Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Moral Theology of the Devil (Thomas Merton)

Thomas Merton: “The moral theology of the Devil.” From New Seeds of Contemplation.

The devil has a whole system of theology and philosophy, which will explain, to anyone who will listen, that created things are evil, that men are evil, that God created evil and that He directly wills that men should suffer evil. According to the devil, God rejoices in the suffering of men and, in fact, the whole universe is full of misery because God willed and planned it this way.

Indeed says this system of theology, God the Father took real pleasure in delivering His Son to His murderers, and God the Son came to earth because he wanted to be punished by the Father. Both of them seek nothing more than to punish and persecute their faithful ones. As a matter of fact, in creating the world God had clearly in mind that man would inevitably sin so that God would have an opportunity to manifest His justice.

So according to the devil, the first thing created was really hell – as if everything else were, in some sense, for the sake of hell. Therefore the devotional life of those who are “faithful” to this kind of theology consists above all in an obsession with evil. As if there were not already enough evils in the world, they multiply prohibitions and make new rules, binding everything with thorns, so that man may not escape evil and punishment. For they would have him bleed from morning to night, though even with so much blood there is no remission of sin! The Cross, then, is no longer a sign of mercy (for mercy has no place in such a theology), it is a sign that Law and Justice have utterly triumphed, as if Christ had said: “I came not to destroy the Law but to be destroyed by it.” For this, according to the devil, is the only way in which the Law could really and truly be “fulfilled”. Not love but punishment is the fulfillment of the Law. The Law must devour everything, even God. Such is theology of punishment, hatred and revenge. He who would live by such a dogma must rejoice in punishment. He may, indeed, successfully evade punishment himself by “playing ball” with the Law and the Lawgiver. But he must take good care that others do not avoid suffering. He must occupy his mind with their present and future punishment.  The Law must triumph. There must be no mercy.

This is the chief mark of the theology of hell, for in hell there is everything but mercy. That is why God Himself is absent from hell. Mercy is the manifestation of His presence.

The theology of the devil is for those who, for one reason or another, whether because they are perfect or because they have come to an agreement with the Law, no longer need any mercy. With them (O grim joy!) God is “satisfied”. So too is the devil. It is quite an achievement, to please everybody!

The people who listen to this sort of thing, and absorb it, and enjoy it, develop a notion of the spiritual which is a kind of hypnosis of evil. The concepts of sin, suffering, damnation, punishment, the justice of God, retribution, the end of the world and so on, are things over which they smack their lips with unspeakable pleasure. Perhaps this is why they develop a deep, subconscious comfort from the thought that many other people will fall into hell which they themselves are going to escape. And how do they know that they are going to escape it? They cannot give any definite reason except that they feel a certain sort of relief at the thought of all this punishment is prepared for practically everyone else but themselves.

This feeling of complacency is what they refer to as “faith”, and it constitutes a kind of conviction that they are “saved”.

The devil makes many disciples by preaching against sin. He convinces them that the great evil of sin, induces a crisis of guilt by which “God is satisfied:. And after that he lets them spend the rest of their lives meditating on the intense sinfulness and evident reprobation of other men.

The moral theology of the devil starts out with the principle: “Pleasure is sin.” Then he goes on to work it the other way: “All sin is pleasure.”

After that he points out that pleasure is practically unavoidable and that we have a natural tendency to do things that please us from which he reasons that all our natural tendencies are evil and that our nature in itself is evil in itself. And he leads us to the conclusion that no one could possibly avoid sin, since pleasure is inescapable.

After that, to make sure that no one will try to escape or to avoid sin, he adds that what is unavoidable cannot be a sin. Then the whole concept of sin is thrown out the window as irrelevant, and people decide that there is nothing left except to live for pleasure, and in that pleasures that are naturally good become evil by the de-ordination and lives are thrown away in unhappiness and sin.

It sometimes happens that men who preach most vehemently about evil and the punishment of evil, so that they seem to have practically nothing else on their minds except sin, are really unconscious haters of other men. They think the world does not appreciate them, and this is their way of getting even.

The devil is not afraid to preach the will of God provided he can preach it in his own way.

The argument goes something like this: “God wills you to do what is right. But you have an interior attraction which tells you, by a nice warm glow of satisfaction, what is right. Therefore, if others try to interfere and make you do something that does not produce this comfortable sense of interior satisfaction, quote Scripture, tell them that you ought to obey God rather than men, and go ahead and do your own will, do the thing that gives you that nice, warm glow.”

