Got a call yesterday from a friend who asked: What does it mean to belong, and what is belonging? Among the more important questions we can ask ourselves, given that belonging is what each of us longs for and sacrifices so much to find. I managed a few sentences on the phone but after hanging up decided to write out some thoughts in search of clarity.

There seem to be different kinds of belonging.

First, there’s biological belonging. This has to do with family relations. These relations are biologically based and irrevocable. Regardless of how good or bad the relationship is, a biological relationship can’t be revoked. I’m not sure if this makes it the least or the most interesting form of belonging because, as I’ll suggest in the end, the truest realizing of personal belonging is indeed belonging which is irrevocable and indissoluble.

Second, recreational belonging. This would be based on shared interests and abilities. You may belong to a chess club or a local choir. The terms of the belonging are your ability to perform the skill that defines the group. So here belonging is performance based. If you can’t do what defines the group, you don’t belong.

Third, there’s vocational belonging, not all that different from recreational belonging. You work for a company and so belong to the company or to this or that department within the company. The terms of the belonging are spelled out in your contract. This belonging is also performance based. Fail to abide by the terms of your contract and you fail to belong.

Then there are deeper more meaningful forms of belonging.

Fourth, marital belonging, a belonging which is, at its best, based on mutual love and respect and shared values and purposes. This belonging realizes itself far more deeply in us, and as us, than recreational or vocational belonging. The terms of this belonging are the love that unites the two who are married. In the end, however, where love and acceptance are conditional (as divorce makes painfully clear), marital belonging becomes performance based as well.

Fifth, there’s what we might call relational belonging. Two people develop an emotional or life bond that unites their hearts. It is based on mutual and unconditional love and respect. Here one belongs not to a team or a company or even a vow or contract of marriage, but to the other. Such belonging can certainly occur within marriage, but it needn’t require marriage, nor is is always present in marriage. This belonging is the heart and soul of true friendship. It was Aristotle, I think, who defined a friend as “another self,” a copy or separate version of one’s own soul. You see yourself in the other and they see themselves in you. Each values and loves and cherishes the life of the other unconditionally. Friendship, when it realizes its deepest potential, is the truest form of relational belonging. Its terms are unconditional love.

Now for the controversial part. Human beings all fail to love others in some measure. No human being loves (or even can love) another as truly and deeply as that person deserves and needs to be loved. I’m going to suggest in a moment that only God can love us in this unfailing and fullest sense. But when it comes to belonging as we know and experience it among ourselves, we are always in state of some failure. However truly one may realize the love and value of another, that other person’s value will always exceed whatever one has done to affirm and celebrate it. Belonging – as far as we can know it among ourselves – is always partial and broken, however deeply we may feel it at the time. There always remains a deferral of desire, value, and longing which anticipates the more, the truer, the final, etc. This is because human desire, like human value, is immeasurable and limitless, and can rest finally only in an immeasurable and limitless object. This, it seems to me, is why all forms of belonging mentioned thus far (except biological belonging) are performance based and tend to dissolution under the pressure of human weakness and failure.

Finally, ontological belonging. All the forms of belonging described here, with the exception of biological belonging, are approximations of the truest belonging imaginable, ontological belonging, the belonging which is ‘Being’ itself. For me as a Christian this is the belonging which is God in the fullness of his own being, in whom immeasurable and limitless value, on the one hand, and existence, on the other, are one and the same, suffering no deferral of desire or its satisfaction. Perhaps this trinitarian belonging could be listed first above, since all other forms of belonging are lesser reflections or approximations of it.

belong2What else might we say about what it means to belong? I suggest relational belonging is humanity’s highest form of participation in the belonging which is God’s own life. This belonging involves:

Knowing. To belong truly is to know truly, and to belong fully is to know fully. One does not belong (with/or someone in the relational sense) if one does not know the one to whom one belongs and if one is not also known by the other. Truth and transparency make relational belonging possible. If you don’t really know the other, or are not really known by them, you don’t belong. It is one thing to say you love another when you don’t know the other. It’s another thing to truly know the other and still love them. Marriage teaches us this. We start out madly in love but not always knowing as fully as we feel. As we come to know our partner more, our love is put to the test.

Accepting. This includes loving, affirming, valuing, celebrating, being present to the other and inviting the presence of the other – all unconditionally. If once you really know someone you reject them or are rejected by someone when they come to know your faults, weaknesses, and struggles, then you didn’t belong to them, nor did they belong to you.

Sharing Life. If someone really knows you and accepts you as you are but doesn’t share his/her life with you, there’s no realization of belonging. To belong is also to participate in the life of the one you know and accept, and to have that person participate in your life. Sharing life, I suggest, is sharing our histories, dreams, fears, hopes, values, and desires. It’s what we’re made for but seldom find.

