The Joy of Being Wrong

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Back in the late Spring I found myself reading James Alison, partly from having stumbled into references of him in other books and finally through a friend’s recommendation. I’ve post portions of him here and here. I’m presently reading through his The Joy of Being Wrong (his PhD dissertation), a work of theological anthropology appropriating Girard which “looks at original sin in the light of the Resurrection.” I’m gripped by it and quite moved, not half way through it. This evening I was especially moved by the following passage that zeros in on what ought to be the heart of how we understand the human predicament from which Christ rescues us. Enjoy!

…the sense of the self, the être [“other”]…is always received as a given, when when that preceding givenness, or the reception, is seriously marred by violence of circumstance, or paternal incompetence or ill will. The relationship between the être as received and as acquired by more or less violent appropriation is at the heart of the theology of original sin.

The description I have given leads to an understanding of the human self, the “me” of each of us, as being an unstable structure, one that is changeable, malleable, and other-dependent, whether it likes it or not. The other is always anterior to “me.” It also means…first, that it is desire which engenders the “me” and which brings it, by its movement, into existence; and, second, that desire is mimetic, that is, it moves in imitation of the desire of another.

Since the “me” of each one of us is founded by desire, we cannot say that desire is our own, as though it belongs to some preexistent “me.” It is the other way around. The “me” is radically dependent on the desires whose imitation formed it. This means that there is no “real me” at the bottom of it all, when I’ve scrapped away all the things I’ve learned, all the influences I’ve undergone. Psychology is what goes on between people, not, in the first place, in any particular individual. Having grasped this is what permits Girard…to talk of an interdividual psychology. In more accessible terminology this means that psychological facts have to do with relationships. Psychological problems have to do with broken or disturbed relationships, and psychological wholeness has to do with restoring and mending broken relationships.

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We have, then, in any given human being, a self formed by the desire of another. That desire is lived in rivalistic inflection, what I have called desire of grasping or appropriation. We also have the discovery that the possibility of the existence of any desire at all was an anterior desire that is in no sense rivalistic, which we call the creative love of God. The gratuity of God’s love works precisely and only as self-giving; working to produce in each human a capacity to accept—as purely gratuitous—the self-giving other. The permanent self-giving is more than an offer of self-giving, it is self-giving itself, but it can never be lived as self-giving by humans who grasp and appropriate the other. Grace can be lived only as something permanently gratuitously received. The great anthropological transformation, therefore, is of the way in which we move from being constituted by an anterior desire which moves us into deadlock, by grasping and appropriating our sense of being, to being constituted by a self-giving other than can be received only as constantly and perpetually self-giving, as gratuitous, and therefore never grasped, never appropriated, but only received and shared. If it is true to say that it is more blessed to given than to receive, this is because we are the sort of creatures who can only properly (gratuitously) give as part of an imitation of a gratuitous reception. Real giving and real receiving are a mutually structuring reality. We are talking of the person who is beginning to be empowered to move from feeling that society, the others, owe him something, toward being able to be toward other people—to act out for them—what they think is owed to them.

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What this means is that the gratuitous self-giving of God is always present contiguous to, and subversive of, any given now, and it is the gratuitous presence which has made itself explicit in concrete human historical circumstances. It is not universal human self-transcendence which makes itself explicit in the events and narrations of salvation, but the universally present self-giving of God, enabling us to become receivers, rather than graspers, of the other which forms us, revealed as purely gratuitous. The problem between intrinsicist and extrinsicist accounts of grace is not a problem, in the first place, of the theology of grace, but one of the anthropology of reception. The dilemma between grace as somehow “owed” to a human and grace as somehow “already imbued in the human” shows that the discussion is taking place entirely within an anthropology of grasping and appropriating and is not focusing on the necessary gratuity of the transformation into gratuitous receivers of what remains lived in gratuity. One of the things revealed by the doctrine of original sin is that it is our capacity to receive gratuitously that was damaged in the fall; not our capacity to receive, because we have to receive in order to exist, but our capacity to receive gratuitously, which is the only way in which we can share in divine life, because that life can never be other than gratuitous. (Bold mine)

