Thanksgiving, and these “prayers” in general, make me want to live with a greater sense of gratitude, and to more frequently pray prayers of thankfulness.

Maybe others have experienced the occasional discomfort I have felt with prayers that by their nature express our discontent with some aspect of the present reality. I’ve prayed that God would relieve some burden, change some circumstance, give me more of this, give me less of that.

Some of my prayers have expressed authentic, heart-felt angst that I believe God cares about. Some of my prayers have revealed my needs to myself, a self-awareness I imagine God values. Some of my prayers have involved wishing change for others, which feels less self-centered. But I realize some of my prayers might also have conveyed to eavesdroppers an image of God as my personal servant, someone to help me out of a tight spot, or even God as a sort of drug, something to diminish the pain of a troubling circumstance.

I confess I'm a bit suspicious of such a view of God, regardless of the level of confidence with which my Christian culture believes that this is what God asks of us…to ask God for things so that God can meet our needs. I do think of God as a kind of comforting, attentive parent, and believe this to be a positive image. Yet I see the potential dangers--maybe an inflated ego, sense of entitlement, disappointment at "unanswered" prayers, among other things--that come with a God to whom we make requests.

What I want more of in my spirituality is gratitude. A heightened awareness of the endless gifts that abound all around me. A gratitude for the people in my life and the unique journey they are on and gifts they possess. Gratitude for my health. For beauty. For the way people can laugh together, comfort one another. For warmth, for coolness. For black and for white and for gray. For clarity and for mystery.

For scents, tastes, sights, sounds, textures. For progress and improvement. For grace in the midst of regression. For supportive people in painful circumstances. For imagination and creativity. For that bird flying in that flock above as I run, as well as every other bird in that same flock, all perhaps initially so simple-looking but actually increasingly complex the more they are examined on the ladder from behavior to biology to chemistry to physics and beyond.

For the gift of life, just as it is, without modification, without a need to wish for better circumstances, with an awareness that the present moment is good and beautiful, and that I need not wish only to be elsewhere, for better or just different times, but can experience deep profound joy and peace just by opening my eyes and looking around.

It is certainly not a new insight for me to point out how humans are often more inclined to use the world than to enjoy it…to see the world as something to be consumed rather than savored. I often eat my meals too fast…a tendency I learned in school growing up, I think, when the faster you ate your food, the more recess time you got. It takes a certain amount of discipline to eat slowly and savor a meal. I desire this discipline to extend beyond just eating to the whole of my life…to live in gratitude for what’s in front of me.

So I guess I do have a more demanding sort of prayer, the kind I semi-critiqued above: that God would remove whatever hinders me from seeing and from savoring that which is all around me...those "gifts" that should leave me in a constant state of gratitude for my existence and for the richness of that existence, just as it is, without any change. I kind of wonder if God isn't often saying to people something like "don't look at me...look around."

Oh, and this:

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Fear of Being Found Out

How harmful to my health is my fear of being found out? I wonder what it would be like if you could quantify the extent to which our fear of being exposed burdens us and drains us (I'm visualizing the scene from The Princess Bride in which future years of Wesley's life are being "sucked away"). This question came to me while running, probably because I was thinking about how while exercise energizes, it also depletes (especially considering I was running up a fairly steep hill at the time).

Emotional/mental stress—in addition to physical—is draining. Pressures like work, family, deadlines, projects, money, conflict, etc all can have the effect of sapping one’s energy, one’s spirit (which of course affects the body as well). I wonder specifically about the fear of being “found out” or revealed. Having the truth of who we are exposed. I think this phenomenon takes different forms in different people, but my assumption is that most people deal with this “stressor” in some way. That is, the stress derived from the fact that who we actually are may not exactly match who we want to be and how we want to be perceived…and that people are going to find out.

Maybe it has to do with appearance, and so we dress a certain way to hide our imperfections. Maybe it’s some kind of awareness, and so we act like we know about something happening in the political or entertainment world, lest we appear out-of-touch. Maybe it’s listening, and so we pretend like we heard someone, for fear that we’ll seem disrespectful and unreliable if they realize we didn’t hear them. Maybe it’s clever conversational maneuvering when we’re obviously wrong, where we try to twist the discussion in a way that makes us think we’re showing the person that we are actually right, just in a different way (“that’s what I meant!” or “I know” or “right, that’s what I was saying when…”).

Maybe this thing, whatever it is—lack of authenticity, insecurity, a need to prove ourselves, the desire to be respected—comes out in the various facets of life. Perhaps we hide our mistakes at work to appear competent and not threaten our livelihood or potential advancement. Perhaps we are fearful in school when a subject is being discussed we know little about that we’re actually behind the curve and thus don’t really have what it takes to be successful. Perhaps we don’t admit our failures in marriage because humility often feels uncomfortable and we don’t want to give someone power over us.

Maybe this thing happens in religious culture, where it seems there could be a lot of pressure to “be” a certain way. You’re not feeling what the pastor tells you that you should be feeling? “Fake it ‘til you make it,” a friend once said, describing his church experience. You’re bearing the weight of “sins” you feel like you can’t admit because even though people tell you it’s safe, you’re worried they’ll judge you and look at you differently, maybe even exclude you. You’re surrounded by a certain way of speaking, praying, a certain level of enthusiasm, a particular personality type, a particular form of self-expression, so you try to adapt to that particular religious culture so as not to seem “behind” and, in so doing, lose that sense of “come as you are,” replaced by “act like you think you’re expected to act.”

It seems there are a lot of instances in life where people feel like they have to in some sense “hide” themselves, because they think what’s there is unattractive, unlikable, inadequate. We may not have what it takes, and we don’t want others to know we don’t have what it takes. We may be embarrassed, and we don’t want to feel those emotions. We may hurt someone, and we don’t want to hurt anybody. We may have to reveal to the world that we’re actually not as smart, attractive, skilled, virtuous, reliable, or competent as we want them to think we are…and that we’re actually very fallible, weak, filled with contradictions, unrefined, unskilled, and limited. And maybe we don’t want to admit that to ourselves or anyone else.

And so many of us (though maybe not you) live in a certain amount of fear, the fear of being exposed. People might find out we really don’t have the waistline our clothes make it seem we do. Or that we lack some basic life skill that for whatever reason we never really picked up. Or that we aren’t really that familiar with that one hip but not yet overly popular band's music. Or that we don’t really understand more than basic, surfacy arguments for why one economic theory is better than the other when we make our pronounced political statements on Facebook. Or that we are severely addicted to some vice we can't give up (and, maybe worse, don't really want to give up). Or that we aren’t really that patient or peaceful of a person even though we can hold it together for a while in public but then start to crack once you’ve hung out with us for a while and gotten to see a fuller picture of our true character. Or that we don't know the answer, or a lot of the answers.