Lastly, we can only belong to God. No human being can be all this to another, not perfectly. Only God can know us completely, know every condition, and so only God can love us absolutely without condition. And since this is so, we can only belong to God. We say we belong to each other, but as I take it this just expresses the measure to which we participate in and approximate God’s knowledge and love of us.

There is no spoon


British psychologist Susan Blackmore’s answer to death anxiety is to deny the existence of that which fears death. Rather than fearing death, we extinguish the desire for an enduring existence, and that is accomplished by realizing the illusory nature of what we take to be an enduring reality, namely, the Self. There is no reason to fear death, Blackmore assures us, because there is no enduring Self that lives beyond the span of a nanosecond. What we take to be the enduring identity and significance of our lives is in fact a chain of stillborn selves, each of whom dies as quickly as it is born. Life – as we experience it – is one long chain of death (as much as it is anything else).

All our experiences, perceptions, beliefs, emotions, deliberations are simply a sequence of discrete slices, and any attempt to construe them as constituting a history of personal significance is illusory. After all, that would require a principle of unity higher than the discrete occasions it seeks to unify. Check out the first three minutes if that’s all you have time for. She nicely summarizes the bad news.

One should understand what is being said here. Not only is the Self an illusion, but all aesthetic perception and valuation is illusory, for these are by definition ‘narratives’ constructed by selves over time, and per Blackmore, all narratives are illusions because there is no enduring principle of unity sufficient to gather together the discrete temporal moments of a life into a meaningful whole – and the feelings, aesthetic perceptions and moral valuations of our lives are narratives.

Such an understanding of reality fails on its own terms. Forget special appeals to transcendence for the moment. Rationality itself, as well as moral valuations (even moral judgments made on a purely materialist basis), are only conceivable if our rational beliefs and moral judgments supervene truthfully upon a history (individual or social). But all beliefs and moral judgments are narratives, and as such are illusions on Blackmore’s view. So it is not just the self that is an illusion because it is a narrative (which Blackmore knows because of the non-illusory, socially constructed narrative of her scientific method), but so are all narratives illusions, for all narratives, like the self, are constructed narratives that supervene upon discrete, momentary events which in fact do not constitute an enduring anything. But if this applies to all narratives, it applies Blackmore’s own narrative that all narratives are illusions. Her view cannot escape the reach of its own criticisms.

Indeed, “science” (by which I mean the ‘scientific method’) is a (kind of) Self. It is a socially constructed narrative expressive of an identity (that is, a shared perspective on the truth and meaning of the world) that acts as a filter through which all things are interpreted. But – and this is crucial – the power to recognize illusion as illusion cannot itself be an illusion. Some enduring reality, immanent in every conscious act but not itself deriving from any temporal process within nature, must be responsible for unifying conscious experience in the transcendental ways we require to get the simplest thought off the ground.

What ways are those? Well, to begin with, I’m not suggesting the Self is its own enduring reality that grounds the rational/intelligible/narrative structure of consciousness. With Blackmore, I’m happy to deliver the bad news to those who believe otherwise that they’re believing a fantasy. But not everything is illusion, namely, our power to recognize illusion as such. So the transcendent structure of personal experience should lead us to avoid ending our search where Blackmore ends hers, that is, in illusion.

Two undeniable features of our experience have to be kept in mind: First, the illusory nature of the socially constructed self. Secondly, the transcendent power to perceive this about ourselves (and the conditions under which we exercise this power). In the first instance there is indeed an illusion to expose, namely, the illusion that any self constructed upon the proposition that nature is a closed, material system can serve as the principle of unity for a life. In the second instance, however, the power to recognize this illusion cannot itself be an illusion. It must transcend the conditions under which the self is rightly said to be an illusion. But notice, this recognition of transcendence is itself rational, is the judgment of some ‘self’ (namely, whoever thinks his way properly into the truth of the matter), and it unifies the flow of history in a meaningful narrative. So while it may be an illusion that my truest self, the core of my meaning, is my being a white, American male or a former Republican, or whatever identity I could lose contact with in the event of a stroke or a fall on the bathroom floor, what is not an illusion is that every self expresses an enduring, conscious power for meaning-making under certain transcendent conditions, namely, the longing or desire for rational/intelligible perception, aesthetic experience, and interpersonal relations. In classical terms, it is a power for the experience of truth, beauty and goodness. Any attempt to deny this, as far as I can tell, only manifests its truth. Not all is illusion.

