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

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.