The theology of the devil is really not theology but magic. “Faith” in this theology is really not the acceptance of a God Who reveals Himself as mercy. It is a psychological, subjective “force” which applies a kind of violence to reality in order to change it according to one's own whims. Faith is a kind of super effective wishing a mastery that comes from a special, mysteriously dynamic will power that is generated by “profound convictions.” By virtue of this wonderful energy one can exercise a persuasive force even on God Himself and bend Him to one's own will. By this astounding new dynamic soul force of faith (which any quack can develop in you for an appropriate remuneration) you can turn God into a means to your own ends. We become civilized medicine men, and God becomes our servant. Though He is terrible in His own right, He respects our sorcery. He allows Himself to be tamed by it. He will appreciate our dynamism, and He will reward it with success in everything we attempt. We will become popular because we have “faith”. We will be rich because we have “faith.” All our national enemies will come and lay their arms at our feet because we have “faith”. Business will boom all over the world, and we will be able to make money out of everything and everyone under the sun because of the charmed life we lead. We have faith.

But there is a subtle dialectic in all this, too.

We hear that faith does everything. So we close our eyes and strain a bit, to generate some “soul force”. We believe. We believe.

But nothing happens.

So we go on with this until we become disgusted with the whole business. We get tired of generating “soul force”. We get tired of this “faith” that does nothing to change reality. It does not take away our anxieties, our conflicts, it leaves us prey to uncertainty. It does not lift all responsibilities off our shoulders. Its magic is not so effective after all. It does not thoroughly convince us that God is satisfied with us, or even that we are satisfied with ourselves (though in this, it is true, some people's faith is often quite effective).

Having become disgusted with faith, and therefore with God, we are now ready for the Totalitarian Mass Movement that will pick us up on the rebound and make us happy with war, with the persecution of “inferior races” or of enemy classes, or generally speaking, with actively punishing someone who is different from ourselves.

Another characteristic of the devil's moral theology is the exaggeration of all distinctions between this and that, good and evil, right and wrong. These distinctions become irreducible divisions. No longer is there any sense that we might perhaps all be more or less at fault, and that we might be expected to take upon our own shoulders the wrongs of others by forgiveness, acceptance, and patient understanding and love, and thus help one another to find the truth. On the contrary, in the devil's theology, the important thing is to be absolutely right and to prove that everybody else is absolutely wrong. This does not exactly make for peace and unity among men, because it means that everybody wants to be absolutely right himself, or to attach himself to another who is absolutely right. And in order to prove their rightness they have to punish and eliminate those who are wrong. Those who are wrong, in turn, convinced that they are right... etc.

Finally, as might be expected, the moral theology of the devil grants an altogether unusual amount of importance to.. the devil. Indeed one soon comes to find out that he is the very center of the whole system. That he is behind everything. That he is moving everybody in the world except ourselves. That he is out to get even with us. And that there is every chance of his doing so because, it now appears, his power is equal to that of God, or even perhaps superior to it...

In one word, the theology of the devil is purely and simply that the devil is god.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

The Grace In Not Knowing The Way (Gerald May)

If we are honest, I think we have to admit that we will likely try to sabotage any movement toward true freedom. If we really knew what we were called to relinquish on this journey, our defenses would never allow us to take the first step. Sometimes the only way we can enter the deeper dimensions of the journey is by being unable to see where we’re going.

From The Dark Night of the Soul by Gerald May - Ch. 3

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Freedom for the fulfillment of love (Gerald May)

If we were left in the realm of self-determination, our freedom would remain directionless. It might be freedom from attachment, but it would not be freedom for anything. It would be doomed to wander from one self-generated intention to the next. It is only by moving from self-determination to divinely inspired participation that freedom finds its direction toward the fulfillment of love. 

And it is the realization of our essential union with God and creation that enables and empowers the practical living of love in the real situations of life. There is no missionary zeal here, no knee-jerk attempts to be helpful, no programmed acts of religious nicety, no knowledge of what to do for one’s neighbor. Here actions and feelings flow from a bottomless source within us, and our intellect can do nothing but stand by and marvel.  

From The Dark Night of the Soul by Gerald May - Ch. 7

Monday, January 25, 2016

Please be

Could I stand before You and say
“Look at what I have done! Come, marvel with me!”
Certainly not. 
Even my best is tinged with shades of selfishness and ambition. 
I lord it over others, “it” being all manner of things. 
I'd turn heaven into hell. 
It is not a matter of scarcity. 
If I had enough, it would still not be enough.
I could not build a heaven
There is something within me, something that is beyond me, beyond my ability to control
But what is the deepest thing within me?
The very deepest part
The thing only You can see
The original
Is it wicked?
Is it lost?
Is it meaningless?
It cannot be
I don't even know myself. 
God, You
Must be the one
To dig beneath these walls of ego and will
I have built them strong and sturdy
These prison walls
They make sense in a world of tragedy after all
Defeat me
Find me there
But in asking this
My faith is that You are Other
Than what they have said, the many
So different
You must be
Please, please be
If indeed the depths of me are Your creation
There is but one question

Who are You Lord?