Can we then talk of a universal desiderium natural, natural desire, for God? Well, once again, only as a result of the acceptance of the revelation that the real source of the anteriority which forms us is a purely nonrivalistic, self-giving desire (love). What we have without that faith is a construction of desire that never breaks out of circles of appropriation and exclusion. It would be wrong to call that desire a natural desire for God [Tom: In Alison’s terms perhaps not “natural,” but natural nonetheless in the sense that what Alison says is the “source” of that desire (divine desire/love) is not the past event of God’s having created the world, but the abiding, presence of that desire as God creatively present in sustaining us]. We might properly call it a natural desire for being, but an idolatrous desire being, since we are incapable of merely receiving being. So we go to idolatrous lengths to shore up our fragile sense of being, being prepared to sacrifice the other to save our “self.” What we can observe is that, in any given historical instance, our desire is for things which have become obstacles to God precisely because they are desire appropriatively, by grasping. It is in the transformation of our receptivity that our desire becomes a desire from and for God and is discovered to be such not as something plastered over our distorted desires, but as the real sense behind even those distorted desires, as something anterior to them. It is in this sense that we become sons and daughters of God as we discover that our belonging to, our being held in being by, the other is more secure and original a way of being in the world than our grasping and appropriating things. The tourist grasps and appropriates on his way through, because he knows that these things, these sights, will not be his tomorrow. The dweller in the land does not need to hold on to them, because she knows that they will be there tomorrow, and it is they that have formed her, not she who possesses them.

There are hints in this passage of a more extended treatment by Alison in this chapter that challenges any transcendental reading of desire, the sort of implicit, teleological orientation of desire toward God that one finds defended by David Bentley Hart for example. I’ll do a separate post of Alison’s position on this. It’s one aspect of his anthropology I would disagree with. But overall, Alison has recast the ‘original sin’ discussion for me in a powerful way.

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Transforming Moment, Intro 2

saint-paul-the-apostle-07Here’s the second part of Loder’s Introduction to the first of his works we’ll explore, The Transforming Moment (TM). I thought of apologizing for his heavy emphasis upon Kierkegaard, but then I thought of how often Kierkegaard is discussed in Loder’s work and how very indebted Loder is to him. So there’s no avoiding Kierkegaard. If you don’t like Kierkegaard at all, you won’t like Loder.

Enjoy this last portion of the Introduction. I’ll follow this with a short description of his main themes and vision and then we’ll jump into TM.

The Transforming Power of Spiritus Creator

To illustrate this transformation, return to Kierkegaard’s description of indescribable joy. Note first that he himself did not explicitly connect this stunning moment to anything past or future. In fact he does not refer to it anywhere else except here in his journals. However, through the lenses of his life and authorship, it can be seen as a highly condensed, transfigured resolution of conflicted forces which lie behind the immense influence of this solitary individual.

This account is an in-breaking insight coming upon young Soren before he himself was fully aware of the depth of his own conflicts. It represents what he would later call a “transparent” grounding in “the Power that posits the self” (Sickness Unto Death), and proleptically this anticipates a transformation of all registers of behavior that issue from the self—particularly imagination, which yields to “transparency” or imageless images; reason, which yields to the supra rationem expressed in “Absolute Paradox”: and passion, which becomes “the happy passion of faith.”

Specifically, the journal entry is extremely rich in imagery, but this is mainly an account in which imagery is inherently insufficient. Like Paul’s experience (2 Cor. 12:4) when he was “caught up into paradise and heard unspeakable words…,” Soren’s experience essentially exceeds all language or metaphor. Although Kierkegaard was not a mystic, this is very like a direct knowledge of God in the classical mystical tradition. The transparen[t] relationship of the human self to the Divine Presence temporarily bursts the limits of the imagination, but imagination recoils and images rush like a torrent into the pure light of the transparency as one shields one’s eyes when surprised by a sudden burst of sunlight. Imagination, Kierkegaard later wrote, is the faculty instar omnium (for all other faculties), but it never supersedes transparency.

