Deny nature we can

identity_crisis-291x300I’m enjoying Benner as I continue to read through of his books. I love his identity centered, practical, devotional approach to transformation. I’ve just finished his The Gift of Being Yourself. It’s as basic an introduction as you will find to the issues involved in dispelling the lies of the false self and embracing the self-in-Christ. I especially appreciate his hyphenated “self-in-Christ.” It describes our true God-given identity as distinguished from every possible man-made alternative or false self. Hyphenating it identifies us with Christ absolutely as a single experience of one’s self in Christ and prevents us from mistakenly thinking our true identity may in any sense be formed antecedent to Christ while being only finally confirmed or completed in Christ, when in fact it is from beginning to end his creation. Here’s a bit of Benner:

Christian spirituality has a great deal to do with the self, not just with God. The goal of the spiritual journey is the transformation of self. As we shall see, this requires knowing both our self and God. Both are necessary if we are to discover our true identity as those who are “in Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:17), because the self is where we meet God. Both are also necessary if we are to live out the uniqueness of our vocation.

In all of creation, identity is a challenge only for humans. A tulip knows exactly what it is. It is never tempted by false ways of being. Nor does it face complicated decisions in the process of becoming. So it is with dogs, rocks, trees, starts, amoebas, electrons and all other things. All give glory to God by being exactly what they are. For in being what God means them to be, they are obeying him. Humans, however, encounter a more challenging existence. We think. We consider options. We decide. We act. We doubt. Simple being is tremendously difficult to achieve and fully authentic being is extremely rare.

Body and soul contain thousands of possibilities out of which you can build many identities. But in only one of these will you find your true self that has been hidden in Christ from all eternity. Only in one with you discover your unique vocation and deepest fulfillment. But as Dag Hammarskjold argues, you will never find this “until you have excluded all those superficial and fleeting possibilities of being and doing with which you toy out of curiosity or wonder or greed, and which hinder you from casting anchor in the experience of the mystery of life, and the consciousness of the talent entrusted to you which is your I.

We all live searching for that one possible way of being that carries with it the gift of authenticity. We are most conscious of this search for identity during adolescence, when it takes from stage. At this stage of life we try on identities like clothing, looking for a style of being that fits with how we want to be seen. But even long after adolescence has passed, most adults know the occasional feeling of being a fraud—a sense of being not what they pretend to be but rather precisely what they pretend not to be. With a little reflection, most of us can become aware of masks that we first adopted as strategies to avoid feelings of vulnerability but that have become parts of our social self. Tragically, we settle easily for pretense, and a truly authentic self often seems illusory.

There is, however, a way of being for each of us that is as natural and deeply congruent as the life of a tulip. Beneath the roles and masks lies a possibility of a self that is as unique as a snowflake. It is an originality that has existed since God first loved us into existence. Our true self-in-Christ is the only self that will support authenticity. It and it alone provides an identity that is eternal.

                         Prayer
Without complaint do flowers bloom;
They need not contemplate to groom
   The fields and forest floors.
From first to last their path is rest,
Without striving for the best,
   Their paths are heaven’s doors.
But we a higher calling know,
Deliberate we must to grow;
   Deny nature we can.
But when like flowers of the field,
We rest in Christ and to him yield,
   We are fully human.

Skyline is a byline

2008-0712-MPLS-panorama

Today is a good day, cuz I’m still breath’in,
Mercy after mercy, every breath I am receiv’in,
Looking at the sky and trees, I see a party,
Wasted off this life of mine, don’t need Bacardi.
Grab the keys, now I’m flyin down the highway,
Feeling lifted and yet protected, like a skyway.
Everywhere I turn, there’s another new miracle,
Catch it with the senses, but the perception is spiritual.
Missing my dawgs, yeah, I miss them old Hoyas,
Together we stand up in the wind like we sequoias.
I say a prayer for my clique, hope they stay on fleek
Inheriting the world because we stay on meek.
Approaching Minneapolis, I see the skyline,
But its beauty is penultimate like a byline
Why? Because I see His Beauty in all forms
Omnipresent order, yet breaking all norms.