Saturday, January 23, 2016

My Bright Abyss: Christian Wiman (Part 7)

Chapter title in bold below.

Mortify Our Wolves

What is this world that we are so at odds with, this beauty by which we are so wounded, and into which God has so utterly gone?

Part of the mystery of grace is the way it operates not only as present joy and future hope, but also retroactively, in a way: the past is suffused with a presence that, at the time, you could only feel as the most implacable absence. This is why being saved (I dislike the language too, not because it’s inaccurate but because it’s corrupted by contemporary usage, a hands-in-the-air-holy-seizure sort of rapture, a definitive sense of rift) involves embracing rather than renouncing one’s past. It is true that Christ makes a man anew, that there is some ultimate change in him. But part of that change is the ability to see your life as a whole, to feel the form and unity of it, to become a creature made for and assimilated into existence, rather than a desperate, fragmented man striving against existence or caught forever just outside of it.

The single most damaging and distorting thing that religion has done to faith involves overlooking, undervaluing, and even outright suppressing this interior, ulterior kind of consciousness. So much Western theology has been constructed on a fundamental disfigurement of the mind and reality. In neglecting the voices of women, who are more attuned to the immanent nature of divinity, who feel that eruption in their very bodies, theology has silenced a powerful— perhaps the most powerful— side of God.

Nothing is served by following someone into a grave. Somehow, even deep within extreme grief, the worst pain is knowing that your pain will pass, all the sharp particulars of life that one person’s presence made possible will fade into mere memory, and then not even that. Consequently, many people fight hard to keep their wound fresh, for in the wound, at least, is the loss, and in the loss the life you shared.

It is as if joy were the default setting of human emotion, not the furtive, fugitive glimpses it becomes in lives compromised by necessity, familiarity, “maturity,” suffering.

My loves, I love you with all the volatility and expansiveness of spirit that you have taught me to feel, and I feel your futures opening out from you, and in those futures I know my own. I will be with you. I will comfort you in your despair and I will share in your joy. They need not be only grief, only pain, these black holes in our lives. If we can learn to live not merely with them but by means of them, if we can let them be part of the works of sacred art that we in fact are, then these apparent weaknesses can be the very things that strengthen us. Life tears us apart, but through those wounds, if we have tended them, love may enter us. It may be the love of someone you have lost. It may be the love of your own spirit for the self that at times you think you hate. However it comes though, in all these— of all these and yet more than they, so much more— there burns the abiding love of God. But if you find that you cannot believe in God, then do not worry yourself with it. No one can say what names or forms God might take, nor gauge the intensity of unbelief we may need to wake up our souls. My love is still true, my children, still with you, still straining through your ambitions and your disappointments, your frenzies and forgetfulness, through all the glints and gulfs of implacable matter— to reach you, to help you, to heal you.

A Million Little Oblivions

No, to be a Christian has to mean believing in the resurrected Christ, though I grow less and less interested in the historical argument around this: Did a man named Jesus really rise from the dead three days after being crucified in Jerusalem two thousand years ago? The arguments are compelling on both sides, but the whole process of putting faith on trial, the incessant need for an intellectual result, feels false to me. It seems like a failure of vision even to ask the question, much less to get all tangled up in it.

There is another way. It is the way of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, pleading for release from his fate, abandoned by God. It is something you cannot learn as a kind of lesson simply from reading the text. Christ teaches by example, true, but he lives with us, lives in us, through imagination and experience. It is through all these trials in our own lives, these fears however small, that we come close to Christ, if we can learn to say, with him, “not my will, Lord, but yours.” This is in no way resignation, for Christ still had to act. We all have to act, whether it’s against the fears of our daily life or against the fear that life itself is in danger of being destroyed. And when we act in the will of God, we express hope in its purest and most powerful form, for hope, as Václav Havel has said, is a condition of your soul, not a response to the circumstances in which you find yourself. Hope is what Christ had in the garden, though he had no reason for it in terms of events, and hope is what he has right now, in the garden of our own griefs.

Back to part 1

Friday, January 22, 2016

My Bright Abyss: Christian Wiman (Part 6)

Chapter title in bold below.

