Seeing all things in Christ

StFrancisJohnAugustSwansonWIt is common for Christians to speak of our being “in Christ” but also of all things being in him. I was recently asked what I have in mind when I speak of seeing all things in Christ. I thought I’d reflect on it some.

When I speak of all things being “in Christ” I’m talking primarily how the contemplation of anything can become the occasion for a transformational encounter with God. I don’t just mean that contemplating the existence of contingent things can lead one logically to conclude there is a God and then withdrawing from being fully present to thing and travel off and search for God in some argument. I mean to say that the things we contemplate are where God is met, that God is inseparably present in the being of things without being reducible to them so there is a immediacy of divine presence coterminous with the proper contemplation of things (contemplated as created, as good, as beautiful, as sustained by God, etc.). God’s presence and the presence of created things become convertible with each other.

This includes experiencing myself within the contemplation of things. The contemplation of things becomes the contemplation of oneself. It really is an experience of self-transcendence, because the beauty and goodness of your own existence is irreducible to the things you contemplate. This is opened up through perhaps the most important discipline of spiritual insight there is – silence. “Be still” says the Psalmist, “and know that I’m God.” That’s where I integrate the deepest truth of things into how I view the world and myself in it. The structure of it emerges precisely as St. Paul describes: “I, not I, but Christ.” (Gal 2.20)

This self-transcending approach to the contemplation of things is where one experiences not the abstract truth of God’s existence given the contingency of all things. You’re not contemplating a syllogism at this point, but the living presence of Christ as the ever-speaking Word of the Father. It’s what the contemplatives all report – when one quiets oneself and attends to the irreducible goodness and beauty of things, and when one listens there, one will find oneself (as Sarah Coakley says) being caught up in a conversation and eventually being addressed within that conversation.

Christ is ‘in’ things (sustaining them, reflected in them, etc.), and so are all things in him (sustained and held together). That’s something one can contemplate third person as it were, as a philosophical or theological construct. But you can also experience this as one’s own truth, the deepest and truest thing about you. At some point – and there’s no easy way to say this – Christ is not just ‘in’ things but ‘as’ things, ‘as’ them in the sense that however deep you go into the constitution of things, that conversation that addressed you is already there – as if Christ just is the being of things. How then do you peel apart “I” and “Christ” in St. Paul’s “I, not I, but Christ”? How do you put distance between yourself and Christ when deepest truth of who you are is (inside) the deepest truth of who he is. What else does Paul mean when he says we are given the Son’s own eternal cry of “Abba, Father!”? Who we are is on the inside of who he is. One sees “from” Christ (where one is) “to” Christ in all things. This is how one comes to see oneself in all things (again, language strains), because if I am in Christ, and Christ is in all things. I am in all things. It’s not “I” who embrace all things. Rather, I am embraced by the One who embraces all things. And the act by which he embraces all things in himself cannot be dissembled into discrete acts. There’s no distance between you and I because there’s no distance in Christ in whom you and I are.

There’s a truth to “Christ in all things” that can be apprehended on a philosophical level. That’s helpful. But the heart longs for more. There is an encounter with the reality to which such truths point. The transition from one to the other travels along the path of the persistent contemplation of the goodness, beauty and giftedness of things, the truth of the gospel as the unity of all things in Christ. This may be why Paul is careful in 1Cor 15 to say that in the end “God becomes all in all.” Not just “in all” — which is already true — but “all in all.” Might this suggest our perceiving God in all as the explicit truth of things? It’s one thing for God to see you. That’s always true. It’s another thing to know God sees you. But it’s transformational finally to see God seeing you. That, is seems to me, is of the same species of God’s being all in all.

Advertisements

The nearness of God is my good

Grey1I was listening to Dallas Willard this last week and the way he quoted Ps 73.28 sent me off to check out a few things. The relevant phrase is: “The nearness of God is my good.” I checked a few English translations:

KJV: “It is good for me to draw near to God.”
NIV: “It is good to be near God.
NLT: “How good it is to be near God!”
RSV: “It is good to be near God.”
TLB: “I get as close to him as I can!”

Is it that my drawing near to God is good for me, or is it the fact of God’s abiding presence, his nearness, which is my good? Other translations go with the latter:

YLT (Young’s Literal Translation): “Nearness of God to me is good.”
HCS (Holman Christian Standard): “God’s presence is my good.”
NAS (New American Standard): “The nearness of God is my good.”
ISV (International Standard Version): “How good for me it is that God is near!”
JPS (Jewish Publication Society): “The nearness of God is my good.”

The Hebrew is straightforward (lit., “And I [or “And as for me”] God’s nearness [is] to me good”).