(Dwayne Polk)

Mourning Victory

AAQ FALL 09 01-02 LOWRESI love this sculpture, Mourning Victory (1908), by American sculptor Daniel Chester French (1850−1931). The title references both pain and pleasure, both the suffering and pain of mourning and the relief of inextinguishable hope. It commemorates the Civil War. But permit me a gloss upon its theme; mourning gives way to emerging hope which cannot be finally drowned. The literary equivalent to this work of art is the Old Testament funeral song we call Lamentations, written to give voice to Israel’s exiled misery in the wake of Jerusalem’s destruction. To be sure, it was an outcome God warned them of and which they could have avoided. But Israel refused to heed her prophets, and so there the rubble of Jerusalem laid violated and her citizens scattered into exile.

Lamentations is engineered poetry. Each chapter is its own poem. The first four chapters are acrostic poems. Each line of the poem begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The first line begins with the letter A, the second line with the letter B, and so forth (if it were English). The fifth chapter is 22 lines as well, but not an acrostic. In addition, Ch 3 is three times longer than the other chapters. Where Chs 1, 2, 4 and 5 are each 22 verses/lines (for the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet), Ch 3 has three lines for each letter, thus 66 verses/lines. The structure is intentionally weighted to emphasize Ch 3 as the defining center of the book.

In addition to this structure, the content itself is arranged to climax in the middle. Chs 1 and 5 form bookends, Ch 1 narrating the events being mourned and Ch 5 closing with a prayer of repentance. More closely parallel are Chs 2 and 4, which each rehearse the tragedy and misery of Jerusalem’s destruction while laying the responsibility for these events squarely at Israel’s feet. This horror could have been avoided, God warned. Israel didn’t listen. They’re to blame.

Page1

Ch 3 rests between these double bookends. Instead of reading an introduction at the beginning and finishing with the climax with the final pages, the material is constructed to direct readers to the center, and even further, to the center of Ch. 3. All one gets as one begins the book is a rehearsal of the pain and sorrow of invasion and desolation. And that’s what one meets on the other side of Ch 3. But once into Ch 3, at v. 21 an amazing thing happens. In the heart of this existential black hole, light escapes. The clouds begin to part, and with vv. 22-23 the sun shines through with unambiguous brightness, illuminating something more sure and abiding than Israel’s present shame and exile, namely, God’s faithful love and endless mercy. You won’t appreciate 3.19-24 without slowly reading and feeling the bleakness and misery of the preceding 2 and 1/2 chapters:

19 The thought of my suffering and homelessness
      is bitter beyond words.
20 I will never forget this awful time,
      as I grieve over my loss.
21 Yet I still dare to hope
      when I remember this:
22 The faithful love of the LORD never ends!
      His mercies never cease.
23 Great is his faithfulness;
      his mercies begin afresh each morning.
24 I say to myself, “The LORD is my inheritance;
      therefore, I will hope in him!”

The reassurances extend down to 3.31:

31 For no one is abandoned
      by the Lord forever.

And these reassurances aren’t an alternative that competes with Israel’s pain and mourning. That would be to misunderstand them entirely. They are the context in which Israel suffers. That is, they define the limits within which mourning retains its healing virtue and is prevented from collapsing into despair. They empower mourning. They are (to return to French’s sculpture) “mourning’s victory.” As Chs 2 and 4 make clear, Israel is to blame. But to take responsibility and mourn the consequences of your sin is not to give up on oneself and surrender belief that God loves and desires you and that you yet have a future. True hope is a virtue of the genuinely brokenhearted. Confident people don’t hope. They only fantasize. One only truly hopes if one has truly mourned (biblically speaking). And one only truly mourns as one embraces oneself in one’s pain as loved by God. Otherwise, mourning is just despair, and despair is easier than hope. But to know that one is loved (which one cannot do without loving oneself) when one is made to knowingly suffer the consequences of one’s choices — that is redemptive suffering.