Varieties of Quiet

What is the difference between a mystery in which, and by means of which, one’s whole spiritual and intellectual being is elated and completed, and a mystery that merely deflates one’s spirit and circumvents one’s intellect?

We do not need definite beliefs because their objects are necessarily true. We need them because they enable us to stand on steady spots from which the truth may be glimpsed. And not simply glimpsed— because certainly revelation is available outside of dogma; indeed all dogma, if it’s alive at all, is the result of revelation at one time or another— but gathered in. Definite beliefs are what make the radical mystery— those moments when we suddenly know there is a God, about whom we “know” absolutely nothing— accessible to us and our ordinary, unmysterious lives. And more crucially: definite beliefs enable us to withstand the storms of suffering that come into every life, and that tend to destroy any spiritual disposition that does not have deep roots.

If piety forbids one to imagine any afterlife that makes this life seem altogether inferior, then piety essentially forbids one from imagining any afterlife at all. (Unless you simply imagine this life somehow continuing in perpetuity, which would, even for the happiest person out there, eventually be a kind of hell.) One can still have faith in an afterlife, but it is a faith both kindled and confined by the earth.

The purpose of theology— the purpose of any thinking about God— is to make the silences clearer and starker to us, to make the unmeaning— by which I mean those aspects of the divine that will not be reduced to human meanings— more irreducible and more terrible, and thus ultimately more wonderful. This is why art is so often better at theology than theology is.

Renouncing sex may not be easier than renouncing disbelief, but at least you can understand it; it is a problem you can, so to speak, grapple with.  Trying to take hold of disbelief is like fighting your own shadow.

Every man has a man within him who must die.

Our faith begins at the point where atheists suppose that it must be at an end. Our faith begins with the bleakness and power which is the night of the cross, abandonment, temptation and doubt about everything that exists! Our faith must be born where it is abandoned by all tangible reality; it must be born of nothingness, it must taste this nothingness and be given it to taste in a way that no philosophy of nihilism can imagine. —H. J. IWAND

It goes both ways, though: mystical experience needs some form of dogma in order not to dissipate into moments of spiritual intensity that are merely personal, and dogma needs regular infusions of unknowingness to keep from calcifying into the predictable, pontificating, and anti-intellectual services so common in mainstream American churches. So what does all this mean practically? It means that congregations must be conscious of the persistent and ineradicable loneliness that makes a person seek communion, with other people and with God, in the first place. It means that conservative churches that are infused with the bouncy brand of American optimism one finds in sales pitches are selling shit. It means that liberal churches that go months without mentioning the name of Jesus, much less the dying Christ, have no more spiritual purpose or significance than a local union hall. It means that we— those of us who call ourselves Christians— need a revolution in the way we worship. This could mean many different things— poetry as liturgy, focused and extended silences, learning from other religious traditions and rituals (this seems crucial), incorporating apophatic language. But one thing it means for sure: we must be conscious of language as language, must call into question every word we use until we refine or remake a language that is fit for our particular religious doubts and despairs— and of course (and most of all!) our joys.

You can’t really know a religion from the outside, and you can’t simply “re-create” it to your liking.

Continue to part 7

Thursday, January 21, 2016

My Bright Abyss: Christian Wiman (Part 5)

Chapter title in bold below.

Hive of Nerves

But the reality of contemporary American life— which often seems like a kind of collective ADHD— is that this consciousness requires a great deal of resistance, and how does one relax and resist at the same time?

Christ speaks in stories as a way of preparing his followers to stake their lives on a story, because existence is not a puzzle to be solved, but a narrative to be inherited and undergone and transformed person by person.

Even when Christianity is the default mode of a society, Christ is not. There is always some leap into what looks like absurdity, and there is always, for the one who makes that leap, some cost.

It is a strange thing how sometimes merely to talk honestly of God, even if it is only to articulate our feelings of separation and confusion, can bring peace to our spirits. You thought you were unhappy because this or that was off in your relationship, this or that was wrong in your job, but the reality is that your sadness stemmed from your aversion to, your stalwart avoidance of, God.

Art, like religious devotion, either adds life or steals it. It is never neutral. Either it impels one back toward life or is merely one more means of keeping life at arm’s length.