Not Alone

600x600bb-85Anita and I have been enjoying History Channel’s Alone series. Just finished Season 3 recently. Each season documents ten new pre-approved survivalists who are dropped off in remote locations and left to survive on their own. Seasons 1 and 2 were held on Vancouver Island. Season 3 was in Patagonia, Argentina. Each contestant is given a few essential tools to take along, but all have to eat, drink and survive alone. No human contact. They’re given video equipment to set up and record their thoughts and activities.

It’s very interesting to observe the gradual effects of solitude upon each contestant. The quiet breaks and whittles them down, brings them face to face with themselves. If you want to call it quits, you tap out by calling a Sat Phone and you’re extracted. As people tap out, 10 becomes 9, then 7, then 4, etc. If you’re the last one standing, you win half a mill. Season 1’s winner lasted 56 days. Season 2’s made it to 66 days. Season 3’s winner won on day 87. Amazing show. Check it out!

That said, my thoughts on being alone brought to me thoughts of the Cross. On the eve of his crucifixion, Jesus said to his disciples (John 16.32-33):

A time is coming and in fact has come when you will be scattered, each to your own home. You will leave me all alone. Yet I am not alone, for my Father is with me. I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.

It’s just because Jesus says this before the awful events that end with him on the Cross that its truth gets separated from the Cross and altogether forgotten when you get to the Cross. But the truth Christ here affirms should be included in what we have traditionally considered Jesus’ “Final sayings from the Cross,” for Jesus himself insists that what he here says embraces his suffering to come and so will be true when he hangs on the Cross. Think about it. We should learn to hear Jesus say from the Cross not only “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” but also “I am not alone; my Father is with me.”

Earlier we offered:

Besides explicitly declaring that his Father would be with him in his upcoming ordeal, Jesus’ point (v. 33) is that how God would be with him on the Cross would ground their own peace in upcoming afflictions as a consequence of his having overcome the world. That is, how the Father would be with Jesus in his suffering is how the Father is with us in ours.

Consider also –

Cursed is he who judged by us hangs on a tree
A cell made of diamonds?

Rorschach redemption

87241fc01b5a5f0a8aef2974cc9bb8feMy good friend Dwayne shared some of his spiritual journey with me. In describing how he used to view God in conversation with the Bible to how he now views God, he compared his reading of Scripture to Rorschach’s inkblot test. The metaphor struck me so deeply, I wanted to share it.

Rorschach was a Swiss psychologist who developed the inkblot test used to study a person’s psychological health and emotional functionality. It’s not an objective test (like a multiple test question). It’s a projective test. It asks a subject to respond to ambiguous stimuli (those weird inkblot images). The mind fills in the gaps and resolves the ambiguity on its own and thus reveals itself in its responses. What you see reflects as much your own state of mind as it does what’s on the card. I don’t know how much they use the test nowadays. I took it years ago. Got the job, so I guess I passed.

As Dwayne describes it:

When I first started doing theology as a profession in 1998, I was pretty much a double predestination Calvinist. I believed that God as Creator had the complete right to eternally predestine some to eternal heaven or eternal hell. I thought of it as simple property rights. If God made us for himself and he wants to play with us like toy soldiers, so be it. Who are we to tell the Creator of all what to do? If he wants some of us to be the winning side and others to be the losing side, so be it. It made total sense to me from the Scriptures.

But as I look back, more than anything I see that I looked at the Scriptures like a Rorschach Blot. I saw my own theological and emotional despair more than what the Scriptures actually say. Back then, I pretty much hated myself, and hated everyone else, why paradoxically being codependent as hell. What I’ve learned in my personal journey is that many times we see the Bible as we are, not as it is.

I like the analogy – a lot. I wouldn’t say the Bible is pure ambiguity (not even Rorschach’s inkblots are that). It is sufficiently specific (specific people, era, culture, etc.). Nonetheless, it is a mirror that reveals the reader. We are the text being read. It’s a thought shared by at least some biblical authors themselves. James 1.23-25:

Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.

I believe it was Barth who said something along the lines of ‘The Bible is not where we come to ask God our questions and have him provide the answers, but where God asks the questions and we must answer’. Scripture is where we come to be read by God, parsed by the Spirit, exegeted by the Logos. This is why though theology may be more than autobiography, it’s never less than autobiography. It’s also why, though “I” must read for myself, I must never read “alone.” We read the Scriptures together to call each other into being. This challenges me to examine my own reading. How does my reading of Scripture reveal my own sense of self, my fears, my angst and despair, my desires, etc.? Similarly, what do the readings of others say about them?

Not to books are we called,
Not to parchment, quill, and ink;
But to your flesh, voice, and blood,
Else deeper do we sink.
I read to be read by you,
That your Spirit me may parse;
Not for an errorless text,
Christlike persons are far more sparse.

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?

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.


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!