Why the acrostics? Why begin each line in order with the successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet? Well, one obvious reason is that it aids the memory. One remembers a uniformly structured text more easily than a random one. But beyond that, it facilitates the fullness and intentionality required of true repentance. One must rehearse the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth of one’s choices and their effects upon oneself and others. And there’s no abbreviating one’s way in this conversation with God. This is not a Facebook chat one can expedite with OMG, BRB, or SMH. One must use one’s entire alphabet, as it were, the whole of one’s resources—intentionally, painfully—in confessing the whole truth. Step Four of The Twelve Steps is brutal: “To make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” We’d rather be “Sorry.” Such an empty sentiment nowadays. We’re usually sorry we got caught, or we’re sorry we can’t continue to enjoy what we want to enjoy. Or we’re sorry too quickly. Our exposure or judgment may have inconvenienced us, but it did not break us. Such sorrow doesn’t even qualify as “mourning” in the biblical sense. And unless one travels by way of Chs 1 and 2, 4 and 5, one knows nothing of Ch 3’s sustaining reassurances and the redeeming love at the eye of life’s storms.

I feel as though Lamentations is the whole Bible, the whole gospel. For me at least, the life of faith is really just one long dark lament laced with the brilliant light of God’s mercy and love.

Desiring God

cheap_diy_gold_sheet_birds

Like you, I’ve read through the Psalms many times, but Psalm 84 is exceptional for several reasons. First, it’s passionate. It digs deep and expresses sincere longing for God: “My soul years,” “I faint with longing,” “My whole body and soul cry out.” God is loved and longed for passionately. A second thing that makes this Psalm exceptional is its comparisons. “Even sparrows find a home, and swallows build their nests” near God’s altar. Picture it; the Temple made with the finest timber covered in gold, its altar and other instruments of worship equally priceless. Overwhelming human artistry and craftsmanship. But what’s the author think of when he imagines the scene? He notices how blessed birds that nest nearby must be to make their home that close to God’s house. You expect someone who longs for the Temple to mention its gold overlay and other beautiful features. But this poet thinks of nearby bird nests (v. 3). And when in v. 4 he mentions the joy that belongs to those who live in your house “always singing your praises,” I imagine he’s still talking about the birds, and he envies their uninterrupted access to God’s courts. Beautiful.

The third thing that makes this Psalm exceptional is its perspective on suffering. We all suffer. Some unspeakably so. We “walk through the Valley of Weeping.” But what happens when those whose deepest longings are at rest in God walk through weeping? They turn those moments into refreshing springs. The tears which our sufferings extract from us become “rain that clothes the Valley [of Weeping] with blessings” creating “pools.” They become resources of refreshment for others. What a perspective on life.

Where are true joys to be found? What desires motivate your deepest heart? What do you pant for? Do your body and soul cry out for anything? If the answer is God, you cannot be disappointed.

Prayer

A little bird I am
Shut from the fields of air;
And in my cage I sit and sing
To him who placed me there;
Well pleased a prisoner to be,
Because my God it pleases thee.

Naught have I else to do;
I sing the whole day long;
And he whom most I love to please,
Doth listen to my song:
He caught and bound my wandering wing,
But still he bends to hear me sing.
(Madame Guyon)

Theology in the Flesh

sandersJohn Sanders is a first-rate scholar and a real gentleman. At lunch this past week we got a bit of an overview from him about his upcoming book Theology in the Flesh. I’ve pre-ordered mine. It’s coming out this August. So we’ll definitely have something to talk about this fall! Greg’s Crucifixion of the Warrior God (Is that what it was finally titled?) is due out a year later.

‘Who’ and ‘What’ God is

the-truman-show-final-scene

I’ve been struggling here and there with refining how I understand language to apprehend God—univocally, equivocally, analogically. How does our language about God apprehend God. I’ve expressed some frustration with this over at Fr Aidan’s place in the comments. I thought I’d express here how I try to approach theological language via Christology/Incarnation. It helps me. Perhaps it might help some others.