Inauthenticity. Not letting others see the real us. I wonder how much healthier we would be if we didn’t live with this kind of fear. I wonder how much healthier our relationships would be if we didn’t live with this kind of fear. I wonder how much freer we’d be. I wonder what is more damaging to life-long health: smoking cigarettes, eating too much sugar, or hiding.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

How Does Your Spirituality Make You a Better Person?

Does your spirituality (or religion or faith) improve your character? This question comes to mind often in my studies, and I’m intrigued by what others think. But let me first offer some hopefully helpful clarifications.

First, character. What I’m getting at by "character" is the kind of person you are, your virtue, and the effect you have on others. Maybe “sanctification” is a better way to think of it. Maybe holiness. Maybe moral progress. Maybe goodness. Is there anybody you know that you look at and say something akin to “wow, what a really good person.”

I mean thoroughly good, not somebody you also kind of find hypocritical, shallow, doing good things for selfish reasons. Somebody who is, for example, exceptionally patient, gracious, courageous, sacrificial, tactful, creative, organized, joyful, detached, etc. I want to leave open what “good” and “better” mean because I’m not convinced there’s one right answer to that question.

Secondly, there are other benefits to being religious or spiritual that I’m not asking about here. For example, perhaps your faith has “saved” you in a cosmic or spiritual sense, setting you on the path toward eternal bliss and/or peace. That’s awesome! But that’s not really directly (as much as indirectly) about how you are “better” in a way that positively affects others.

You may have found inner peace through your faith, or the fulfillment of a longing, or something to keep you entertained, or a place to belong, etc. Spirituality and religious faith can fulfill all sorts of needs, temporal and eternal. Those are important and central to why we believe and practice what we do. I don’t dismiss them.

But my question here, and maybe a hard one because it potentially involves thinking/talking about how great you are: how has your spirituality specifically improved your character? How has it made you a better person? Answering this question might first mean asking yourself how you construe “goodness” in yourself and others.

If you’d say that this isn’t the point of your spirituality—that the purpose of your spirituality is to humble you and show you how you can’t become better and can only rely on the grace or favor of God—then I guess this might be an irrelevant or odd question for you. Because in that case, spirituality is not really supposed to make you better because spirituality can’t make you better; that’s not its goal. Or maybe you'd admit that there's a place for character formation, but it's not as important as simply living with gratitude for the grace and goodness of God. Maybe that would affect how you'd answer this question.

I welcome feedback. And, if you are more comfortable talking about others than yourself for fear of sounding proud (or for whatever reason), maybe talk about someone you know: how do you think your friend/acquaintance’s spirituality has made them a better human being? What quality/qualities do you/they possess that probably wouldn’t be present in them were it not for their religious/spiritual devotion?

(For example: “I used to be very self-entitled and possessive of my stuff, but my spirituality has enabled me to release control of things and made me a much more generous person, and I feel like people around me experience that generosity. Or, “my friend really took herself too seriously until she found God; now she is much more lighthearted and laughs a lot…her sense of humor and ability to laugh at herself and help others laugh at themselves is a huge blessing to all who know her.” Don’t get too distracted or bound by my format…just trying to generate ideas, ways of articulating a possible response.)

I certainly think spirituality can make you better in a way that benefits others. As a Christian, I believe God desires all to become more fully human, more fully alive, more fully in tune with the divine, and, as a consequence of these things—more goodI just don’t know that people's spirituality always does make them better people. But where it does, I’m eager to know how. What does that “character improvement” look like in your life and the lives of those you know?

My main goal of asking? Curiosity, I guess. I try to be a good student and ask lots of questions. :)

Friday, November 9, 2012

A Hermeneutic of Love

A quick observation of Facebook on Election Night earlier this week revealed that people can be passionate about their point of view. Some very passionate, to the point of either insultingly disparaging the views of others, or being very hardened in their own point of view and covering their ears like a child singing “la la la la” to drown out the sound of others trying to speak.

People can be quite ungracious to others. Arguing for a particular point of view is often preferred to dialogue. Teaching and correcting others' wrong opinions are preferred to listening, seeking understanding, engaging others with curiosity. Not always…but it sure seems a very common tendency.

I’m reminded of NT Wright’s thoughts on possessing a “hermeneutic of love”, which I share below. Wright is more explicity talking about how to read the Bible. But I think it’s pretty evident (and perhaps Wright's implicit meaning) in the passage below that you can substitute “text” with “person” or “political other” or “religious other.”

The principle applies to anything outside of you that might have something to say to you. When I encounter another, I might not be able to hear what such “texts” (people) are saying for a variety of reasons. Close-mindedness. Laziness. Arrogance. An undeveloped virtue of listening. Stubbornness. Assuming I don’t have my own “lenses” that affect how I interpret the world and an inability to use “double-vision” and see something both from my own and another’s vantage points.

Here’s what Wright says, in The New Testament and the People of God. Some of it might seem irrelevant to you, though you may find a few nuggets in there regarding what it means to respect the other, learn from the other, be willing to be changed by encountering the other...

 “In love, at least in the idea of agape as we find it in some parts of the New Testament, the lover affirms the reality and the otherness of the beloved. Love does not seek to collapse the beloved into terms of itself; and even though it may speak of losing itself in the beloved, such a loss always turns out to be a true finding. In the familiar paradox, one becomes fully oneself when losing oneself to another. In the fact of love, in short, both parties are simultaneously affirmed.

When applied to reading texts, this means that the text can be listened to on its own terms, without being reduced to the scale of what the reader can or cannot understand at the moment. If it is puzzling, the good reader will pay it the compliment of struggling to understand it, of living with it and continuing to listen. But however close the reader gets to understanding the text, the reading will still be peculiarly that reader’s reading: the subjective is never lost, nor is it necessary or desirable that it should be.

At this level, ‘love’ will mean ‘attention’: the readiness to let the other be the other, the willingness to grow and change in oneself in relation to the other. When we apply this principle to all three stages of the reading process– the relation of readers to texts, of texts to their authors, and beyond that to the realities they purport to describe– it affirms both that the text does have a particular viewpoint from which every thing is seen, and at the same time that the reader’s reading is not mere ‘neutral observation’.

Second, we can affirm both that the text has a certain life of its own, and that the author had intentions of which we can in principle gain at least some knowledge. Third, we can affirm both that the actions or objects described may well be, in principle, actions and objects in the public world, and that the author was looking at them from a particular, and perhaps distorting, point of view. At each level we need to say both-and, not just either-or.

Each stage of this process becomes a conversation, in which misunderstanding is likely, perhaps even inevitable, but in which, through patient listening, real understanding...is actually possible and to describe it as (a) hermeneutic of love (is) the only sort of theory which will do justice to the complex nature of texts in general, of history in general, and of the gospels in particular. Armed with this, we will be able to face the questions and challenges of reading the New Testament with some hope of making sense of it all.”

N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (London: Augsburg Fortress
Publishers, 1992), 64.

Friday, November 2, 2012

What We Admire in Others

Who do you admire? Who are the exemplars to whom you look to as models, guides? Who embodies the good, holy, right, proper, or most beautiful way of being human...a way of being you strive to replicate with your own life?