Becoming your true self—Part 3

Leunig-Trueself-582Permit me one final post on Benner’s book. Parts 1 and 2 summarized the variety of ‘selves’ (‘identities’) we navigate through in our process of spiritual awakening. I thought it would be enough to describe those, but Benner’s breakdown of human development in Chs. 3 and 4 was so helpful I wanted to bring it out here.

Benner arranges human development along two axes. The first axis consists of the different lines or dimensions of the developing self (toward fulfillment in the Spirit-centered self). The second axis describes levels of development experienced in each dimension.


In the first diagram below we have illustrated the first axis: dimensions of the developing self. I like these because they’re centered on essential, God-given, existential questions that motivate and drive our development and only rest as answered when they rest in their divine ground. Any other resting place constitutes a false self. These first axis dimensions are examined in Ch. 3 (“Growth and the Lines of Development”).


It’s easy to see how connected these 12 dimensions are and how connected they all are to the first. One might say that each presents a perspective on or an aspect of the developing self (the first in series). And as the varieties of ‘false self’ are confronted (Parts 1 and 2) en route to personal fulfillment in Christ, the existential questions at the heart of all the domains subsequent to the first (e.g., “Who am I?”) express aspects of the fundamental concern for our truest and most fundamental sense of identity. As I’ve suggested before: All our choices are either a search for or an expression of ‘who’ we believe ourselves to be. We are either at rest in our God-given, Spirit-centered self, in which case all we do expresses who we are, or we are not at rest in our truest identity in Christ, in which case all we do is an attempt to secure who we wish to be in response to the driving questions (in the above diagram) that irrepressibly propel us toward a satisfying rest. I love the way the domains are grounded in these God-given questions. They provide a nice self-assessment tool together with the second axis.

The second axis (from Ch. 4, “Transformation and the Levels of Development”) describes the level or depth of awakening in each of the domains that constitute the first axis. This second diagram of Benner’s below provides a way to view these. The diagram presents 5 of the 12 dimensions for a hypothetical person:


Nobody operates at a single level. As the diagram shows, there is bound to be divergence among the domains of development. Benner suggests that at any given point in time our ‘way of being in the world’ is organized around a single, developmental “center of gravity.” For this hypothetical person of diagram 2, that average level would be “2.” Some domains are beyond this and others are behind it. But most cluster around this level, which is a kind of platform upon which this person stands. It organizes our life. It is (Benner referring to Ken Wilber) our “overall level-of-consciousness development.” But because we stand on it, Benner says, we tend not to see it. We must exercise great intentionality to examine it and such examination always causes it to shift under our feet. Benner writes:

But how then does consciousness relate to the various lines of development? How does growth in the various dimensions of self affect his spaciousness? And how does that affect how we experience phenomena? Wilber offers a metaphor for how this works that I find very helpful. He suggests that each of the lines of development is like a path up a mountain, each offering its own unique view. What each allows us to see is related to the existential question that each addresses. Thus, for example, a the path of faith development rises, one sees more clearly how to trust; while climbing the path of moral development, one sees more clearly how best to make choices. Wilber points out, however, that the view on different paths is similar at similar elevations. Higher altitudes on any of these mountain trails represents broader and more inclusive perspectives. The stages or levels of development therefore represent the perspective from a particular elevation: increasing elevations represent increasing openness to apprehending reality on its own terms. This accounts for the fact that for various dimensions of self, descriptions of the higher levels of development all tend to converge. Just as mountain trials to the top of a mountain all converge as one nears the summit, so too do the higher states on all the various lines of development.

…In summary, therefore, we can say that shifts in our center of gravity represent shifts in our consciousness. At a minimum this will always involve a change in two things: our sense of our self (identity) and our view of life and the world (perspective). Movements up the vertical axis correspond to bigger selves and larger perspectives. At the core of both of these is increased awareness.

Benner addresses the question of how transformation relates to movement up the vertical axis of consciousness development. He describes this along a scale of “openness,” “consent,” and “awareness.” By “transformation” upwards he means four things:

1) increased awareness
2) a broader, more inclusive identity
3) a larger framework for making meaning (how we understand and make sense of our self, others, God, and the world)
4) a reorganization of personality that results in a changed way of being in the world

Benner, again:

With each expansion of consciousness, we do not simply become aware of new things; we also experience a change in how we organize these new contents of consciousness. This movement of increasing the contents of consciousness (awakening) and reorganization of those contents (transformation) is what we will be examining as we consider the journey of the awakening or unfolding self. In psychological terms, what I am proposing is that human development is primarily organized around this expansion of consciousness and the reorganizations of the ways of understanding the relationship of the self and the non-self that are involved in it. Each shift to a new platform on which we stand and from which we view our selves and the world is associated with changes in how we organize our experience and consequently with changes in our identity.