Begin with Christ, God truly incarnate in human flesh, but hypostatically (personally) so. The divine ‘nature’ isn’t reduced to the constraints and limitation of created being; God doesn’t “turn into” a perfect human being (as if ‘what’ God is essentially is human being writ large). Chalcedon spells out the terms: one person—two natures.

Now, if language is viewed as intrinsic to human nature personally realized, and God assumes and redeems that nature, then our language speaks of God the way Christ speaks of God, that is, our language speaks as truly of God as Christ truly makes God present, but hypostatically (personally so). A univocal apprehension would have to proceed upon the assumption of a “natural” equivalence (the way we as created beings speak of other created entities within a shared created ontology or nature), an approach I want to avoid.

Another thought that helps me balance theological epistemology by constantly referencing the Incarnation is the thought that in Christ God apprehends human being, in which case God apprehends our language, not the other way around. He is not ‘apprehended by’ or ‘made an object of’ our studious reference. In Christ the world experiences and fulfills itself as recognizing its ‘being given’. In Christ human being and language take the posture of a passio essendi, of being apprehended. And if we strive at least to posture our language in the same terms, we may avoid complicating the struggle.

So perhaps the best thing to say about how our language apprehends God is the same thing we say about how the Incarnation is God apprehending the world. Thus:

  • Cataphatic about WHO God is (based on the one Person of the Son with two natures)
  • Apophatic about WHAT God is (based on the two natures united inseparably in the one Person of the Son)

Our language always anticipated (because creation was always made for Incarnation) and now after the fact reflects, the cataphatic/apophatic relationship between God and the world and revealed finally in the achievement of this anticipation in the Incarnation understood in terms of Chalcedon. So perhaps the cataphatic and apophatic functions of language relative to God parallel each other from different perspectives (that is, one with respect to ‘who’ and the other with respect to ‘what’ God is) rather than operating sequentially within a single perspective inclusive of both ‘person’ and ‘nature’ (that is, employing cataphatic claims about God regarding both the personal and natural but then qualifying all this afterwards with something like “Well, God is after all excessively more than what we can say”).

Perhaps it would be helpful to understand the cataphatic to apprehend who God is (‘person’) and understand our apophatic qualification as a way of recognizing what God is (‘nature’) as inaccessible to us.

An immediate experience of God?

consciousness416I’m all questions these days. Can’t seem to make heads or tails of anything.

Our experience of the world is a mediated experience. I think we all agree on that. I don’t have an immediate experience of the world. I depend upon the speed of light to carry a vision of the outside world to my vision and upon the speed of sound to discern its voice. Even my experience of touch is mediated by nerve transmissions to my brain, and that transmission takes time, however fast it is. Hartshorne was right, all our conscious experience is experience of past data.

The closest thing to immediate consciousness is our experience of self-consciousness, the experience of self-perception. Unfortunately even that transpires within brain chemistry that takes time. We cannot even have an immediate experience of ourselves! I suppose only God can be immediately present to himself or to anything else. Fine.

But how is God experienced by us immediately? Can God be immediately experienced by us? If we can’t experience ourselves immediately, how can we experience (ourselves experiencing) God immediately? Perhaps if the human spirit is something more than mere brain chemistry, we could suppose that there stands nothing, not even brain chemistry, between the divine and human spirit. OK. But is my spirit my consciousness (or irreducibly related to my consciousness)? If so, then the human spirit, however transcendent of its embodied brain, is nevertheless dependent for its experiences upon embodied consciousness. It depends upon the brain. But nothing that depends even in part upon the brain can have an immediate experience of anything, even itself. But this leads to an uncomfortable conclusion, namely, that we can never have an immediate experience of God, an experience which is not mediated by or dependent upon brain chemistry. I might object that God is not a physical reality that depends upon the speed of light or sound. Fari enough. But we are physical beings whose conscious experience is dependent upon brain chemistry (or so we’re supposing).

Can we experience God immediately? If so, how? Is the relationship between the Spirit and the human spirit immediate? Can I have a conscious experience which is not even in part dependent upon brain chemistry? What are the implications to our answers?