What the imagination does accomplish, however, is illuminating. The dominant theme is the rush of joy, expressed a the “glow” of light to which one awakens. To place himself somehow in this joy, Kierkegaard identifies with St. Paul, and joy, like light, pulsates back and forth through his soul, “over…of, in, by, at, on, through, with….” Each additional preposition catches some new facet of the ineffable Source, and then, as if each preposition were still not enough, it is immediately superseded by a new surge of illumination. Then glowing joy shift to singing, and song gives way to a breeze that cools and refreshes. From the glow that bursts with joy to the breeze that cools, a full range of ecstatic experience is covered. Clearly, this experience is not a product of Kierkegaard’s imagination: it is an ineffable experience for which his imagination tries to provide a cognitive shape that will unite conscious and unconscious in a new horizon of meaning for a radically transformed personal existence.

The crowning image alluding to Abraham transforms the depth of unconscious despair in Kierkegaard and metaphorically unites him to the transcendent holiness of God. Thus, the One who comes to young Soren is the One (in three) who comes to Abraham in Genesis 18:1…The fundamental incoherence that lies behind this master imagine in Kierkegaard is the personally devastating relationship that Soren had with his father, and the alienation they both had from God. This was a desperate separation which both took extremely seriously, and it was the curse under which they lived. The reference to Abraham puts this and Soren’s recent reconciliation to his father in startling new focus as follows.

On Soren’s twenty-fifth birthday, just two weeks before this experience, his father, a very old eighty-two, confessed the sins of his youth (his cursing of God and his sensuality) to his son. He asked his forgiveness for them and for all the negative consequences they had brought on the family…This brought him to himself, and when father and son had forgiven and blessed each other, Soren could return home. This is the most significant human occasion behind the higher order, spiritual reconciliation, which his experience of joy displays.

As a human reconciliation, it is immensely satisfying, as in the joy between Cordelia and King Lear when they are reconciled (a parallel to which Kierkegaard refers), but it is at the same time theologically and existentially deficient. The power of the Spirit under which this experience occurs negates all the negations of human kinship; the human bloodline must be negated and transformed into the blood of Christ if eternal death is to be overcome. Young Soren had to be transformed from an illegitimate child of the flesh, Ishmael, to the child of promise and of God. The message of the cooling “trade wind” was that this had been accomplished. Less than two months after this indescribable experience, Soren went to confession to prepare himself for receiving Communion. When he took Communion, he went alone without his father or his brother, an ordained clergyman. On August 8 of that same year, his father died.

By the transformative power of the Spirit…the double conflict between father and son, and between them both and God, was resolved in a stunning moment of participation in the joyful holiness of God. The biblical image that transforms kinship and alienation into reconciliation to God is aged Abraham, who runs from his tent in the heat of the day to receive from God the promise of the son who will be conceived in Sarah’s womb. Thus an aged father of eighty-two reaching out to his estranged son becomes young Soren’s prototype for the master image of Abraham, in whom the father-son relationship is transfigured into a relationship constituted and sustained not by kinship but by grace alone. This God made plain to Abraham on Mt. Moriah many years later, and Kierkegaard dramatically restated the point in his famous “Panergyric on Abraham” in Fear and Trembling, all in anticipation of Calvary.

If Lowrie was correct, the experience of inexpressible joy “was…super real, and it preoccupied him all his life long.” If the joy here is Kierkegaard’s “Hosanna,” then verification and confirmation can be found in his “prodigious authorship,” which has been perpetuated around the globe from West to East and portrayed in every medium of the modern world from literature and drama to television and film. Most profoundly, of course, he altered the course of modern philosophy and theology though he had no institutional connections in church or university to promote his thought. It should not be forgotten, however, that his own assessment of his influence, which knowledge of subsequent history would not have changed, was that he “was just a little bit of spice.”

Finally, Kierkegaard’s identification with St. Paul is not incidental. For him, his authorship was in the last analysis like St. Paul’s gospel, from God alone (Gal. 1:12). Although there were human prototypes, he “did not receive it from man, nor was [he] taught it, but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ.” For those aware of Kierkegaardian stereotypes, it comes as an irony that joy, not melancholy; relationship, not individualism; transparent union with God, not despairing alienation; have generated this incredible authorship.