And a last word to the wise:

The journey…is far from linear. Do not trust any map of the journey that reduces it to a formula or leads you to expect a simple straightforward path. The walk is the same from beginning to end: openness and faith that expresses itself in sufficient stillness and solitude to allow you to be a good host to the Spirit, who is the inner engine of transformation. But the path is far from straight and far from simply one long gentle incline of ascent. It is a path that must take you right through the middle of life as it comes to all of us—with its great losses, loves, suffering, hopes, disappointment, disillusionments, and fulfillments.

There is so much more in Benner’s book I wish to recommend but space won’t let me continue. You won’t regret the purchase.

Becoming our true self—Part 2


Continuing Brenner’s description of the false selves confronted en route to our true self:

The Soul-Centered Self
The Reflective Self: “I am my experiences”
The first face of the soul-centered self that we encounter is the reflective self. First and foremost, this reflection is built on attention. Attention is our connection to experience. It is the connection between us and what happens to us. But, far from being automatic, this connection must be cultivated. Therefore the practice of attentiveness is the foundation of soulful living. However, because attention to anything opens a window to the transcendent, it is also foundational to spirituality. Attention [viz., “nepsis” for my friend Dwayne] makes reflection meaningful. Reflection in the absence of attention is empty and meaningless. Attention brings experience into focus. Without reflection, we are simply being carried along by the flow of life. Attention momentarily introduces a short pause in that flow, marking an experience with a soul flag that allows us later to come back to it if we choose to reflect on it.

…The focus of reflection is not simply experience but my experience: thus the object of reflection is my self because at this stage of consciousness development, I am my experience. Being my experience is not the same as being what happens to me. Identification with what happens to me, whether trauma or bliss, is a body-self way of organizing consciousness. Experience is not simply what happens but how I sense the event: how it registers on my body in my emotions, and how I process it in my mind. This is quite personal. No one but the individual can speak for the experience of an event; it is this experience, must more than the actual event, that is crucial in determining the impact of an event.

…Because at this stage of development I am my experience, all reflection is also self-reflection. Thus, as we saw in an anticipatory way for the individual self (“I am myself”), the reflective self is also concerned with existential issues such as being myself with integrity and authenticity. Questions of actualization (“How do I become who I most truly am?”) and fulfillment (“How should I be in order to experience the greatest degree of happiness and well-being?”) also become important. In this stage we encounter the first clear expression of a desire to be and to become all one can be. This is clearly a spiritual desire, and the response to this desire forms an important part of the resulting spirituality.

Unfortunately it is quite possible to become lost in this soulful reflection rather than allowing it to be a platform on which we can stand to view the vistas of an even larger self and world. This happens whenever we accept the penultimate identity with too much rigidity. One such possible identity that emerges at this stage of development results from identifying with the soul work I’m doing. The identity that results from this is “I am my issues.” Although it is important to work on those issues if I am to become all I most truly am, my transformation will be blocked if I allow myself to be reduced to my issues.

The Shadow Self: “I am my shadow”
One of the most important matters that we will inevitably encounter as we reflect on experience is our shadow: the disowned parts of self that we are unwilling to acknowledge as “me” because they are either too negative or too positive. Since we have denied and disowned these shadow parts, we project them onto others and encounter them as things about other people that disturb us. When we are ready to begin to recognize our shadow and get to know it, the first place to look is always to the things in other people that we find most annoying, irritating, or upsetting.

A failure to embrace one’s shadow compromises all subsequent developmental possibilities. But this is the hardest challenge that we encounter on the journey to this point. Many who confront this challenge do not ever move beyond it because they seek only to eliminate the troublesome experiences and are unwilling to acknowledge them as parts of their self. Most people, however, know nothing of their shadow self. Even if they develop a reflective self, they remain distracted by the myriad of easier personal issues that become their focus and fail to recognize how these issues represent parts of themselves, not merely problems they keep running up against.

…Embracing our shadow is essential if we are truly to know ourselves. Until we do this, we will never escape the enormous disruptive influence that these lost fragments of self play in our lives when we try to keep them locked up in the cellar of our unconscious[ness]. But when we are finally able to receive them with hospitality as parts of our family-of-self, they can then be integrated with the other part selves, and as a result we can become our whole and true self.

…“I am my shadow” is a distortion of the truth that “my shadow is part of me.” It may feel that my shadow and I are interchangeable because the shadow will often feel quite overwhelming. It will be hard to imagine that it could be merely one among many parts of me. But, brought into the daylight, it inevitably shrinks and can be seen for what it is: a lost fragment of self that was set aside because it didn’t seem to fit with who I thought I should be. Although I never really am my shadow, this is the illusion that we easily slip into when we identify with our shadow…Identification with our shadow is a place of powerlessness. There is nothing pleasant about it. But shadow work is essential if we are to move to higher levels of consciousness.