If you are a Christian, you might just say Jesus. That’s good. Jesus seems a better model for life then, say, the Kardashians. But are there people you know, maybe friends, acquaintances, co-workers, or people you only know from a distance that you really admire?

And what is it about these people? What qualities do these people possess? I’ve been rather immersed in the work of St. Thomas lately and so am thinking a lot about character, the moral life, the kind of person I am, and how seriously I take spiritual progress toward wellness or wholeness or unity with God or proper functioning (as Thomas might put it). And it seems that guides are essential—people you can look to and mimic.

Thomas also seems to think that some people excel in some virtues more than others; thus, you might admire the patience of a friend and wish you could be patient in the way they are patient, but admire the courage in another. People have varied strengths, according to him. That seems to hold up, mostly, doesn’t it? In my experience people are really excellent in some ways but have their blind spots as well, flaws that are there for whatever reason but don’t necessarily define their character for me because of their strengths in other areas.

So what do you admire most in people? What qualities do you see in others that, perhaps, humble you, convict you, inspire you, make you wish to mimic and embody those same qualities you see in others? A few come to mind for me, though this list is not really comprehensive.

Listening. I admire those who are fully present in conversation, who so easily understand others because they are attentive, and make an effort both bodily and verbally to communicate that understanding back to the speaker. When I am listening to others I often recall the ways I’ve been listened to and seek to give that to others, the gift of being heard...not disrespected, not judged, and not coerced...just heard. I know how meaningful it is to be known, and I love it when that gift is given to me. People that listen well inspire me.

Scholarship. This might not seem a virtue, but if I’m honest, people who are well-learned on subjects I wish to know more about inspire me to read more so that I too can have this wealth of useful knowledge (did somebody just laugh about my choice of “useful”?). Of course, I often have to get over my jealousy and insecurity first, but after that, I can let the hard work of others who’ve relentlessly studied motivate me. Part of it is probably ambition—wanting to advance in my field, career, etc. Part of it is just curiosity, I think; there are seemingly limitless things to know, to learn about, in all facets of human life, from history to science to religion. I just want to know as much of it as I can, because, I think—it makes me happy to know things.

Generosity. I’ve been the recipient of much generosity in my life; from some people who have a lot to give, and some who don’t. Some people are liberal with their possessions, eager to share and benefit others. These people don’t tend to be foolish or wasteful or irresponsible; they know their financial situation but make space in their budget and heart to share. That kind of detachment is admirable, when people see their possessions not as something they are entitled to but have been blessed with as tools to use for the betterment of all, not just themselves. These people inspire me.

Peace. There are some people who just seem unruffled by challenges, even-keel, impervious to the anxiety their circumstances could cause them. They don’t feel threatened by others' opinions and criticisms but welcome them. They don’t lose it when their plans go awry. They respond to everything new and unexpected with grace and poise, seeming to see such things not as annoyances but opportunities. This peace I see in others is attractive, especially when I stop to listen to my own heart and all its anxieties and fears; their peace seems an antidote to my unsettledness. I want it.

Creativity. I love observing and hearing about the unique ideas and projects and creations of others. When someone thinks about something in a way that hasn’t been thought of before. When someone infuses their own unique perspective into whatever they are doing and brings forth something new, profound, distinct. People that are creative inspire me to look at my own interests, personality, abilities, experience and be entrepreneurial or artistic in my own way, bringing forth something new that can make the world, even in a minuscule way, more beautiful, more glorious, more good. I love watching people create.

Compassion. It's a beautiful things to watch someone care so deeply about someone or something else to the point of wanting to do all that is in their power to help. Often these people feel great sorrow for others who suffer in some way. Sometimes when others suffer I don't feel much, maybe because I feel so detached from their situation or caught up in my own life and needs and pursuits. We all have to take care of ourselves, and we're certainly not going to weep for someone we've never met in the same way which we'd weep for, say, our spouse if she/he was suffering. But people that genuinely enter into the pain of others and can so deeply identify with them to the point of being moved to act...these people inspire me to care more, to do more.

These are just some qualities that come to mind, but there are certainly more. I think it’s a good discipline: to stop and think about the people you admire and why you admire them. I imagine this list says a lot about me. Your list, whatever it is, probably says a lot about you as well.

Friday, October 26, 2012

A Child's Self-Discovery

It is a deeply moving thing to watch Clara discover. Discover herself, discover her surroundings.

I’ve watched her not really know she had thumbs and fingers, then gradually discover these appendages could be excellent instruments for self-soothing, so much that I now have to wrestle her hand out of her mouth when I’m switching from one bottle to the next.

I’ve watched her discover how mirrors work; she at times seems to prefer the mirror images of things rather than the real things themselves. (Which I find cute, not some kind of Platonic crisis).

I’ve watched her discover the strength in her legs, from being mostly motionless while lying on me to pushing herself off my hands, seemingly coming close to catapulting herself off of me…as well as discover how to “bounce” in her new “ExerSaucer” and finding great delight in such movements.

I’ve watched her discover how to watch TV; Mama and Daddy have had to begin enforcing TV rules much earlier than anticipated.

I’ve watched her discover smiling, from early on when she only seemed to smile when she farted (can’t blame her) to now smiling interactively, responding to her parents' faces and voices with delight.

I’ve watched her discover how to produce sounds. I don’t think she gets credit yet for actual words, though I can tell she’s mimicking us and trying. Last night she said “ee-uh-oo”, which sounded an awful lot like “I love you.” She knows how to converse, it seems, as we often go back and forth, speaking and listening without interrupting each other.

I’ve watched her discover compassion. I will admit this belief is almost certainly based more on feeling than reason, wishful thinking than science. The other night I had some stomach pain. While Clara was lying on my chest, head down, turned to the side, fairly still but eyes open, I let out a “yelp” of pain. Clara quickly raised her head, and looked me in the eye with the most concerned look on her face, mouth in kind of an O-shape, eyes wide open, head just slightly slanted to the side. My daughter empathized with me.

In the spirit of Julian of Norwich (subject of a paper I'm working on), a theologian who took seriously her own experience as a “text” for her understanding of God, I’m struck by the image of God conveyed in this experience. Julian (in Revelations of Divine Love) had a vision of something very small, and marveled at how something so small could last, endure, not simply fade away. Her conclusion? God made it, God loves it, God cares for it. Julian "saw" something simple, which led her to a profound realization about God's attitude toward creation.

I hear much more about the love of God, the power of God…much less about the joy of God. Yet I watch Clara, and as I consider my joy at my child’s self-discovery, I wonder if this isn’t something like what God experiences, to the nth degree: an unfathomable amount of delight in watching creation “discover” itself.

Trees learning how to dig deep roots. Animals learning how to find food. Humans learning that nine times nine is eighty-one and how to make wine and how to create wind energy and how to kiss each other and how to build web pages.