ואני קרבת אלהים לי טוב

The relevant words are qi-ră-ḇaṯ ‘ĕ-lō-hîm (God’s nearness), a construct state of the noun “nearness” followed by “God.” There is no word for “of” in Hebrew (and no –’s to indicate possession). The relationship is generated by juxtaposing nouns, the first without the definite article and the second with it, or at least the second definite by virtue of identity as is the case with “God.” For example, “house” followed by “the king” is “The King’s house” or “book” followed immediately by “Tom” communicates “Tom’s book.” Here we simply have “nearness” followed by “God,” and it’s important to note that there is nothing in the noun “nearness” that suggests that our “drawing near to God” is meant. On the contrary, when movement toward an object is described, one typically finds the verb form followed by a preposition “to” (e.g., Gen 20.24, “But Abimelech did not come near to her” or Zeph 3.2, “She did not draw near to God” and many other examples which all include a preposition in Hebrew). But in Ps 73 we have simply the noun “nearness” in construct state with “God.” The nearness here is God’s nearness to me, his presence to/with me. That presence is the assumption, and its abiding truth is my good. The first translations above miss this point, I suggest, and assume the Psalmist is describing his drawing near to God.

I am not suggesting that since God is always immediately present there’s no sense in which we can intelligibly speak of our drawing near to God. On the contrary, even though we are inseparable from the immediate reality of God’s presence, we are not consistently aware of it. We must learn to realize its truth and live in its fullness. Anyone who consistently lifts their thought Godward knows it takes an investment of self-denying effort to awaken the mind to God’s presence. We draw near to God, move toward God, in the sense what we exercise our awareness, through contemplation, of God. But these efforts only seek to realize the truth of God’s abiding presence. There is no distance (metaphysical or otherwise) that is spanned. We do not close any real gap between ourselves and God when we draw near to God. In still other words, the only way to see God is to see him seeing you.

As important as it is, our part is not the point of Ps 73.28. Here we are encouraged to name the good we contemplate, not our efforts to realize it. God is already here, already present. His “nearness” is not something my moving in the right direction “achieves.” Only if this is kept in view do we make healthy (transformational) sense of what we do in “drawing near” to realize the truth of God’s abiding presence.

You shall find rest for your soul

stillness-close-up-small-file

Was just chatting with Dwayne today. I asked, “You ever get tired of theological conversation? Like, does it ever just wear you out?” He agreed it does. I definitely get there. I’m feeling myself there these days. I engage, press in, think hard, and chase every rabbit down every hole I can find, looking for the right “fit.” Working the old dianoia till it drops. Then something says to me, “Enough already. You need be still in God’s presence in light of what you know. Knowing more isn’t going to help.”

Stillness (Hesychasm). Watchfulness (Nepsis). Not more dianoia.

We really know enough. The dianoia is full to overflowing. Is there a way to expand it to make room for more? When we need to, sure. By the doing of what we know. We study and unravel and speculate and construct (theologically), looking for something, that unified theological field theory. We work towards it. We don’t experience what we long for, so we think the answer must be more dianoia, more knowledge. So we dive back in. But it doesn’t fulfill. Why?

It doesn’t fulfill because we don’t practice the stillness needed to integrate the dianoia into the rest of ineffable encounter with God, into the slating of desire in his presence where the self contemplates not a list of propositions but him who grounds their truth. There the soul is fed, refreshed, fulfilled. There the mind rests. And if the mind does not rest in this encounter of presence beyond discursive thought, what is known by the dianoia gets appropriated by a false self.

Lex orandi lex credendi

ig6mPDon’t freak out on me. I’ve used Alex Grey’s work to illustrate points before. His work can be weird and unsettling, but he’s also impossible to get away from once you contemplate it a bit.

I’m into another Benner book: Presence and Encounter: The Sacramental Possibilities of Everyday Life. I may get around to sharing a passage from it in a separate post, but for now I wanted to share something which reading his book brought to the surface for me.

Lex orandi, lex credendi (“the rule of praying is the rule of believing”) is an expression Christians have long employed to emphasize prayer’s primacy in and over belief and doctrine. Traditionally, it was liturgy (or worship) which led to theology. Theology and doctrine served liturgy as a way to express the meaning of the gospel’s transforming power in life and our celebration of it. One way to apply this to belief and doctrine is to measure the weight and implications of belief in terms of the effects they have upon the lived experience of prayer. Can I pray this doctrine? Can it inform, enrich, and expand my living as an act of prayer? Or—if you’re Fr Aidan—Can I preach it? It’s the same practical-existential concern.