Of course, this is only to suggest for the case of Soren Kierkegaard some of the aspects of human existence that are taken up in the power of the Creator Spirit and transformed through an experience of indescribable joy. Clearly we have just begun to explore the dimensions of the dynamic reality that lies behind such convictional experience as this, the gracious complementarity between the human spirit and the Holy Spirit, and the impact they may have upon individual and corporate life. These matters will be taken up in the following chapters.

(By the way, the picture depicts Paul’s confrontation with Jesus in which Paul was blinded, in case you were wondering.)

Transforming Moment, Intro 1

william_blake_the_conversion_of_saul_printAs 2014 ended Dwayne and I announced our intention to get into James Loder’s work in 2015, beginning with his The Transforming Moment (TM). We never got around to Loder, temporarily discontinuing our posts instead. But as we get back into blogging, we’d like to make good on those earlier plans. I think the way to go about getting into TM would be to post a couple of passages from his own introduction and then summarize and comment on subsequent chapters. Loder has profound insights into the nature of human development as a spiritual enterprise in general and of spiritual formation in Christ in particular.

So, from the Introduction under the subtitle Logic of Transformation

[T]he generative sources of human intelligence abhor a vacuum. Beneath our educated and scholarly ways of knowing, another dynamic moves to explore “the deep things of the person,” and to generate from hidden resources new, and sometimes powerful, insights that transform the horizons of intelligibility…Kierkegaard called this generative I the human spirit.

Much more must be said about this dynamic, but here let me introduce the human spirit, the uninvited guest in every meaningful knowing event and the dynamic that unobtrusively directs and shapes them all. This dynamic can be characterized as a coherent pattern of knowing which draws into a different whole the many splintered ways we are taught to think. Although this pattern does not emphasize cognitive behavior, its power to shape cognition is familiar to us in acts of creativity and scientific discovery. It is not predominantly a passionate, Dionysian way of knowing, but it is profoundly evident in the intuition and affective ways we know each other in acts of love and compassion. It does not stress either the transcendent self or the immanent self at the expense of the other, but tends to accentuate the dual unity of the self by holding transcendence and immanence together and apart at the same time (as discussed in Chapter 3).

Essential to the spirit’s nature is its wind-like quality; it often takes us by surprise and leads us where we would not otherwise go. Its deeper characteristic, however, is its integrity in driving toward meaning and wholeness in every complex and variegated context. Thus, in an understanding of the spirit, continuity and discontinuity must be combined in a patterned process that does justice to both in the context of a single act of event. This study proposes to show how they are combined in what will be called the logic of transformation.

The steps of this logic are as follows:

oie_deep_breath(1) Confict-in-context. In a given context, the deep movement of the human spirit begins in restless incoherence, dichotomy, or fragmented situations…which defy our elemental longings for coherence. The spirit’s movement is “deep” because often the basic incoherence is more unconscious than conscious. Furthermore, the generative powers of the spirit are not sufficiently engaged until unconscious resources become involved in resolving the incoherence.

(2) Interlude for scanning. Whether conscious or unconscious, the spirit in the psyche cannot rest with incoherence. Although much of human activity, intellectual as well as experiential, is random and inconsistent, the inner drive toward consistency and the resolution of dissonance is a persistent force in psychic life. Thus once a conflict is engaged, the spirit begins the search for resolution. It scans inward and outward for relevant possibilities and prototypes beyond the frame of the problem…that can overcome the discrepancies which are not consistent with the integrity of our research or of our souls.

(3) Insight felt with intuitive force. Sooner or later the ingenuity of the spirit will surprise and often delight us with a constructive resolution that reconstellates the elements of the incoherence and creates a new, more comprehensive context of meaning. This new context transforms the previously conflicted elements or frames of reference, yet without distorting their integrity.

(4) Release and repattering. It is a basic principle of the spirit that energy is invested in and bound by the incoherence, holding on to the conflicted elements so as to effect, if possible, a transformation. Consequently, when the constructive resolution appears, there is a release of energy bound up with the conflict. This “aha,” “Eureka,” or “Hosana” effect is not an incidental byproduct of an otherwise clear-cut logical sequence; it is the usually necessary but not sufficient evidence that the resolution fits. Energy is now available for testing and repattering the original situation in light of the new resolution.