I imagine rather than simply an impassible, distant God who loves because God’s nature is love, as we often learn in church (which can sound like God is just "bound" to love and has no say in the matter, though I know that's not exactly what is meant)…that God is filled with joy, that God reacts, responds, is engaged with the self-discovery of creation.

If Clara can bring me this much joy, how much more joy does God, who knows Clara better than I do, experience? And think of how many “Claras” God knows?

Thank you Clara. I can see you are going to be one of my best teachers in the coming years.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Christianity: Cultivates Wonder or Stifles It?

The following is an excerpt from a longer correspondence with a friend, a friend who does not consider him/herself to be religious:

“Nonetheless, my parents instilled in me a great wonder for life, love and the universe, as well as a deep respect for the way that individuals interpret and deal with that wonder.” 

I’m curious: can the words “Christianity” or “Christian faith” or “Christian spirituality” be substituted for the first several words of the above quote, altering the sentence to suggest that being a Christian means participation in a project that does these thing: instills wonder for all that humans experience and fosters respect for plurality and the myriad ways people make sense out of what they experience?

It seems like Christianity has the potential to do both—promote and limit wonder. But in which direction are the scales tipped? And not just in terms of potentiality but in actuality?

Does it cultivate wonder? Maybe yes, if your Christian faith humbles you and takes your focus off of yourself, your ambitions and desires...if it turns you outward, towards other things, people, realities outside yourself. Or if in turning inward you are awed by the complexity of your mind and body and the fascinating interdependence and capabilities of the two.

If you believe that the Divine Logos or Wisdom pervades all creation, including every creature, and thus can be found anywhere, working in diverse ways in various individuals, whatever they decide to name it. If you agree with St Augustine (at least on this matter) that “all truth is God’s truth” and welcome new insights from other disciplines, religions, and individuals as things which can deepen and enliven your own faith and understanding.

If believing in an intelligent, creative, and purposeful God awakens you to the creativity, complexity, and beauty in even the most basic material things, animate or inanimate.

If in observing the radical and profound love of Jesus (and what this example suggests about God) you are left dumbfounded, humbled, inspired and heartbroken at the same time. Then, maybe yes.

Does it stifle wonder? Maybe yes, if you start to draw hard conclusions about what is and isn’t God. Or what is and isn’t from God or condoned by God. Or if you discredit the spiritual or profound experiences of others because they’re not identical to what you experience.

If you get stuck in routines or patterns that suggest there is one right way to be a devout or faithful Christian, causing you to become comfortable in your routine and setting you up to react violently when that routine is challenged by something new and different. If your faith experience is too mechanistic, legalistic, formulaic.

If you fear scientific inquiry and discovery as enemies to your faith rather than companions.

If your underlying goal with people you meet who differ from you is to make them more like you, to rally them to your side. If you are not really listening to what someone is truly communicating about themselves because their experience and perspective threaten you or just don't fit your schema, your expectations. Then, maybe yes.

What do you think? Does Christianity, in practice (not just in theory or intention), cultivate or stifle wonder? Or maybe better phrased, has it cultivated or stifled wonder for you (or for your religious peers)? How has it inspired wonder? In what ways has it limited wonder?

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Merton Prayer

I read the prayer below at a recent Christian Spirituality area meeting—a monthly gathering of GTU faculty and students in my field for business and story-telling, essentially.

I read this prayer because sometimes when I pray out loud it just kind of goes on and on, or includes too many “ums” and “justs”, or sounds like I’m creating a mini-sermon for my hearers, or sounds like I’m trying to impress people with the depth and craft of my prayer.

So appropriating someone else’s prayer often seems more fitting, as there are plenty of people who can pray better than I can pray…including Thomas Merton. I also read it because I believe humility, trust, and hope are necessary virtues for my academic peers and I, given the journey we’re on.


Merton: My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope that I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone. (from Thoughts In Solitude)


Perhaps you don’t feel the same level of angst Merton seems to be working through in this prayer, nor the same skepticism about his own ability to know—to know the good and the right. But maybe something here strikes you.

For me, it's a call to honesty with myself and others.

It's a call to humility about my ability to know God’s will (and the need to not wrongly use “God’s will” as a means of power over others...or to deceive myself into a false sense of peace...or to stress myself out looking for that "right" path).

It's a call to be less hard on myself in my failures to be virtuous.

It's a call to consider that the spiritual life might not be about God getting me out of trouble but, rather, suffering alongside with me, helping me endure.

I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Similarity and Difference

It seems fitting, on the 50th anniversary of Vatican II, to talk about sameness and difference, given that council’s reconciliatory aims. It’s a subject that comes up in my mind and heart constantly as I progress through my studies.

This dialectic between similarity and difference is central to interreligious dialogue. Interreligious dialogue is a central academic interest of mine, one key component in what I’m trying to do here at the GTU. And one thing required of me as a scholar, a Christian, and a good human being, is to listen well. Listening well helps navigate between these two poles, helps us understand: how are we the same, and how are we different?

The challenge for me, as I explained to some friends recently, is being ready to hear not what I want to hear but what is actually there. How often does someone speak to you, or do you read something, and then someone must correct you later on because you’ve heard them saying something they did not say? You’ve morphed their words and ideas to fit your scheme, your expectations, your worldview, your grid. Or, you've gone the other direction: you’ve identified them as completely “other” and assumed no compatibility between what you and they are saying.

This happens to me occasionally. I once told an acquaintance that I thought universal salvation (reconciliation) was a compelling perspective—the possibility that all will by persuasion or by choice—be reconciled to God. She responded by saying that she totally agreed with me...that Jesus made salvation universally available, so that all could receive it, not just some. She thought we were talking about the same thing, no real difference. I would strongly disagree with that conclusion.

But I’ll admit my tendency is to emphasize similarity. And here’s why: I’m pained by any hints of exclusion and condemnation of the other. When I see walls, boundaries, lines in the sand, I can become uncomfortable. That’s not to say I don’t value definition; being able to name what something is or is not is important. But often those outside of our walls are then seen as lost, foolish, maybe even on the path to hell.

So emphasizing what we have in common seems like the solution to hate and wars. To show people how we really all worship the same God and have the same needs and same dreams and same common humanity seems the loving, noble, godly thing to do. And in some ways—we are the same.

But doing this—emphasizing our similarity—can mean dishonoring what someone else is saying. It can mean not truly listening. And it’s not even just about a Muslim and a Christian comparing their Gods. What do we Christians even mean when we say God? I would argue that even among some of my Christian friends, we have different conceptions of what God is like, how God works, what God wants from us and for us. Often when we talk about God with our religious peers, we nod our head in agreement because we’re talking about the same God, so we think.

And I think we are, to an extent. But I think there’s a richness to be uncovered in taking the time to actually explore and try to really hear what people are talking about when they say God. Because we’ve all had different experiences, some traumatic. Our images of God vary. We use common language at times, but even our language is loaded and assumptions are made about what people mean when they use a given religious word or descriptor.