People inevitably want to know what relevance a belief has for their day to day concerns. What difference does it make? And where people fail to see the practical relevance such questions have for life’s relationships, decisions, and vocations, they fail to engage those issues in a meaningful way for any length of time. So in focusing on the implications which a belief has for our understanding of prayer, we bring belief to bear upon one of the most practical everyday concerns of religious persons and thus have an opportunity to judge the existential support for truth-claims. For me, this is what lex orandi lex credendi gets at. Prayer becomes the primary existential stage upon which any theology may be examined and judged. Evagrius (Egyptian monastic of the 4th century CE) expresses it well: “If you are a theologian, you will pray truly, and if you pray truly, you are a theologian.”

More specifically, I want to know if all our living can become prayer, if we can, in the totality of our being and acting, at all times and in all circumstances, become an uninterrupted act of prayer. By this I don’t mean to ask if we can manage to carry on a conversation with God that runs continuously alongside all the day to day conversations and activities we attend to at home and work, like a software program running alongside other programs, as though these are different and competing spheres of engagement we juggle without letting either compromise the other. On the contrary, to say “life is prayer” or “I am become all prayer” is to say the mundane day to day conversations and activities are prayer. They are where I converse with God, and my conversation with God can enfold all those activities within its embrace.

Spiritualpractice-50This is only possible, I think, if God is embraced as the transcendent summum bonum, the end of all desire, whom we desire in desiring anything at all, even if we desire imperfectly. Learning to make God the end of all our conversations and actions begins with seeing God in all our actions and conversations. That vision then transforms all our living into an unending conversation with him, and we become all prayer. We see and converse with Christ perceived in all things. I respond to others in the belief that Christ is receiving the words I say, the actions I do. Is this imaginable? St. Paul seemed to think so. “Whatever you do,” Paul writes (Col 3.23), do it “as for the Lord rather than for men.” Does this mean only that our motivations are observed by Christ as a third party and that our actions, if motivated properly, are counted as ‘good’ because measured by Christ as the measure of the Good? I think he’s saying more, namely, that we can consciously make Christ the object of all our actions, so that what we say and do to others becomes the means of a more fundamental relating to Christ.

This is more than pretending that Christ is truly present in all things and acting accordingly. It’s relating to Christ in all things as offering himself to us and so transforming the mundane into the sacred. If I feed the hungry, I feed Christ. If I do harm to my neighbor, I harm Christ. If I befriend and do kindly to the homeless, I am kind to Christ. And in an important sense, I’m only rude, or kind, or helpful to others because Christ is, first and preeminently, present receiving my saying and doing. God measures our actions as summum bonum by receiving them, not by observing them as a third-party.

So if prayer is a conversation in which I recognize, converse with, and offer myself to God in Christ through the Spirit, becoming all prayer appropriates all created contexts as an extension of that conversation. We don’t pray alongside doing other things. We engage God directly in engaging anything. Again, this is more than seeing God in all things conceptually (which may be just an academic recognition of the truth that everything in our world is being sustained by God). It is meeting God in all things, conversing with him in all things, as personally as we meet him in ourselves, because the God we meet in ourselves is in all things, and how can we not converse with God wherever we perceive him?

                       Prayer
All that is real on thee depends
and from thy breath of love extends;
With thee infused all is;
To thee alone all sends
its praise back.
Beautiful. You are so beautiful,
in all things. I see you in their eyes
and deep within their depths I find
eternal surprise after surprise.

I wonder if God wonders

DeaCe_Web_StillCelia Deane-Drummond (Professor of Theology, Notre Dame) takes wonder as a point of departure in considering the nature and existence of the world. I could listen to her speak all day, and I love what she shares here. A sense of wonder is how we first experience the world’s beauty. We later learn the scientific ways the world works predictably. We discover something of the world’s logos. But wonder remains. And wonder is never ‘accounted for’ physically. Wonder is never reduced to a cog in the parts of the world whose beauty is the cause of such amazement. Wonder is in this sense transcendent of the world itself, though we experience wonder in and through the world’s own apparatuses (i.e., embodiment).

Thinking about Deane-Drummond’s comments on wonder (see the video below) got me thinking—Does God experience a sense of wonder and amazement at the contemplation of himself? One reason to think not might be the assumption that ‘wonder’ implies finitude and ignorance. One is only amazed if what one is amazed at is ‘discovered’, if there’s an inherent element of surprise, of moving from a state in which one’s experience wasn’t defined by such wonder to a state in which one awakens to such wonder. So ‘wonder’, one might argue, can only be experienced by finite creatures who don’t already perceive all truth. God couldn’t experience a sense of wonder or amazement even at the contemplation of himself because that would imply a certain discovery of what he didn’t already fully realize about himself, and that in turn implies a certain failure to know himself, and certainly we don’t want to say God can fail to know himself.