(5) Interpretation and verification. In keeping with this drive toward completion and continuity, the spirit eventually seeks confirmation and verification by interpreting the insight back into the incoherence to see whether its conditions have been met. Finally, the resolution must be submitted to a public test.

These five steps, in their systemic interconnectedness, constitute the logic of transformation inherent in the human spirit. Here it is important to understand that transformation is not merely a synonym for positive change. Rather it occurs whenever, within a given frame of reference or experience, hidden order of coherence and meaning emerge to alter the axioms of the given frame and reorder its elements accordingly.

The pattern described above is easily recognized in common acts of constructive experience…in acts of scientific discovery, and in creative work in the arts or literature. However, in such examples the human spirit is operating largely under the agency of the human ago, which does not itself undergo transformation. Let us suppose that the conflicted situation, vacuum, or void was endemic to the ego itself. Then, would this pattered process still pertain? The basic answer of this study will be “yes,” but in such cases the logic of transformation is transposed to the level of divine action. In this the Holy Spirit as Spiritus Creator, whose mission beings and ends in the inner life of God, transforms the human ego—and by implication, then, all human transformations which issue from the ego are themselves transformed.

Racism: a failure of self-perception

conceptual-photography5In light of police violence resulting in the deaths of black persons, Dwayne and I have been chatting about, among other questions, the systemic nature of white privilege in America. I thought I’d share my thoughts (very much in progress).

I don’t think the “systemic” problem is an ill will or intention to harm. I think it’s a failure in the core of white folk to identify black people as truly and beautifully human, and this failure is essentially a failure of self-perception, that is, a failure to perceive one’s self in the other (in this case the other who is a black person) via identification of the true self with Christ as the shared ground of being and value for both the self and other. It’s not something white folk are aware of, and we deny it when the question enters conscious thought where we engage the morality of racism, etc. We say the right things when we intentionally engage the questions. Of course all races are equal before God. But that confession hasn’t soaked the deeper soil of our deepest self-perception.

Already I feel like I’m not really expressing my feelings well on this.

This happens because we fail to identify the ground and source of our own personal meaning/value with the ground and source of the meaning/value of black people. Bottom line, white folk by in large fail to see themselves in black people, and that is why racism is first a failure to perceive the truth about one’s self and only secondly a failure to see the truth about others. “Love others as you love yourself.” Jesus understood it. Love of other is a function of love of self, and every failure to love the other is first a failure to love one’s self. Racism is a misrelating to the self.

What do I mean when I say white people don’t see themselves in black people and that this is first a failure of self-perception before it’s identifiable as racism? I’m referring—theologically speaking—to that fundamental ‘self-constructing’ act we all engage in throughout life. We ground our meaning and value, our unique identity, in something outside ourselves. If my deepest sense of self is the belief that what grounds and gives meaning and value to my existence is identical to that which grounds and gives meaning to every other human being no matter the racial differences between us, then I must inevitably value and love others as I love myself. My guess is white people simply don’t see themselves and blacks as ‘one’, truly one, in that which grounds their value and identity. They can look at a black person and not see themselves, by virtue of their shared humanity, gifted and grounded in Christ. This failure needn’t be explicitly chosen by a white person, but it is easily confirmed in the historical advantages that whites enjoys in the United States. One has to intend to expose and confront it.

It’s not for the most part that white cops show up on the scene, see a black man and consciously say to themselves, “Oh good, a black guy, I hate black people, so here’s my chance” and then decide to lie about that when questioned. I think what happens is that the deeper unexamined racism I’ve tried to describe above is what comes out in tense and escalating situations. As tension escalates, people increasingly respond from their deeper values and identity structures, not from the textbook morality they agree to popularly. And that may mean slight or drastic alternations in judgment. When it’s all over, naturally they affirm what they believe on a conscious level. And there are always ways to plausibly explain their actions in terms of situation, perceived threat, etc. The racial false self slips beneath the surface and disappears.