So when Christians and Muslims talk about God, they are likely conceiving of something quite different in their minds. But when an Episcopalian and an Evangelical and a Catholic and a Charismatic talk about God, they have differing conceptions too.

Yet…the problem for me comes when we then make greater judgments than are appropriate given this difference: when, for example, we belittle the belief and lived practice of faith of a Muslim, when we write it off as simply wrong or destructive. Or, when we do this same thing to our Christian neighbors of other denominations.

Emphasizing sameness can be dishonest and can close us off to being challenged and stretched (though discovering our common humanity can be profoundly challenging too). We might think that our beliefs and practices are just fine, thank you, and need no adjustment. We can fail to take someone else seriously and see his or her uniqueness. We can fail to understand ourselves and what we really believe. And we can miss out on the beauty of our diverse stories that all add something to our shared human picture of the divine.

But emphasizing difference can lead to hate, disrespect, exclusion, arrogance, can close us off, and can be harmful to those outside of religious communities who may not care much about religion and spirituality and faith but still suffer the consequences of warring religions (and denominations) who don’t know how to be at peace with one another.

So it’s a tension, a dialectic, a two-way street in which similarity and difference must both be held up as important. There’s also not always an easy answer, I’d say. But it doesn’t make me anxious. Why? Because the cornucopia of spiritualities in our world can be seen, if you want it to be seen, as something that is not evil and in need of fixing, but something beautiful that invites us to explore, to discover…to learn.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Parenting as Sacrament

Being a new parent has opened up new possibilities for discovery of God and humanity and truth and love.

I share here a passage from one of my class readings this week which I found thought-provoking. It explores the sacramentality of parenting. By "sacrament" I mean something visible and tangible that is a means or sign of God's "invisible" presence and grace. I thought other parents might appreciate this as they journey through the riches and challenges of parenthood (or reflect back on them).

"If we see children as gifts to the human community and not simply to their genetic or "social" parents, parenting arguably brings human beings close to a sense of divine grace and generosity...

...For every human person should receive at their most helpless the long-term nurture and protection they need not merely to enable them to survive, but, most promisingly, to flourish, and they should receive it from all adults, both male and female, in equitable relationships sharing the demands made by the young. They arouse in their parents the affections central to human well-being, and learn receptivity and intradependence as in the divine-human inter-relationships we explore via the notion of sacramentality...

...This has nothing to do with being unrealistic about the young, or about the traumas of relationship with their parents that may occur. The young can be insatiably demanding, smelly, spotty, runny-nosed, crying, cross and sleepless, willful and argumentative and impossible to please...

...However exasperating children are at times, however, if healthy they may be spontaneous, eager and curious, enjoying play of all kinds, imitating, singing, dancing, making things for sheer pleasure--the sort of habits that may develop into...many kinds of creativity...

...They are capable of eliciting the best from those around them, not least by way of time and attention, and sometimes their very presence can help relieve conflict, for it is in care for them that adults learn to soothe distress and anger, ask for help, help the helpless and show kindness, as well as to develop the patience which results in genuine respect for and tolerance of others...

...What we know of the attitude of Christ to the young indicates his willingness to be identified with them in their "littleness", given the way in which they and their interests are so readily overlooked...

...They continuously represent before us vitally important characteristics of adult life and of life in engagement with God. For the care of the young requires those most fundamental acts of washing and feeding without which no child can survive, transformed as they are into the specific sacraments of baptism and Eucharist; and the constant "letting go" of mistakes that makes it possible to continue life with one another and to open up the human future, which the young bear with them as they edge toward maturity...

...So much is shared with them before either we or they quite know what we are doing, which says much too for our relationship with God."


Ann Loades, "Sacramentality," in The Blackwell Companion to Christian Spirituality, ed. Author Holder  (West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 259-60.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

The Breath of Nature

I'm drinking my coffee, listening to the sound of the bridge traffic outside my window this morning. I'm surprised by the fact that I enjoy the sound. If it were simply engines and horns (and curses) that might be different, but given my distance--maybe a mile as the crow flies--from the source of the sound, it all blends together into a gentle roar that is actually rather calming.

It reminded me of a piece I read a few months ago by Chuang Tzu, a Taoist sage, which I share below. This is a translation by my "friend and teacher" Thomas Merton.

I love the ending and lack of resolution of this piece. Speaking about and naming God can at times be important and helpful: for clarity, understanding, direction. We need definitions...definitely. But there is a place for the mystery and indefinability of God too.

As church history has taught me, definitions can be limiting, stifling, excluding. But lack of definition and mystery seem to open up possibilities for where God can be experienced, maybe push us to seek God out more fervently rather than slide into complacency.

I read this and am reminded to not simply look up with eyes open, nor look down with eyes closed, but to look around...attentive, ready, eager to discover with all the senses the Unfathomable Other, who is not simply big and distant but small and near.


"The Breath of Nature"

When great Nature sighs, we hear the winds
Which, noiseless in themselves,
Awaken voices from other beings,
Blowing on them.
From every opening
Loud voices sound. Have you not heard
The rush of tones?

There stands the overhanging wood
On the steep mountain:
Old trees with holes and cracks
Like snouts, maws, and ears,
Like beam-sockets, like goblets,
Grooves in the wood, hollows full of water:
You hear mooing and roaring, whistling,
Shouts of command, grumblings,
Deep drones, sad flutes.
One call awakens another in dialogue.
Gentle winds sing timidly,
Strong ones blast on without restraint.
Then the wind dies down. The openings
Empty out their last sound.
Have you not observed how all then trembles and subsides?

Yu replied: I understand:
The music of earth sings through a thousand holes.
The music of man is made on flutes and instruments.
What makes the music of heaven?

Master Ki said:
Something is blowing on a thousand different holes.
Some power stands behind all this and makes the sound die down.
What is this power?


Thomas Merton, The Way of Chuang Tzu (New York: New Directions Publishing, 2010), 38-39.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Origins of Joannica (or, I’m an Idiot)

My strong, kind, beautiful, thoughtful, gracious wife of two plus years turned thirty today. But in the Boswell family, we don’t celebrate just one day in honor of Joann’s birth and life—we celebrate eight. It’s a tradition that spans beyond the first year we were dating, 2009. It goes all the way back to college, to the beginning of our sophomore year at George Fox, 2002.

But before we go back, two things must be pointed out. One, “Joannica” requires (by my own ordinance) that I give Joann a gift for both her actual birthday as well as the subsequent seven days. A “gift” can mean anything thoughtful, intentional, sacrificial—tangible or intangible. The point is, Joann should be made to feel special.

Two, we are happily married with a beautiful daughter. Our story has a happy ending. Whatever foolish things I did in the past, you should at least keep in mind that, hey, it worked out okay. Thanks Joann, for letting it “work out” okay.

