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

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. :)

Friday, September 14, 2012

Spirituality: A Working Definition

In response to the question I posed a couple of days ago, here’s something I’ve come up with. I am heavily indebted to Sandra Schneiders' understanding of spirituality; she is one of the important figures in the study of Christian spirituality (and a professor emeritus at my school). And she's much smarter than me.

I’ll start with her definition: “Spirituality is…the experience of conscious involvement in the project of life-integration through self-transcendence toward the horizon of ultimate value one perceives.”[1] I like this a lot. To unpack a bit, if that seems a little puzzling…

Spirituality is conscious. Authentic spirituality is not accidental, but a result of a choice and will. One practices spiritually intentionally in response to some particular motivation.

Spirituality involves life-integration. Spirituality understood as merely a private, inward experience is incomplete. Rather, spirituality is holistic and thus includes one’s relationship to others, to work, to play, to society, to the earth.

Spirituality is self-transcendent. Spirituality takes people beyond merely self-centered interests to concern for things outside of oneself. A spiritual person is caught up in something more significant and far-reaching than his or herself.

Spirituality is directed toward a horizon. Spirituality aims toward something, with a compelling goal drawing one toward itself while informing the journey along the way, where the destination need not be reachable but nonetheless pulls us toward it.

Spirituality is shaped by our ultimate values. Whether this reality is God or something else, spirituality is shaped by that about which we care most deeply and understand to be of greatest importance

Another way of putting Schneiders' definition (which is not really that different conceptually but only linguistically) is that spirituality is the intentional ordering of life through practices, applied holistically and informed by a truth or ultimate reality toward which one is oriented. 

At this point, I’m not so sure that defining spirituality is really about uncovering the universal, exact definition that completely captures the essence of what spirituality is. I think there’s room for opinion. So what do you think? You may feel that this definition is lacking…but how so? For example:
  • Do you disagree that spirituality is conscious? Can you be "doing" spirituality or "being" spiritual without trying or knowing?
  • Can spirituality just be private, about your inward life, or must it also encompass the whole of your life and activities and relationships?
  • Can you be spiritual and not concerned with something beyond yourself? Do you need a goal?
  • For it to be spirituality, must it be shaped by our greatest value(s)?
  • Can true spirituality be defined without mentioning Jesus or the Holy Spirit?
I'd also add that studying spirituality is distinct from studying theology, differing in that it is more about the lived experience of the individual, whereas theology tends to emphasize underlying beliefs. Spirituality is heavily informed by theology but tends to use individual experience as the starting point.

Part of the goal of defining what spirituality is involves knowing what I’m studying, for one. But the goal is also to uncover what authentic spirituality is and to be able to eliminate what it is not. For example, I don't think spirituality is solely about the interior life or belief in God. It's not just mysticism, works-righteousness, something monks do, new age thought, meditation, religious enthusiasm, and so on.

In getting closer to understanding what it is, I think I can then better encourage others and discover myself what it means to live out the fullest experience of being human. Because I think that’s a key goal in the spiritual journey: not simply becoming more spiritual but becoming more human.

[1] Sandra Schneiders, “Approaches to the Study of Christian Spirituality,” in The Blackwell Companion to Christian Spirituality, ed. Arthur Holder (West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 16.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

What is Spirituality?

The name of my area of study at GTU is "Christian Spirituality." This is actually a rare program, and GTU and its scholars have received a lot of recognition for advancing the field of Christian Spirituality. This is a focused study, yet because the topic is inherently interdisciplinary, it is allowing and will allow me to explore a number of different topics in theology, interreligious dialogue, the sciences, and the lived experience and practice of Christians.

But part of the learning process for myself and other new students is understanding what "the field" actually is. And a component of this is understanding what is meant by the term spirituality. One of my first assignments was to write a definition of "spirituality", informed by a variety of assigned pieces by scholars in the field with some overlap but some nuance in their definitions.

Which leads me to my question: what do you think spirituality is? Like a recent query I posted here, I'm interested in your responses, unless you really like a particular author's version of it (e.g., you love the way Rick Warren or Richard Rohr articulates it). I'd rather, at least for the moment, not share my answer, so as not to influence any responses. I'm not looking for the right answer, just your actual impressions. You could respond (or just think about) any of the following questions:

  • What is spirituality?
  • Is spirituality a good thing? Why or why not?
  • Are you engaged in spirituality? (i.e, are you "spiritual"?)
  • What is it that demonstrates you are spiritual or not spiritual? (i.e, how do you know you are spiritual or not?)
  • Some people talk about being "spiritual but not religious." What do you think of that phrase? Is it true for you?