The Divided Self: “I am not always my true self”
Our shadow is simply one of the many part selves that confront us with the reality that we are a kingdom divided. We try to appear to be the single self we wish to be, but all of us are a family of different selves, and some of these part selves are inevitably in conflict with others. We are not the consistent self we try to present to the world. That persona is but one face of the multiplicity that we are. Until we are willing to welcome the other part selves into the family, we will never be whole.

Becoming aware of our dividedness is a mark of entering this next substage of consciousness development. Now our dividedness becomes a central feature of our consciousness: growing awareness of our lack of wholeness forms a prominent part of background awareness as we gather hints of what it is to live our truth and yet be surrounded by evidence of how little we do so. Although the way of being my truth is now on the horizon and I have touched it enough to know its singularly intense taste, much more of the time my experience is of being other than this wholeness and truth. My self therefore is the one who is not always living the truth of my self.

…Sometimes the true self is presented as if it is hidden in the larger false self and only discovered by peeling away the levels of untruth, much as one might peel away the rings of an onion. Unfortunately, the results are about the same; when the last ring is peeled away, what you are left with is a lot of tears, but not much more. Our truth does not lie in some hidden or lost part of us that must be uncovered: it lies in a way of being. This is why I prefer to speak of true and false ways of being.

…Many turn the quest for their true self into an exercise in self-discovery or self-actualization. It should be both of these things, but unless it is also a response to a taste of what actually is—an encounter with their larger self—it will never be more than a project of the false self. The transcendent is lurking in the background during all stages of the unfolding self, but it comes closer to the edges of consciousness as we move closer to the spirit-centered self. There is always a spiritual component to any genuine self-discovery and self-actualization…But what makes it a spiritual quest is when it is a response to the Spirit, who invites us to live out of the center of our being in God.


The Spirit-Centered Self
The Essential Self: “I am”
The experiential focus of people whose consciousness and identity [are] organized at the level of the essential self is being. We have seen hints of this in the soul-centered self, where being true to one’s self (authenticity) and being at one with one’s self (integrity) are not simply values but are central planks of consciousness. But now that focus becomes not being in a particular way as much as simply being.

It is highly significant that when Moses asked by what name he should be known, God self-revealed as the “I am who I am” (Exod. 3:14), sometimes translated as “I am he who is.” Jewish and Christian theologians have plumbed the mysteries of this name for millennia, but one thing is clear; it reflects an identity that is based in being. This terse statement of being requires no predicate. “I am” requires no qualification. It tolerates no limits. It marks the Deity as eternal, unbound being.

…We too can know that it is to have our identity grounded and centered in our being, to have our self distilled to its essence and to know our self as an “I am.” But notice how naked this stands in relation to all the other “I am” statements we have encountered at each of the previous levels of consciousness development. Up to this point each of the selves we have encountered limit our being by equating it with some object, experience, or state: I am my body, my image, my possessions, my role, my thoughts, my beliefs, my community, myself, my experience, my shadow, or my dividedness. The essential self recognizes that while all of these things may be true, they do not define me. I am much, much more than any of them. I am. My being is not constrained by my characteristics, history, possessions, abilities, or experiences. I simply am. And in realizing this, I am filled with the wonder and the simple joy of being.

…It is quite remarkable how something so fundamental to our existence can be so far from awareness…[But t]here is a noticeable vitality and presence to those who live out of this essential center. The vital presence that they are able to offer others arises from their presence to themselves and from their at-one-ness within themselves. This does not mean that they are thoroughly consistent or completely integrated. But it does mean that there is a simplicity to their being—a kind of elegance and ease of being that comes from living out of a place of such centeredness and distilled essence.

The Divine Self: “I am one with God”
The next manifestation of awakening is that of the divine self. This we see with singular clarity in Jesus when he repeatedly speaks of being one with the Father. His alignment with the Spirit of God is so profound that the apostle Paul describes him as the visible image of the invisible God (Col. 1:15). Jesus didn’t simply try to practice a life of alignment with the Father; he lived out of a deep knowing that he and the Father were one.

Being one with the Father seems to have been central to the consciousness of Jesus. His whole life flowed out of this fundamental awareness. I am quite convinced that his was an awareness that had to be cultivated. It makes a mockery of his humanity to think that as an infant he knew he was God. His humanity demanded that he grow physically, psychologically, and spiritually; central to that growth was for him, as it is for us, the development of one’s own identity and consciousness.