What complicates this is that the law cannot peer into the deeper, core false selves that people access in heightened stressful situations. The law only sees ‘actions’ and only recognizes motivation when they’re made explicit or are obviously implied in actions. And that implication is much harder to prove in these cop situations where black people are killed. Indeed, I’m not claiming to have access into the hearts of white people everywhere. I’m only sharing from my own experience and journey.

(Picture here.)

God free—to be or not to be?

YaniI’m intrigued when Orthodox friends tell me I’m getting too philosophical or analytical when I explore what it might mean to say God is three ‘persons’ or that God is ‘loving’ and ‘personal’ existence. Then I run into the likes of Orthodox theologian/philosopher Christos Yannaras who provides some pretty philosophical heavy lifting. Here (and in pdf below) is an address he gave to St. Vladimir’s in 2010 that captures one very interesting claim regarding divine freedom about which I’m still looking for clarification and over which I notice not all Orthodox seem to be in agreement. The question has to do with the nature of God’s freedom as it relates to his existence as triune.

Yannaras (and Zizioulas, and even David Hart at times) appears to claim God’s very existence and triune relations are ‘free’ in the sense of ‘freely chosen’ in contrast to being necessitated or ‘given’. The Father freely chooses to beget the Son. The Son freely chooses to affirm his personal existence in love to the Father, and thus with the Spirit.

Now, if all Yannaras means is that God’s existence (including the begetting of the Son and the proceeding of the Spirit) isn’t subject to necessity in the sense of conforming to or ontologically obliging some objective standard of logic or meaning, then I don’t know any who would disagree. God doesn’t exist because he ‘has’ to, nor is the Father under some ‘constraint’ to beget the Son, etc. We agree that in fact God can’t be said to exist “because of” anything. His existence is not a reply to or conformity to necessity. There is no metaphysical ‘deep magic’ which might be said to supervene upon God’s being in or which prescribes for God that he is to exist or that the Father is to beget the Son, etc.

However, both Yannaras and Zizioulas seem to be saying much more than this, namely, that God chooses freely to exist, chooses freely to be triune, etc. But I don’t have any idea of what choice or freedom means in this case. God chooses to exist? Only what exists can choose. Or, as existing, the Father chooses freely to beget the Son? God chooses to be triune? In that case, what becomes of Zizioulas’ “being is communion” or Yanarras’ “relational ontology”?

Aristotle Papanikolaou discusses (Being with God, pp. 148-161) this very point in evaluating Zizioulas, qualifying him to a point but essentially agreeing:

“[The reason] Zizioulas does not ‘conceive of the intra-divine communion of the Trinity as the ground of all that is’ is, quite simply, Zizioulas’s rejection of linking the divine life to any form of necessity. For Zizioulas, the price for making the intra-divine communion the primordial concept is the negation of absolute freedom. God’s existence is not absolutely free if it is necessarily one of intra-divine communion.”

And again:

“Freedom, according to Zizioulas, is precisely freedom from the given. ‘Givenness’ is what constitutes ‘the greatest provocation to freedom’.”

Metroop-Zizioulas1But this seems to me to undo the very thesis Zizioulas argues, namely, that to be is to be in communion. Alan Torrance (Persons in Communion) levels the same criticism against this notion of divine freedom as well, asking “Is the freedom of the Father to be conceived as qualitatively distinct from that of the Son and the Spirit?” and “Does the ontological freedom of the arche vis-à-vis the hypostases of the Son and the Spirit parallel the cosmological freedom of the Father vis-à-vis the created order as a whole?” Torrance wonders how, if creation is the result of a freedom from the given, is divine freedom in the act of creation different from that of the generation of the Son and the procession of the Spirit if the divine persons are also free from all relational givenness as Zizioulas argues, or indeed if God is free from the givenness of his own existence?

If as Zizioulas says “being is communion,” then you don’t get any more primordial than than being-in-relation. But Yanarras and Zizioulas both insist upon extending divine freedom to the Father’s begetting of the Son and procession of the Spirit (and the Son and the Spirit’s reciprocal freedom to affirm or reject their own being begotten and proceeding), threatening the very claim that “being is communion.” If communion is freely chosen, then being is not communion, it is rather absolute freedom to be or not to be in communion, which is not what either Zizioulas or Yannaras seems to want to say.