So the story of origins. Joann and I were good friends freshman year. We lived near each other and spent a decent amount of time together. We even went to spring formal together, which I honestly don’t remember much about. I’m sure we had fun.

We didn’t really stay in touch that summer, as I was off working at Mission Springs, a youth camp in the Santa Cruz area (Joann was working at a lumber mill in Roseburg). I returned to school my sophomore year working as a Resident Assistant, my mind and time occupied with new faces and activities and friends.

At some point when my new freshman residents were moving in, Joann stopped by my dorm to say hi, after months of not seeing each other. She had apparently had me on her mind all summer. My response the moment I saw her? “Oh, Joann, hi! It's so good to see you! I forgot all about you!”


So that was late August. Now fast forward a month. At some point during the month of September, I had gone to Hollywood video and set up an account. On that account I was able to add five friends; on the birthday of each of these friends, I could get a free video rental. I thought of the five birthdays I could remember; one that came to mind was my old buddy Joann’s—September 30th. So I added her.

A couple weeks later, I went to Hollywood video with some of my friends/residents. I realized when I went to pay—it’s Joann’s birthday! I can get a free rental! So I did…I got a movie for free. What I did not do was call Joann or acknowledge to her in any way that I was aware it was her birthday.

The next day, one of my residents (Troy maybe?) saw Joann and wished her a happy birthday. She didn't know him and asked how he knew it was her birthday. He explained that I had rented a movie (Moulin Rouge?) that several of us had watched...thanks to her. She of course was very aware that I did not contact her at all on her birthday. But I got a free movie because it was her birthday.


The next day, Joann confronted me, lightheartedly and sweetly but with of course a hint of disappointment. Actually, I think she said something like "you rented a movie on my birthday and didn't invite me?!" I shamefully apologized and “repented," making it up to her by initiating “Joannica,” an extended birthday celebration in which she would get eight days of thoughtful acknowledgment, with some sort of “gift” given each day.

So I'd forgotten that she existed, but remembered her birthday. She was baffled, I think. Rightly so.

And the moral of the story is…don’t be stupid.

And the other point of this retelling? To say thank you Joann…you are so precious to me, and I’ve been a buffoon at various times along the way. Thanks for not giving up on me, despite my many faults, both past and present. Thank you for your grace. I love you.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

What Does Your Library Say About You?

I think the books on your shelf say something substantial about you. The authors I've read were not chosen at random. Typically I latch onto something in an author; something about their message, their style, the challenge they pose, or the imaginative way they pose it speaks to me and hooks me.

As a lot of what I read is non-fiction, I find myself becoming a student of these people I've never met, opening myself to their ideas. And the various works of different authors tend to have some similarities, I find. Maybe a common way of seeing the world or a common agenda in their writing.

I think if you looked at my shelves, you could make some at least tentative conclusions about me. Not just about my present interests, but about my journey. Some of my books I read a long time ago and don’t feel they are really reflective of my thought and life now. Other books I'd very closely identify with as being good representations of where I'm at today.

I was curious about this, so I counted. Listed below are the fifteen authors most represented on my shelves, and the number of books I own by each. And, to clarify if it’s not clear: this is NOT a ranking of my favorite authors, but of who is on my shelf. In my case at least, there's a difference. 
  • CS Lewis (18)
  • Bill Watterson (12)
  • Henri Nouwen (9)
  • JRR Tolkien (8)
  • Lesslie Newbigin (7)
  • Frederick Buechner (7)
  • Stanley Hauerwas (7)
  • Thomas Merton (7)
  • Brian McLaren (7)
  • John Eldridge (5)
  • Donald Miller (5)
  • Miroslav Volf (5)
  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer (4)
  • NT Wright (4)
  • Jurgen Moltmann (3)

Now, I could definitely draw some conclusions about the presence and number of some of these books, but I’ll leave it up to your imaginative speculation as to 1) why each of these authors are so well-represented in my library, 2) what seasons of life I was in that led me to their material, 3) what particular topics/ideas/goals are characteristic of each 4) who I’d say today is most like a mentor to me or who I’d most closely identify with, and 5) who I’d most distance myself from now.

But more importantly, how about you? Look at the books you own…is there one author more represented on your shelves than others? Would you call this author (or authors) a “mentor” to you because of how his or her writing has shaped you?

And, how do you choose the authors you read? Do they challenge you to think differently and creatively or simply reaffirm you in what you already think? Are you embarrassed by your possession of certain authors/books? Do you feel deficient in some areas (e.g., too much non-fiction, too many male authors, too much about one particular topic and not enough about others)?

One thing I've learned today: I'm long overdue to dive into some of my 19th century Russian fiction.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Clara and I Talk About My Studies (In Pictures)

Sometimes when I've been studying all day, I find it helpful to bounce some ideas off of Clara, just to help me process some different ideas floating around in my head. She's a good listener, as her faces show...

Me: Clara, can I talk to you for a while? I want to talk to you about eudaimonia.

Me: Hey, come on, are you looking at Mama to "rescue" you from me?

Me: Man, Clara, I am SO done with Augustine for a while. And the thing is, I'm not done.

Me: Did you know that menstruating women used to be excluded from church gatherings?

Me: So someone suggested that the gathering of loaves and fishes is allegorical of what God does with the scattered particles of our long-dead bodies at the final resurrection.

Me: Speaking of fish, maybe Jonah reveals to us our aversion to diversity and our discomfort with the fact that God loves those "others."

Me: I cheated on my margins yesterday. I made them 0.8 inches instead of 1.0.

Me: Hey, look Clara, my finger.

Me: And another thing, what's the deal with St Jerome? Am I right?

Me: Clara, I'm getting the impression you're kind of done with this conversation. Are you pretending to be sleeping? Come on, I can see that your eyes are open.

Clara is the best conversation partner.

Friday, September 21, 2012

The Drive to School

I’m walking to my car. The air is so fresh out here.

I’m pulling out of my parking space…glad I didn’t have to park in my garage, as it’s kind of small. But if I moved stuff around and condensed a bit, there might be more space.

I’m going over the four speed bumps. I really hate speed bumps. Maybe I should check mail. The mail probably hasn’t come yet. I don’t know when the mail comes. I should figure out when the mail comes so I don't keep wondering every day.

There’s the bus stop. I took the bus to school once. I should do it again. It is cheaper to just drive.

I’m driving down the hill to the highway. The sun is blinding. Oh wow, I need to wash this car…I can’t see out the window very well. I hope everyone is doing what they’re supposed to be doing. An erratic move, like a dog running out into the road, right at this moment, might end poorly.

Ugh. Skunk again. My landlord wasn't kidding when she called this place “skunk hill.” The one downside about living here. Though I have seen a few skunks around here; they’re actually quite beautiful.

That person ran the stop sign. I don’t know if he realized there was a stop sign there, or if he just doesn’t care. I wonder—if it was guaranteed there would be no punishment, no legal/financial consequences—if I would run stop signs more often.