Without understanding it, I believe that the oneness with the Father that Jesus experienced and continues to experience as the risen Christ is unique. However, I also believe that his own teachings assure us that we also can and are meant to know a similar oneness. This is the testimony of those who have encountered their divine self. Those who have traveled into the realms of the spirit-centered self on the journey of awakening tell us that the farther they proceed on this journey, the more the boundary between them and God becomes fuzzy for them. They also speak of it being increasingly impossible to fail to see God in all humans, and indeed in all that is.


The Cosmic Self: “I am one with everything”
There is yet on more level of spirit-centered awakening. The cosmic self reminds us that oneness with God is not intended to be a private experience. Because all people live and move and have their being in God (Acts 17:28), it is not just me and God that are one. Even beyond this, because everything that exists is held in the unity that is Christ (Col. 1:15-17), everything that exists is one in Christ. The old joke about the mystic who walks up to the hotdog vendor and says, “Make me one with everything,” misses the point. I am already one with everything. All that is absent is awareness. This awareness is the gift of the cosmic self.

…To be one with everything is to have overcome the fundamental optical illusion of our separateness. We establish boundaries to try to reinforce individuality, but what we get is isolation and alienation. We think we have bodies instead of being our bodies, and the result is the alienation from our bodies. We distinguish between our self and the natural world, and we end up exploiting the environment from which we feel estranged. We think we are separate from other people, and the result is a breach in our knowing of our underlying shared humanity.

…The life of the cosmic self is meaningless apart from love. You cannot see the creation as being held and sustained in Christ and not begin to care for it as you would care for anything or anyone being held by God. Similarly, you cannot see others in God and God in others without an opening of your heart; when this happens, love leads you to know your deep solidarity with all humans as you and they are held in God. As you live in God and increasingly see others through eyes of love, you discover that the ways in which we normally categorize people and set ourselves apart from others are less and less meaningful.

Becoming our true self—Part 1


While getting clear on James Loder’s thought, I’m enjoying several good reads right now, one of which is David Benner’s Spirituality and the Awakening Self. He has excellent insights, though I think I better appreciate Loder’s (and even Donald Alexander’s) way of understanding the nature and function of the human ‘spirit’. Not that there are real disagreements between them; just a matter of emphasis. But I do appreciate Benner’s description of varieties of the false self in human development (‘awakening’) toward the true self, though I always get a bit uncomfortable when the final levels (upcoming in Part 2) approach over-identifying the human and divine (typical of all mystical experience, which Benner relies heavily upon). His book also has helpful case studies and Q&A sections in each chapter that help process and apply his points.

I thought I’d briefly present (or let Benner present) his developmental stages of personal becoming under four main categories, each having distinct stages of its own. Benner begins:

The human self is a vaporous and insubstantial thing. Unlike the body, the self lacks form, and its substance can be shaped in a great variety of ways. It is no wonder that it is so hard to define and so elusive when we search for it. This insubstantiality makes it easy to lose the true and authentic self by confusing it with imitations of our own creation. Thus false selves are simply proxies for our true self, poor imitations of the authentic original. In some deep part of our knowing, we sense that we are a unique reflection of our Source, but we are easily seduced by the urge to be our own source.

The varieties of false self are then described in terms of their fundamental framework for self organization. Each is dysfunctional when seen as “source” of the true self, though each level does reflect a broadening or awakening of consciousness. The four frameworks are:

  • The Body-Centered Self
  • The Mind-Centered Self
  • The Soul-Centered Self
  • The Spirit-Centered Self

We’ll outline the first two here and the second two in Part 2 forthcoming.

The Body-Centered Self
The Body Self: “I am my body”
The first option for an organization of consciousness of self is expressed in the sense of being my body. At this earliest level of organization of the self, this means that there is no room for any other competing identifications because at this stage “my self” is synonymous with “my body.” As long as my body remains the framework for the organization of my self, any other identifications that may develop over time will be relatively minor.

Two quite different body experiences seem to be associated with this level of self-organization: the body as a source of pleasure, and the body as a source of pain. In both, that pleasure [e.g., with sexual additions, and Brenner’s comments here are insightful] or pain [as with cases of childhood abuse and neglect] is the person’s primary identification and strongest attachment. It is the experience that is most characteristically “mine.” It therefore becomes “me.”

The Public Self: “I am my image”
The way of relating to our body that usually emerges next involves the adoption of an external perspective on our self. No longer is it simply a matter of me identifying with my body but, while my body remains the primary focus, I now view it from the perspective of others. Now my primary identification becomes my image: how I am seen from that external perspective.

…All of us know how easily we can be drawn into compromising our authenticity by worrying about what others think about us. This is just another potential false way of being my true self. For, while it is a developmental gain to be able to view my self from an external perspective, I am not reducible to my image or my performance. Sadly, however, those at this level of development do not know what. Their identity is their image, and their consciousness is now filled with the anxiety that is associated with any performance before an audience that they seek to please.