God Is Not Beyond

If you come to an idea of faith as “first of all an intellectual assent” (Thomas Merton); or if you think of it not as a state of mind at all but as “being seized by Being itself” (Paul Tillich); or if you think of faith as primarily “faithfulness to an event” (Abraham Joshua Heschel) in the past in which you or even all of humanity were, in effect, seized by Being; or if you construct some sort of “inductive faith” (Peter Berger) out of the moments of transcendence in your ordinary life; or if you feel that faith is wholly a matter of grace and thus outside of man’s control altogether (Karl Barth); or if you feel, as I do, that every one of these definitions has some truth in it— then you are still left with this question: Why? Why should existence be arranged so that our alienation from God is a given and we must forever fight our way not simply toward what he is but toward the whole notion that he is? If you let go of the literal creation story as it comes down to us through Genesis, if you let go of the Garden of Eden, the intellectual apple, the whole history of man’s separation from God tied to the tongue of a talking snake; if you let go of these things— and who but a child could hold on to them— then you are left, paradoxically, with a child’s insistent question: Why?

It is not that conventional ideas of an afterlife are too strange; it is that they are not strange enough.

I always have this sense that something is going to resolve my spiritual anxieties once and for all, that one day I’ll just relax and be a believer. I read book after book. I seek out intense experiences in art, in nature, or in conversations with people I respect and who seem to rest more securely in their faith than I do. Sometimes it seems that gains are made, for these things can and do provide relief and instruction. But always the anxiety comes back, is the norm from which faith deviates, if faith is even what you could call these intense but somehow vague and fleeting experiences of God. I

Religious despair is often a defense against boredom and the daily grind of existence. Lacking intensity in our lives, we say that we are distant from God and then seek to make that distance into an intense experience. It is among the most difficult spiritual ailments to heal, because it is usually wholly illusory. There are definitely times when we must suffer God’s absence, when we are called to enter the dark night of the soul in order to pass into some new understanding of God, some deeper communion with him and with all creation. But this is very rare, and for the most part our dark nights of the soul are, in a way that is more pathetic than tragic, wishful thinking. God is not absent. He is everywhere in the world we are too dispirited to love. To feel him— to find him— does not usually require that we renounce all worldly possessions and enter a monastery, or give our lives over to some cause of social justice, or create some sort of sacred art, or begin spontaneously speaking in tongues. All too often the task to which we are called is simply to show a kindness to the irritating person in the cubicle next to us, say, or to touch the face of a spouse from whom we ourselves have been long absent, letting grace wake love from our intense, self-enclosed sleep.

People who think poetry has no power have a very limited conception of what power means.

Continue to part 6

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

My Bright Abyss: Christian Wiman (Part 4)

Chapter title in bold below.

O Thou Mastering Light

That is, you don’t once pass through religious innocence into the truths of philosophy or theology or literature, any more than you pass through the wonder of childhood into the wisdom of age. Innocence, for the believer, remains the only condition in which intellectual truths can occur, and wonder is the precondition for all wisdom.

The great fear was not that God would withdraw, but that one’s capacity to perceive him would atrophy. I think of this when I hear people say that they have no religious impulse whatsoever, or when I hear believers, or would-be believers, express a sadness and frustration that they have never been absolutely overpowered by God. I always want to respond: Really? You have never felt overwhelmed by, and in some way inadequate to, an experience in your life, have never felt something in yourself staking a claim beyond your self, some wordless mystery straining through words to reach you? Never? Religion is not made of these moments; religion is the means of making these moments part of your life rather than merely radical intrusions so foreign and perhaps even fearsome that you can’t even acknowledge their existence afterward. Religion is what you do with these moments of over-mastery in your life, these rare times in which you are utterly innocent. It is a means of preserving and honoring something that, ultimately, transcends the elements of whatever specific religion you practice.

Innocence returns us to the first call of God, to any moment in our lives when we were rendered mute with awe, fear, wonder.

Solitude is an integral part of any vital spiritual life, but spiritual experience that is solely solitary inevitably leads to despair.

In fact, as I’ve said, this is how you ascertain the truth of spiritual experience: it propels you back toward the world and other people, and not simply more deeply within yourself.

You know the value of your doubt by the quality of the disquiet that it produces in you. Is it a furious, centrifugal sort of anxiety that feeds on itself and never seems to move you in any one direction? Is it an ironclad compulsion to refute, to find in even the most transfiguring experiences, your own or others’, some rational or “psychological” explanation? Is it an almost religious commitment to doubt itself, an assuredness that absolute doubt is the highest form of faith? There is something static and self-enthralled about all these attitudes. Honest doubt, what I would call devotional doubt, is marked, it seems to me, by three qualities: humility, which makes one’s attitude impossible to celebrate; insufficiency, which makes it impossible to rest; and mystery, which continues to tug you upward— or at least outward— even in your lowest moments. Such doubt is painful— more painful, in fact, than any of the other forms— but its pain is active rather than passive, purifying rather than stultifying. Far beneath it, no matter how severe its drought, how thoroughly your skepticism seems to have salted the ground of your soul, faith, durable faith, is steadily taking root.