Death Cab still, eh? “Monday Morning.” I suspected maybe this song was written by Ben about Zooey, and I looked it up and was right. So sad they broke up. I wonder why? Who left who? Wow, I’m so glad people aren't sitting around in their cars speculating about my personal life.

Getting on the freeway. This traffic isn’t so bad. People are doing what they’re supposed to do, working as one, an efficient network, employing the "zipper principle" and very aware of their surroundings. Good work today, drivers. Oh s*** there’s the exit to I-80. Sorry! Sorry, driver, I know, I’m stupid, sorry! Thank you, sorry!

Going over the toll bridge…glad I don’t have to pay the toll driving in to school but only driving home. $5.00 every time. There’s tolls everywhere down here. And so many different toll takers! I’m not totally sure I’ve even seen the same person twice, yet, in all my trips. Lots of jobs I guess.

There’s Pinole…maybe I’ll stop there at Trader Joes on the way home. Two-buck-chuck is really $2.00 there, not $2.50 like in the NW! Nice work, California. I may have to stop there anyway to buy something to get some cash back for the toll bridge. It’s silly they don’t take cards. They probably want you to get a Fastrak pass, to help the flow of cars. Smart. Obnoxious, but smart.

There’s Richmond. People told me not to live there because it was dangerous. That’s probably unfair as a generalization, but I’m sure there are some dangerous parts that I…ahh…oh great. Here's the traffic...I knew the quick commute wouldn't last forever. This is where it always gets bad. Ugh. Traffic is stupid. I don’t understand traffic. If everybody did their part and did it well and worked together, we’d have highway harmony. Wouldn't we? Oh boy…Plato’s notions of justice are creeping into my everyday life.

Now listening to a podcast. Rachel just said “vagina” a few times. Apparently she had some problems with Christian publishers or bookstores or something  who wouldn’t publish/carry her book—a book about the Bible—because she used the word vagina in it. But they don’t mind the use of “penis” or “testicles.” Wow. That says something about something. Oh wait, I’m still a little sheepish about saying the v-word. Huh. Maybe I've got a ways to come, too. And, wow, these guys interviewing her, though I’m sure they’re very intelligent, are coming across a bit like horny little schoolboys. I feel awkward for her, though she’s bantering well enough.

Oh, there’s that one hill. I’m almost to my exit. Nice, my coffee is still hot…this is a good travel mug. It keeps my coffee hot for a long time. Though my coffee has lost its freshness. Nothing like that first sip in my office at home. Back then I enjoyed the coffee for its beauty, it’s magnificent embodiment of “coffee-ness.” Ok, need to stop doing that. Anyway, now the coffee is comforting me, feeding my addiction, more than delighting me. Glad it’s hot. Oh, come on! Really? On my hand? I didn’t tighten the lid well enough.

Ah, there it is, the bay. So beautiful. I can see the Bay Bridge, San Fran, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the water below. So gorgeous. For all its faults—tolls and traffic and high costs come to mind—this is a beautiful area. Wow. The water’s so blue today because there’s no fog. Wow. Sublime.

Shoot, here comes my exit, gotta get over. And, merge. And…merge. And…ok, fine go ahead, I’ll go after you, and…merge. One more!? I always forget how big the highway gets here…and…wait for it…merge. Man, I’m getting this California driving thing down. I think people expect you to be bold, and don’t get as upset with you when you merge ahead of them, because that’s just how it works. I’m apologizing less and  merging more courageously these days. Hmm. Maybe I take back what I said about drivers not getting upset, because I blocked a guy who sas cruising yesterday and he got upset. Hopefully I slowed him down and prevented him from an accident. Yeah, I probably saved his life by cutting him off. I'm a hero.

Gilman St exit. There are more stop signs if I go this way than if I took my smart phone’s suggested route, University St exit. But less traffic, I assume. Oh, this is annoying though…the road is two lanes each way, but the left lane has all of these left turns, meaning people stop and hold up traffic waiting to turn. Poor people though…that guy’s probably been waiting to turn for a while.

Jimmy Bean’s coffee. I should go there some time. Toot Sweets…that sounds good too. So many interesting places to check out in this city. Bagels! Actually that doesn’t sound all that enticing, I don’t know why I just got so excited about bagels.

Oh wow…Fall is here…I love this stretch of trees. Every time I’ve driven in to school over the last few weeks, these trees have been slightly more diverse in their coloring, with more reds and oranges and yellows overtaking the green. So beautiful! Such a fun way, totally removed from my calendar or schedule, to watch the time pass.

Can’t believe it’s already late September. Can’t believe Clara’s as big as she is, though I know some wouldn’t call her big. What a lesson in savoring. I can feel myself already missing earlier stages of her life, though I’m glad she’s growing. People are probably right when they say children grow up fast. No, they're not right. Children grow up at the speed they grow up; it's not fast or slow. What a silly thing to say.

Pedestrian crossing a crosswalk. That last driver didn’t stop for him…the pedestrian is visibly annoyed, surely judging the driver for his or her lack of road etiquette. You are holding us up, pedestrian. Though you do have the right-away, and appear to be walking to the transit center. I applaud your ecological concern.

Just as expected, there are a few open spots…it’s two hour parking, so I have to come back and move my car during a class break, but it’s free at least. I’ve seen the parking police chalk my tires, so I know they’ll catch me and ticket me if I don’t move my car. It seems silly…just moving it to another spot a block away. Whatever.

Locked. I think it’s locked, I didn’t hear the reassuring beep that lets my know my car is locked. Ah, there’s the beep. Now I'm sure it’s locked. Wait, are all my valuables hidden? Yes. Well, my banana chips aren't. If someone's hungry and sees my banana chips sitting there they might break into my car. Fine...I don't really like them that much. But I do like my windows being intact. Perhaps I should hide the banana chips.

Now up the hill to class! Nice drive this morning.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

God is Not a Tuna Melt

God is a not a tuna melt. God is good. Which of these statements is truer?

In fancy-pants terms, one statement reflects an approach called "apophatic theology" and the other "kataphatic theology." In other words, speaking about God by negative or positive affirmation: what God is not and what God is. Many Christian theologians seem to have had their “pet topics” or some kind of major theme in their work for which they are remembered. Pseudo-Dionysius is one such early theologian (5th-6th century); he explored this dialectic between negative and positive speech in talking about God.

While Pseudo-Dionysius saw the value in talking about God positively—actually saying something substantial about God—he also seemed to realize the inadequacy of words to really capture the divine. Thus, to say God is love, for example, is to describe God in human terms with our limited conceptions of what love really is. For P-D, God is beyond description and the more we really discover God the more speechless we become. To say God is "goodness" diminishes who God is because our notions of goodness are so finite, so small.

P-D seemed more at home talking about what God isn’t. For example, God is not a tuna melt. It’s hard to disagree with that, right? Or, God is not hate. Most of us would agree with that, at least in theory. Though if you think actions are the truest indicator of what people actually believe and then consider the amount of hate—or if “hate” is too harsh a word then harm, exclusion, condemnation, or disrespect—that some religious people seem to possess...perhaps such a person wouldn’t really affirm that God is not hate.

