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

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.