The Material Self: “I am my possessions”
The thing many people most closely identify with is their possessions. No attachment to anything or anyone is as strong as their attachment to the things they assume they possess but that in reality possess them. And, not surprisingly, there is nothing they think about more than these same things.

The Role Self: I am my role”
There is one other major form of self organization that also serves as a potential transitional place between the body-centered self and the mind-centered self. We see this in those whose identity and consciousness are centered on what they do (vocationally) or can do (by virtue of talent, training, or role). Think, for example, of the way one’s identity can easily be organized around being a mother, physician, poet, or comic. While identities based in what we can do leave us vulnerable when we can no longer perform at our peak, overall the transition into the role self represents another quantum expansion of consciousness and identity. Now we shift from identifying our selves with how we look to identifying our selves with what we can do. The center of consciousness is still the body because our roles, at least initially, are still body based. But movement from the public or material self to the role self involves broadening the perspective we take on the world and ourselves.

The Mind-Centered Self
The Mental Self: “I am my thoughts”
The first expression of the mental self is our attachment to our thoughts. Speaking for all who know this attachment, Descartes famously asserted cogito ego sum—“I think therefore I am.” Just as I previously attached to my body, and it became the center of my identity, so now I attach to my thoughts, and they define me. They now become my most treasured and wonderfully private possession. I examine my thoughts, review them, and feel the pleasure of identification with them. They are me, and my identity shifts from the public sphere of my role self to this more introspective sphere of my thoughts.

…The mental self can take many forms because there is such a broad range of mental processes and products with which we can identify. Consequently, people at this level of consciousness development can appear quite different from each other—and are quite different from each other. The identity of one may be based on his excellent memory, penetrating analytical skills, or seemingly flawless intuition; that of another may be based on her strategic planning abilities, creative writing, or well-informed opinions and beliefs. The common core is identification with what I can do with my mind. For many people, this provides such a powerful grounding of identity that it remains the organizing center of their self for the rest of their life.

The Ideological Self: “I am my beliefs”
Eventually, thoughts, judgments, feelings, and understandings coalesce into opinions, opinions become beliefs, and, for many people, beliefs begin to form a stable core of a personal framework of meaning. Once again, the nature of their ultimate treasure shifts as they invest their primary attachment to their beliefs. And once again, this becomes the core of their identity. Who am I? I am now my beliefs, not merely my thoughts, imagination, or other mental process or products.

…Christians sometimes find their spirituality reinforcing a mind-centered self when their faith has been reduced to beliefs. This has potentially very costly implications since it can impede further unfolding of consciousness and compromise development of important dimensions of self…I know personally about the way in which beliefs form a small platform for identify and self. For years I defined myself by my theology and clutched my beliefs in a manner that represented an idolatrous substitute for God.

The Communal Self: “I am my community”
Although beliefs can be private, once we make them the center of our identity, we generally seek out others who share them. This in turn strengthens and refines our beliefs and opens a portal to a transition from the mental self to the communal self. Passing through this portal, I am no longer simply my beliefs: I am my community.

The Individual Self: “I am myself”
The Spirit is always wooing us to further development. For someone with consciousness and identity organized around a communal self, this might take the form of a growing sense that while I am my community, I am not just my community. Increasingly I may have the sense that there are other parts of me that can’t be easily explored within my primary community—parts of self that might, for example, be rejected or experienced as a threat. This is one of the reasons why many who sense an invitation to notice and respond to the way in which their community may be curtailing their future development often hold back from exploring this territory out of fear about where it might lead them.

Yet some feel no option but to walk through the next portal. The parts of them that seem more than their community-based identity press so hard for exploration and expression that they know they must discover what they represent. As they pass through this portal, they discover not a single identity but a seemingly endless range of possibilities. It is dizzying to contemplate all the ways in which I might be myself. And yet I know that I am myself and that my challenge is to live the uniqueness of that self in community and in the world. And so I launch forward on the next great adventure.

…this level also has its land mines. That dizzying array of possibilities for my unique self represents a vast range of ways in which I can lose the truth of my being and confuse the truth of my created self, being allured by a self of my own creation. And so in the quest to become my individual self—not define by family, community, culture, race, or religion—it is almost inevitable that I become seduced by false ways of being. The risks of loss of authenticity are great, but so is the call of the Spirit to discover and be the truth of my self.


You are who and what you are,
Fount of all things, near and far;
In you all things come to be,
And being, come in you to see
Their ‘who’ and ‘what’ and ‘why’ as one—
To be sons in the Son;
“Person,” “Self,” and other terms,
All say what the one heart yearns,
To know one’s self as known by you,
As known, and loved, and lived by you.

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.)