We may think that it would be a great deal easier to believe if the world erupted around us, if some savior came down and offered as evidence the bloody scars in his side, but what the Gospels suggest is that this is not only wishful thinking but willful blindness, for in fact the world is erupting around us, Christ is very often offering us the scars in his side. What we call doubt is often simply dullness of mind and spirit, not the absence of faith at all, but faith latent in the lives we are not quite living, God dormant in the world to which we are not quite giving our best selves.

surely any spiritual maturity demands an acknowledgment that there is not going to be some miraculous, transfiguring intrusion into reality. The sky will not darken and the dead will not speak; no voice from heaven is going to boom you back to a pre-reflective faith, nor will you feel, unless in death, a purifying fire that scalds all of consciousness like fog from the raw face of God.

Dear Oblivion

It can happen when eternity, in the form of your first child, comes crying bloody and impossibly beloved into time.

For Weil, though, one thing is clear: to believe in God is a practical matter, faith a physical act renewed (or not) at every moment.

I felt almost as if God had been telling me, as if Christ were telling me (in church no less): get off your mystified ass and do something.

Continue to part 5

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

My Bright Abyss: Christian Wiman (Part 3)

Chapter title in bold below.

Tender Interior

Hopkins was a religious person; he believed in an afterlife. But he seems to have experienced something more complicated than the typical (and, I feel, pernicious) religious sentiment of being happy to be “going to a better place”; the last sentence seems offered as an explanation for the first two: he is happy at the moment of death because he loved his life. On the face of it, this makes no sense: if he loved his life so much, how could he be happy that it was ending so early? The answer, I think, lies in that dynamic of life and death that I’ve just described, that capacity of dying into the life that one has loved rather than falling irrevocably away from it.

What does faith mean, finally, at this late date? I often feel that it means no more than, and no less than, faith in life— in the ongoingness of it, the indestructibility, some atom-by-atom intelligence that is and isn’t us, some day-by-day and death-by-death persistence insisting on a more-than-human hope, some tender and terrible energy that is, for those with the eyes to see it, love. My grandmother, who was in the world too utterly to be “conscious” of it, whose spirit poured and pours over the cracked land of her family like a saving rain, exemplified this energy, and I feel that to be faithful to her, faithful to this person that I loved as much as I have ever loved anyone, I must believe in the scope and momentum of her life, not the awful and anomalous instant of her death. In truth, it is not difficult at all. Nor is the other belief— or instinct, really— that occurs simultaneously: that her every tear was wiped away, that God looked her out of pain, that in the blink of an eye the world opened its tenderest interiors, and let her in.

God’s Truth Is Life

One must have devotion to be an artist, and there’s no way of minimizing its cost.

So long as your ambition is to stamp your existence upon existence, your nature on nature, then your ambition is corrupt and you are pursuing a ghost.

I often ask myself why a “Christian instinct” often draws me more to the religionless people than to the religious, by which I don’t in the least mean with any evangelizing intention, but, I might almost say, “in brotherhood.”

Contemporary despair is to feel the multiplicity of existence with no possibility for expression or release of one’s particular being.

Our minds are constantly trying to bring God down to our level rather than letting him lift us into levels of which we were not previously capable.

Contemporary physicists talk about something called “quantum weirdness,” which refers to the fact that an observed particle behaves very differently from one that is unobserved. An observed particle passed through a screen will always go through one hole. A particle that is unobserved but mechanically monitored will pass through multiple holes at the same time. What this suggests is that what we call reality is conditioned by the limitations of our senses, and there is some other reality much larger and more complex than we are able to perceive. The effect I get from MacCaig’s metaphorical explosiveness, or from that of poets such as Seamus Heaney, Sylvia Plath, or Ted Hughes, is not of some mystical world, but of multiple dimensions within a single perception. They are not discovering the extraordinary within the ordinary. They are, for the briefest of instants, perceiving something of reality as it truly is.

Life is short, we say, in one way or another, but in truth, because we cannot imagine our own death until it is thrust upon us, we live in a land where only other people die. “Death is the mother of beauty” is a phrase that could only have been written by a man for whom death was an abstraction, a vaguely pleasant abstraction at that.

Sometimes God calls a person to unbelief in order that faith may take new forms.

Continue to part 4

Monday, January 18, 2016

My Bright Abyss: Christian Wiman (Part 2)

Chapter title in bold below.