Monday, September 10, 2012

The Lost Virtue of our Era

The following was penned by the amazingly brilliant and inspiring Joan Chittister...a text with which I’ve begun my morning, along with a slice of homemade pumpkin bread and Mark Johnson’s home-roasted coffee.

On one level, I notice a theological statement embedded here about how the church might best understand its role in society. But on a much simpler and more personal level, I sense my pride being challenged, along with my anxiety, my insecurity and tendency to compare, my desire to control, my indifference to others’ needs, and my blindness to where God can be found. Perhaps it will speak to you as well…

“If we reach out and meet God here where God is, if we accept God’s will in life where our will does not prevail, if we are willing to learn from others, if we can see ourselves and accept ourselves for what we are and grow from that, if we can live simply, if we can respect others and reverence them, if we can be a trusting part of our world without having to strut around it controlling it, changing it, wrenching it to our own image and likeness, then we will have achieved “perfect love that casts our fear” (I John 4:18). There will be nothing left to fear—not God’s wrath, not the loss of human respect, not the absence of control, not the achievements of others greater than our own whose success we have had to smother with rejection or deride with scorn.

“Humility, the lost virtue of our era, is crying to heaven for rediscovery. The development of nations, the preservation of the globe, the achievement of the human community may well depend on it.”

From Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict: A Spirituality for the 21st Century (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2010), 98-99.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Citizenship According to Jesus and Barack

Warning: very light politics ahead. Proceed with a light heart.

Joann and I listened to Obama’s speech in the car last night while driving through north Oakland searching for Fenton’s Creamery, an ice cream place that had been highly recommended to us. It was empowering.

The ice cream, I mean.

Obama made two Biblical appeals I caught, one intentional and one either accidental or at least informed by Biblical thinking or maybe just inclusive of the thrust of the Biblical narrative.

The first seemed characteristic of a political candidate seeking to be well-versed, or maybe poetic, or maybe just win the Christian vote. Obama said something like, “as the Scripture says, ‘our hope remains strong.’” I’m sure I’m misquoting him, but he didn’t reference the Scripture, and it sounds very Biblical, so if he just made it up, I’ll give it to him as being close enough.

His method may have been a bit “fortune cookie-ish,” as if the best way to read Scripture is to assume every Biblical phrase is a context-less “nugget” that probably applies directly to your situation. Which isn’t always a bad to way to use Scripture, though it often is.

But I admire his appeal to “hope” as a reminder not just of my own beliefs about the future of humankind, but of the value of holding to hope for this life—a hope that believes in the human ability to work for the common good, to live selflessly, to be driven by love, rather than an emphasis on our frequent human inability—also very real and obvious—to advocate for others in need and to live righteously. Talk about hope and you’ll get me every time—it’s a bit of a pet theme for me. J

(Side note: as Joann pointed out, very little of the audience cheered at his Biblical reference, probably indicative of the fact that this was the DNC and not the RNC).

The second reference to the Bible was indirect or perhaps not at all intentional as much as an appeal to ancient Greece and classic social ethics. After exhorting people to personal initiative as a means of economic recovery—perhaps his attempt to disallow Republicans from claiming “personal responsibility” as their party’s virtue—he then, as those of you who listened heard, called us to citizenship.

Now I recognize citizenship is one of those words that can be adapted to fit your agenda, and that what citizenship really involves—and what level of government involvement in our lives and business really encourages good citizenship and human flourishing—could be debated ad nauseum with no resolution between people with opposing political views.

But the way Obama was using the word seemed to emphasize our compassionate obligation to one another. And, maybe it’s just his super smooth voice, or George Clooney’s even smoother voice in the introductory video, but…it was kind of inspiring.

Though not an explicit appeal to Jesus’ most ultimate call—“love your neighbor as yourself,” an axiom echoed by many other religious traditions as well—the way Obama was using it seemed connected to this same common religious sentiment. Now, Obama may just have been using that word politically to encourage us toward the same goal that Romney would if he used the word....just from a different path.

But regardless of their intentions, it touched me on a more personal level: as a follower of Christ, what does it mean for me to be a good citizen? What kind of character should I possess and what kind of choices should I be making that most embody the message of selfless, compassionate love?

As a devoted Christian who will vote for Obama and generally sides with the Democratic party, it’s easy for me to be biased about what citizenship looks like toward a more liberal approach—i.e., supporting the right of gays to marry one another, or recognizing the enormous challenge of many to “help themselves” and thus the need for strong government intervention through, for example, taxes.