That said, I don’t think it follows that all sense of wonder entails the kind of discovery that implies finitude and ignorance. Traditionally, God is believed to be the summum bonum, the highest good, the greatest beauty, an unsurpassably intense delight grounded in his own self-contemplation. I agree there’s a certain necessary, timeless fullness to God’s being and identity that we cannot reduce to any temporal becoming, but I don’t suppose this precludes—in fact I think it requires—divine wonder. Bliss is wonder.

I imagine God to be ‘wonderful’, to experience and know himself with an infinite sense of wonder, not because he is forever discovering things about himself he didn’t know, but because there is nothing possibly boring or redundant about God. God is never bored with himself. He always experiences himself as supremely wonderful. The Father’s eternal begetting of his Logos is an exclamatory act (!), an eternal “Wow!” whose utterance is God’s existence.

So how do we imagine such wonder? Well, I’ve listened to certain pieces of music repeatedly, through the years, more times than I can count, knowing the notation, knowing what is to come, so to speak—no surprises there—and yet I continue to experience a sense of wonder at their beauty and my wonder isn’t preceded by some ignorance. The same can be true of fine art. I’ve sat contemplating favorite works of art for hours, and do so still, years after being captured by them as a teenager, and I continue to experience wonder, a kind of pre-linguistic experience of possessing myself ecstatically in and as shared beauty. We discover ourselves piecemeal because of our finitude. We are not our own bonum. But there’s no reason to suppose that God, who just is the beauty toward which all our discoveries of wonder tend, is not also infinite wonder.

Here we meet the most serious diseases of modern—I’ll stick to my own tradition—Evangelicalism. God is more or less thought to be boring. Our religious services are full of diversions put in place to insure that our services are sufficiently entertaining. True, we concede God must be appealed to in order to explain the world’s beauty or to make our experience of the world enjoyable. We can do this much. But what do we make of just God? We never say it. It would be anathema to admit it. But it is everywhere evident in the dysfunctions of our theology, the dispositions of our worship, the endless diversions of our culture that at our center there is not an experience of God as the transcendent, unifying wonder of existence. There is instead a gnawing absence of such wonder which threatens to consume everything we are and do with infinite boredom.

Enjoy Deane-Drummond’s Closer to Truth video.

Prayer

Wonder is thy name,
Not trapped being the same
In form and thought; nor art thou boringly so.
Eternal delight without repetition
Of what in thee gives thee joy; nor by omission
Art thou Infinite Wonder, but euphorically so!

Room in God for all we do—Nota Bene

moses-at-burning-bushA quick postscript to the previous note. I thought I had this ‘awareness’ discipline down. I think about God all the time as it is. But as I reflect on it, I have to confess that what I do is think about God most of the time. I’m solving theological puzzles, conjuring up models of the trinity, thinking about how the incarnation came about or frustrating over the nature of Scripture. All God’s business, right? God is on my mind constantly as an object of thought, as a conundrum, as a problem to resolve, a puzzle to piece together. And if that is what ‘awareness of God’ is, then that will compete with conscious awareness of other things. You can’t do that (think about God) and do everything else well. What awareness can be without competing with all else is awareness of God as a subject in the second person, as conversation partner, as speaking to me and as addressed by me. We can pray without ceasing and do everything else. We can’t theologize about God in the third-person and do very much of anything else well. Why? Because to dwell, even devotedly, upon God in the third-person is to remain alone, to perpetuate the myth of separation, to assume my life with God and my living in this world have to compete with each other, as if I can’t be with both.

(Picture here.)

Room in God for all we do

Ealing-20130212-00858Pacing the floor in prayer last evening, I began to reflect aloud on what my ultimate desires and longings are. What do I really want? What’s the one desire which if fulfilled would make every other unfulfilled desire irrelevant but which if unfulfilled would render all other desires meaningless? To be more knowledgeable? To be theologically right? To live a long life? To be honored by your peers? Maybe all of these together? That would be something. I’ve put time into these. But running through the options, dismissing them each in turn as the ultimate end of desire, I finally said, “You, Lord. I want you.” I began talking, prayerfully, aloud about what that would look like. My mind (don’t ask why) went to the story of Congregational missionary and linguist Frank Laubach (1884-1970) who through disappointment and struggle came to dedicate his life to a single task—learning to live life without ever losing conscious awareness of God’s presence. To live in unbroken awareness of God’s presence, to perceive his intentions in the moment and to offer myself as the means of manifesting them—now, my sole desire.

God is the one reality we can be conscious of without diminishing our awareness of and availability to any other task at hand. The same isn’t true of anything else we may devote are attention to. Our limited energies are naturally divided the more items within the world we attend to. But God is not an item within the world. Awareness of him doesn’t compete with awareness of other things. Conversation with him doesn’t compete with other conversations. There’s room in God, but only in God, for all we do.

(Picture here)