Somewhere I heard apophatic theology compared to sculpting. You might consider that, in looking at a stone block, there is something profoundly beautiful underneath it all, inside. But to see the thing of beauty, you must first carve away everything that is not the thing of beauty.

I mention this concept not just as to highlight its novelty, as if this is just a “fun” but ultimately invaluable exercise in playing with words. I think the striking message from P-D is humility. Specifically, humility in our expressions of belief, our assertions about God and God’s will. I do believe God wants to be known, and that trying to describe God is a good thing. Saying God is not a tuna melt doesn’t tell us much (though I won’t confirm or deny sightings of Jesus in grilled cheese sandwiches).

But there’s something to be said about describing God with reverence, knowing our words are inadequate and that who God is may not be graspable and where God can and can't be found is not always obvious. I'm not suggesting we don't try to talk about God; just that we talk about God with a keen awareness of our smallness.

And in the same way, there’s something to be said about how we describe what we think God is doing or what God wants. Maybe you have encountered someone who has claimed God’s will on a particular matter, and maybe you’ve been suspicious. Well, maybe you shouldn’t be suspicious, because maybe they know what they’ve experienced and you don’t.

Or maybe you should be suspicious, because sometimes I suspect people are anxious about and uncomfortable with not knowing, with not being in control of their lives or a situation, and so decide to validate their experience by assuming a certain flutter of emotion is God’s voice or that a certain “sign” signifies the direction of God.

I believe a lot of people who claim to know God's will are on to something and should act with a certain confidence on such intuitions; I also believe a lot of people who claim to know God's will are deceiving themselves (or others). "God's will" can too easily be used as a weapon rather than a source of peace.

Talking positively about and seeking to describe God helps us communicate with each other, helps us explore the divine nature, helps us figure out what we are to do and how we are to be. That’s all important. But there’s a place for doing it all with a deep humility…maybe even a readiness to be surprised.

So God is not a tuna melt. Good. I think I've just inched closer to a fuller understanding of the divine.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Some Monday Morning Origen

Origen, one of the early church fathers, is a fascinating figure to me. As is that of which he is a reminder—the notion of orthodoxy, of mainstream faith, a faith that has throughout history sought pretty clear boundaries as to what is normative, what is acceptable belief and practice.

Origen was a prolific writer and important theologian in the early days of our Christian existence. In recently reading On First Principles, I can understand the praise for him and the novelty of what he was doing. He wrote before some of the major church councils that sought to define the boundaries of orthodox belief. And...these councils did not look favorably upon him.

Why? Generally speaking, because humans are finite. The plethora of denominations (and religions) is a testament to this. No matter how much we may believe in God’s self-revelation to us, even if we can point to an event, as Christians do—God incarnate in the man Jesus—we are still guessing in many ways at how to think about these revelations, what to do with them, how to articulate their reality with the right language that will most capture the essence of the truth. We err. We are fallible. We try to express realities we don't fully understand. That’s human life.

But specifically, why didn’t the councils like him? After all, he appears to have had a very high view of Scripture, recognizing God (more than humans) as the author of the Bible. He produced a lot of commentaries and sermons on the Bible, obviously doing a lot of good for the Church. He, like John the Gospel writer, connected Jesus with the Logos, the divine wisdom of God.

It seems the two big strikes against him that got him pooh-poohed by the Church were a belief in the pre-existence of souls and in universal reconciliation. As I understand it, Origen believed that there was a divine host of beings, some of which were naughty in some way. The ones who were really naughty God made into demons, the ones who were only a little naughty God made into angels, and the middle-of-the-road souls—humans. So…that’s obviously not mainstream.

As for universal reconciliation—the notion that God’s salvation is effectual for all people, including even the devil according to Origen—that’s a fascinating topic for another day. Suffice it to say, such a belief is not mainstream and never really has been, though theologians throughout Christian history on the fringes have explored it.

But of most interest to me today is the way Origen dealt with Christ’s humanity and divinity. This has always been a challenge for Christians. Emphasizing Jesus’ humanity over his divinity can feel belittling to Jesus' greatness and glory and perhaps feel like a threat to the efficacy of his salvific mission.

But emphasizing Jesus’ divinity can make him feel a bit inaccessible, as if his commands to follow him were absurd in their unrepeatability (in which case many seem to assume Jesus was trying to humble us so we’d see our need for him). Many people just say "both" and call it good...they just declare "mystery." Mystery...bleh. (Wink.)

Here’s a nugget from Origen:

“Christ so chose to love righteousness as to cling to it unchangeably and inseparably in accordance with the immensity of its love; the result being that by firmness of purpose, immensity of affection, and an inextinguishable warmth of love all susceptibility to change or alteration was destroyed, and what formerly depended upon the will was by the influence of long custom changed into nature. Thus we must believe that there did exist in Christ a human and rational soul, and yet not suppose that it had any susceptibility to or possibility of sin.” (from On First Principles, Book 2)

I’m not totally sure I exactly understand Origen’s Christology (did Jesus learn how to not sin while being human?). Regardless, Origen’s understanding of the process of becoming incapable of sin—reminiscent of Plato’s (among others) understanding of virtue and the “altering” of will through training and practice—is so beautifully expressed here.

Clinging to righteousness. Firmness of purpose. Immensity of affection. Inextinguishable warmth of love. The message I’ve repeatedly received in my Christian faith has been, to oversimplify, don’t bother trying to be good because you’ll fail, instead, think about how good God is and that God still accepts you. This basic assumption has, while honoring the greatness of God in comparison to the baseness of humans, I think hindered the pursuit of living like Christ (or made it an afterthought).

And I’m not even thinking about salvation or earning God’s love; I’m thinking about freedom. Imagine not feeling anxious, not feeling cowardly, not feeling petty, not feeling reactive, not feeling vengeful, not feeling spiteful, not feeling jealous, not feeling insecure. And imagine not acting in the ways you’ve probably acted because of all these underlying instincts and feelings to which you may feel bound, imprisoned. Doesn’t a life like that, free of all these hindrances and bondages, sound…liberating?

It does to me, and this desire for that kind of freedom, for myself and others, has partly influenced why I’m here in Berkeley...and influences my spiritual life as well. I don’t expect to turn into Jesus. And I don’t think Origen is without flaws; I’m not holding him up here as authoritative, but only as a helpful voice. But I think it’s worth considering Origen's understanding of Christ's humanity as a model for a life of freedom and goodness.

I want to "fall at Jesus' feet" in worship and humility; but I also want to try to put my feet where he put his, walking his way—with God’s help—perhaps even slightly more than I think I am capable of doing, so that perhaps my efforts might eventually become more natural, enabling me to live a life that is more free and more beneficial to the world around me.

And I also want to talk to God about why I'm not an angel; I'm kind of miffed about that. :)