But it’s even more personal for me than that. I’m challenged by this thought—do I love others in ways that are convenient or that are also inconvenient as well? And, should I be willing to do good for others, regardless of how they respond?

Some of Joann’s and my Christian friends have used the great sounding board we call Facebook to vent about various political and economic issues. One such sentiment we’ve observed is an annoyance among many at having to help people that aren’t trying to help themselves. Essentially, people don’t like their tax dollars going to people they deem “lazy” or “irresponsible.” Frankly, I see a disconnect between their Christ-centered spirituality and the tenor of their statements, often said with a great deal of disgust and accusation. Is this real compassion?

I don’t think so, and admitting that is convicting, as I know I’ve repeatedly made judgments about people without knowing their story, the chain of events that led them to their current situation, or simply just the bizarre way in which the "god of luck” has chosen them to be less fortunate than me. It’s too easy to be dismissive of other people.

I am challenged to give more respect to those who struggle, emotionally or financially. I am also challenged to show compassion and generosity to others, simply because this is what good people do, what Jesus did; and I am challenged—while not abandoning practicality and strategy and big-picture thinking—to be willing to help others even when I can’t control the outcome, how they will be impacted by it. I’m challenged to do my part, even if the reactions of others to my acts of goodness are not ideal.

And I’m challenged to love in ways that aren’t simply convenient. It’s easy to do good for strangers and loved ones when there’s some benefit for you involved, when it doesn’t involve going out of your way, when it requires little abandonment of your own will and plans. But to be inconvenienced by others—for their good—is much more of a challenge. Heck…I can practice this at home. J

I feel obligated to the "Jesus way" (any Jolliff fans out there?); and Jesus did not simply say love your neighbor, but to “walk two miles” and “bless those who persecute you.”

Obama and I are probably defining "citizenship" slightly differently, though there are connections. I’d like to be a good “citizen” in the coming days by inconveniencing myself for others and doing good for others in ways that require some sacrifice; and also, by doing good for those who can’t return the favor, without judging them for their inability to repay me.

That probably means tackling some items on my wife's “honey-please” list and changing a few extra diapers. J

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Pics of Our Bay Area Beginnings

Classes began yesterday. As I say goodbye to the "preface" of our California life, here are some pics of what we've been up to these past two weeks. So amazing how many transitions we've made these past months, but so enriched by and grateful for all of the new beginnings in our life!

All pictures from the master photographer herself, Joann Renee...

These were Clara's initial and secondary reactions to finding out we were moving to California the next day. My interpretation: "Wow!" then, "come on daddy, my cognitive abilities are too limited at this stage in my development to have any idea what you're saying."

 Myself, Bryan, Brad, and Pat. Bryan and Brad were my moving help, making the road to trip to California with me. Pat's a cool guy, so I made him a hat too. Our hats, from L to R: "I heart cool whip"; "1 1/2 out of 4 stars"; "Muffins"; "Bad credit". Immensely grateful for my fabulous, generous friends!

 Exploring the area near our condo with Clara. There are some great trails where I live, incredible views, and a nice cool breeze most days. And that obnoxious toll bridge in the distance that I cross 3-4 times a week. All bridges are toll bridges here. Boo. Unless I'm aiding in job creation with my tolls, in which case, not "boo" but "tolerable."

Victor Sneed! One of my all-time favorite people who I've spent far too little time with in my life, now only an hour and a half away. He's got a nice face, even though his son is blocking the shot. Just so it's known.

  The living room, kitchen, and dining areas in our new place. We're renting a condo in the Glen Cove neighborhood of Vallejo.

 A shot of my home office. 

Serenading Clara.
Exploring Berkeley.
Hanging out with Grandma.
My new normal...bottle feeding Clara on outings.

At a school BBQ with some of the other new doctoral students.

Wine tasting in Napa. Genuine or posed???

Smooching my sweetheart in the vineyard. And, trespassing, probably.

Mandie and Shaun, fellow Christian Spirituality PhD student and her husband, joining us on our tour through wine country.

In San Fran for the day.

Clara with her cool new hat, in San Fran. Such a hip baby.

After dinner at pier 39 in San Francisco with the family.

Monday, September 3, 2012

What’s an Evangelical? Are You That?

The Saturday before last was my second day of orientation at the GTU. It actually had little to do with introductions to the school, faculty, and programs. We instead spent the day discussing the concept of "service-learning" prior to going out and doing some actual work in the community. I spent several hours in a creek bed, cleaning up garbage and fallen debris that was either hindering the flow of the stream or detracting from its beauty (pardon the implied spiritual metaphor).