My Bright Abyss

In fact, there is no way to “return to the faith of your childhood,” not really, not unless you’ve just woken from a decades-long and absolutely literal coma. Faith is not some half-remembered country into which you come like a long-exiled king, dispensing the old wisdom, casting out the radical, insurrectionist aspects of yourself by which you’d been betrayed. No. Life is not an error, even when it is. That is to say, whatever faith you emerge with at the end of your life is going to be not simply affected by that life but intimately dependent upon it, for faith in God is, in the deepest sense, faith in life— which means that even the staunchest life of faith is a life of great change. It follows that if you believe at fifty what you believed at fifteen, then you have not lived— or have denied the reality of your life.

The greatest tragedy of human existence is not to live in time, in both senses of that phrase.

If God is a salve applied to unbearable psychic wounds, or a dream figure conjured out of memory and mortal terror, or an escape from a life that has become either too appalling or too banal to bear, then I have to admit: it is not working for me. Just when I think I’ve finally found some balance between active devotion and honest modern consciousness, all my old anxieties come pressuring up through the seams of me, and I am as volatile and paralyzed as ever. I can’t tell which is worse, standing numb and apart from the world, wanting Being to burn me awake, or feeling that fire too acutely to crave anything other than escape into everydayness. What I do know is that the turn toward God has not lessened my anxieties, and I find myself continually falling back into wounds, wishes, terrors I thought I had risen beyond.

Be careful. Be certain that your expressions of regret about your inability to rest in God do not have a tinge of self-satisfaction, even self-exaltation to them, that your complaints about your anxieties are not merely a manifestation of your dependence on them. There is nothing more difficult to outgrow than anxieties that have become useful to us, whether as explanations for a life that never quite finds its true force or direction, or as fuel for ambition, or as a kind of reflexive secular religion that, paradoxically, unites us with others in a shared sense of complete isolation: you feel at home in the world only by never feeling at home in the world.

One truth, then, is that Christ is always being remade in the image of man, which means that his reality is always being deformed to fit human needs, or what humans perceive to be their needs. A deeper truth, though, one that scripture suggests when it speaks of the eternal Word being made specific flesh, is that there is no permutation of humanity in which Christ is not present. If every Bible is lost, if every church crumbles to dust, if the last believer in the last prayer opens her eyes and lets it all finally go, Christ will appear on this earth as calmly and casually as he appeared to the disciples walking to Emmaus after his death, who did not recognize this man to whom they had pledged their very lives; this man whom they had seen beaten, crucified, abandoned by God; this man who, after walking the dusty road with them, after sharing an ordinary meal and discussing the scriptures, had to vanish once more in order to make them see.

Was the fall into belief or into unbelief? Both. For if grace woke me to God’s presence in the world and in my heart, it also woke me to his absence. I never truly felt the pain of unbelief until I began to believe.

When I assented to the faith that was latent within me— and I phrase it carefully, deliberately, for there was no white light, no ministering or avenging angel that tore my life in two; rather it seemed as if the tiniest seed of belief had finally flowered in me, or, more accurately, as if I had happened upon some rare flower deep in the desert and had known, though I was just then discovering it, that it had been blooming impossibly year after parched year in me, surviving all the seasons of my unbelief.

Sorrows’ Flower

If Christianity is going to mean anything at all for us now, then the humanity of God cannot be a half measure. He can’t float over the chaos of pain and particles in which we’re mired, and we can’t think of him gliding among our ancestors like some shiny, sinless superhero.

Christ is the only way toward knowledge of God, and Christ is contingency.

Love, which awakens our souls and to which we cling like the splendid mortal creatures that we are, asks us to let it go, to let it be more than it is if it is only us. To manage this highest form of loving does not mean that we will be showered with earthly delights or somehow be spared awful human suffering. But for as long as we can live in this sacred space of receiving and releasing, and can learn to speak and be love’s fluency, then the greater love that is God brings a continuous and enlarging air into our existence. We feel love leave us in unthreatening ways. We feel it reenter us at once more truly and more strange, like a simple kiss that has a bite of starlight to it.

We feel God in the coming and going of God— or no, the coming and going of consciousness (God is constant).

What you must realize, what you must even come to praise, is the fact that there is no right way that is going to become apparent to you once and for all. The most blinding illumination that strikes and perhaps radically changes your life will be so attenuated and obscured by doubts and dailiness that you may one day come to suspect the truth of that moment at all. The calling that seemed so clear will be lost in echoes of questionings and indecision; the church that seemed to save you will fester with egos, complacencies, banalities; the deepest love of your life will work itself like a thorn in your heart until all you can think of is plucking it out. Wisdom is accepting the truth of this. Courage is persisting with life in spite of it. And faith is finding yourself, in the deepest part of your soul, in the very heart of who you are, moved to praise it.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

My Bright Abyss: Christian Wiman (Part 1)

My next 7 posts (this one and 6 more) will relate to a book I finished reading in late 2015 – My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer  by Christian Wiman.  These subsequent posts will consist solely of quotes from each of the 11 chapters in the book.  There will be no commentary or other thoughts from me, just the quotes themselves.  