There was a very brief conversation that has stuck with me, in which several of us were discussing our similar college experiences at Evangelical schools. At some point a fellow student asked me if I was an Evangelical. I gave him my answer...which provoked a brief discussion about the scope and boundaries and marks of Evangelicalism.

So what does it mean to be an Evangelical Christian? I’m not convinced there’s one definitive answer, as I sense this descriptor means different things to different people in different contexts. Maybe for you it’s a political term, maybe a spiritual term, maybe a negative or positive term, maybe more a personality descriptor than a theological/religious one, or maybe just a redundant phrase, as for you perhaps true Christians, if they are good Christians, are necessarily Evangelical.

I was curious to hear from any of you—you who venture to this blog regularly or have done so for the first time—your response to any (or all) of the following questions:
  • What's an Evangelical Christian (as opposed to any other kind of Christian)?
  • What characterisiticsbeliefs, practicesdo you associate with Evangelicalism?
  • Are you an Evangelical Christian? Why or why not?
  • Are there specific things which you believe or practice that you think indicate you fall into the Evangelical "camp?" Anything that you think indicates you fall outside of the camp?
  • If you don't consider yourself a Christian at all, what do you think of when you think of an Evangelical Christian?
  • What do you find most admirable or praiseworthy about Evangelical Christianity?

I’d love to hear your responses to one or all of the above questions, whether you are Christian or not, Evangelical or not, human or not (non-human responses welcome). Don't go read a Wikipedia article for info...I'm less interested in what such sources say and more intrigued by your perception/opinion of the term. Would love your feedback!

And it probably goes without saying, but...please be as kind as you can. Honest, but kind. :) 

Saturday, September 1, 2012

What is the GTU? A Primer for the Puzzled

It has taken my fellow doctoral students and I a few days to figure out exactly how to articulate the makeup of the GTU to others, given the complex network that it is. Consequently, I thought others who know me might be interested in a brief explanation, especially since I’m pretty sure that on more than one occasion I’ve mentioned going to the GTU and gotten some variation of “oh...huh?”

The Graduate Theological Union is a consortium of several schools, centers, affiliates and institutes. The Christian schools that makeup the GTU come from all across the denominational spectrum: Baptist, Episcopal, Dominican, Franciscan, Jesuit, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Unitarian Universalist, and one multi-denominational school. Students can obtains MAs and DMins from these various schools (though only the GTU as a whole entity awards PhDs).

Beyond that, there are a variety of other opportunities for study at the centers for Islamic studies, Jewish studies, Buddhist studies, theology and the natural sciences, among others. Not only that, because of the relationship between GTU and UC Berkeley (which is right across the street), GTU students can take classes at UCB.

Among the new doctoral candidates—primarily from the US but also coming from South Korea, Serbia, Guatemala, to name a few—some are studying systematic theology, some liturgical studies, some art and religion, some ethics, and some with an interdisciplinary focus that includes, for example, an emphasis on Islamic studies.

One benefit of all this? POSSIBILITIES. The word gives me goosebumps. So many course options, so many brilliant minds with which to engage, so many resources for interreligious conversation, huge libraries. Overwhelming options! Registering for classes earlier this week was laborious; there were more classes than I had time and space to take, and I had to eliminate several options. A choice for something is usually a choice against something else, right? What a tragic piece of the human experience this is.

My PhD is in the area of Christian Spirituality; the general focus of my own research will take me into the convergence of spiritual formation, virtue ethics, and interreligious dialogue, which means I’ll likely milk all schools and centers of the consortium for all the data and insight I can possibly acquire in my finite time as a student here.

There also seem to be a lot of opportunities for professional development and teaching preparation, which is great; I think all of my fellow doctoral candidates realize the job market is tough, and are running on both ambition and a little bit of hope as we travel the road to the kind of professorial jobs in which most of us ultimately envision ourselves.

Based on my personality type, my interests, my theology—this really is the perfect place for me to be. Even the drivers here are helping me develop as a person, challenging me to develop a thicker skin, become more courageous, and work through people-pleasing tendencies. I don’t get too angry with drivers, I just get defensive when they get angry with me. I suppose a healthy emotional state includes both the capacity to respond with sensitivity and poise as well as an acceptance of the inevitability that you will piss people off and cannot control others' responses.

We are only human after all, and even halfway decent human beings, when thrown together with other halfway decent human beings, can collaboratively act rather indecently. Freeway traffic seems both a metaphor for and manifestation of this fundamental truth.

Digression on driving aside, that’s the GTU experience in a nutshell.