My only exposure to Wiman’s work prior to reading My Bright Abyss was a short essay entitled “Love Bade Me Welcome”, (originally published in 2007 under a different title).

I don’t recall exactly how I came across the essay.  I imagine a link was posted or a comment made on one of the several blogs that I follow, but cannot be sure.  I know that I read it on the tiny screen of my iPhone 5S (the amount of reading that I do on my phone is sure to destroy my eyesight!) and I know that after reading the essay, I didn’t close the web browser window, thinking that what I'd jsut read was somehow important and deserved to be reread.  I read it several times and left that browser window open for months and months, afraid that if I were to close it I'd forget about it.

I do know that I first read the essay in mid-2014 just after my own crisis of faith began.  Actually, "crisis of faith" makes it sound too cerebral, too "garden-variety".  I simply don't have the ability to say much more about it even now, so I won't try.  I lack the words.  That lack, in part at least, explains why this essay drew me in.

Wiman is a gifted writer, a poet and teacher by profession.  The honesty of his story stuck with me, as did his ability to pack so much of himself into a single sentence.  (I want to be able to communicate this honestly.)  I need language like this to be able to perceive things differently.  Here, taken from the Preface of My Bright Abyss, are Wiman’s own words about the essay:

“It was about despair: losing the ability to write, falling in love, receiving a diagnosis of an incurable cancer, having my heart ripped apart by what, slowly and in spite of all my modern secular instincts, I learned to call God.  It was my entire existence crammed into eight pages.”

Wiman's essay is a memoir of gratitude and hope in what he "learned to call God" in the midst of suffering and loss, uncertainty and anxiety.  I wouldn't dare suggest that my own experience is comparable to his (Wiman was diagnosed with an incurable blood cancer at the age of 39, 1 year after being married).  His own experience of rediscovering faith in God didn't make my own faith crisis melt away.  It doesn't work that way.  There is no spell for that, no moment of clarity that makes all else fall away.  It was his unique blend of shadow and light (hmmm) that, I think, stuck with me (along with my perception, if I may be honest, that he wasn't a pop-religious "insider" writing cliche drivel.  That he didn't seem bound up by the particular forms of conservative Christianity that formed the foundation of my own religious background was a strength.)

It is this essay that led me to "My Bright Abyss".  

My Bright Abyss is a book that meanders.  It's very personal, at times bright and at others dark.  It critiques itself, argues with itself, circles around a concept before really exploring it.  It's not a hard read, but neither is it an easy read.  I needed a dictionary at times, but not excessively (and that's okay because I like learning new words).  I have to confess that I didn't get 95% of the poetry.  Reading poetry is actually work.  I think it's supposed to be.  Who knew?

The book is a really a series of individual meditations, not wholly connected to one another, but also not wholly disconnected.  It's the type of book that you could open to any page, slowly digesting a few paragraphs.  There is something being said that, while it fits into the overall meditation, can also stand on it's own as something to be heard and slowly digested.

Wiman himself describes My Bright Abyss as “very much a mosaic, not a continuous argument or narrative.”  

Ultimately I wouldn't know how to write about this book other than to quote it.  What he says, he says better than I could ever hope to say it, in a mere fraction of the words that I'd need to use if I could say it.  I've long loved the image of a mosaic - tiny rocks or fragments of glass (or photos in the case of a photomosaic) combined to form something larger.  You have to step back to be able to see the larger picture, how the smaller pieces have been arranged and how they connect.  In that sense, it seems to reflect life pretty well.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

St. Paul in the Trenches, Part 2 of 2

**Note, this is the 2nd of 2 posts on the GWC Bible Translation - otherwise known as "St Paul in the Trenches".  First post here.

“Does that matter?  What sort of timbre emerges from this muck and mire?  What rhythm, order, and tone?”

What emerges is unique.  Poetic.  Powerful.  I wish he'd done the entire New Testament.

It’s eye opening to compare translations.  From 1st Corinthians 15:19:

NIV: "If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”

GWC: "If the Christ exists for this world only and has no eternal existence, we are the most miserable of all the dwellers on this planet!"

Certainly these two translations don’t conflict with one another, but notice the subtle difference in emphasis.

Or Ephesians 1:9-12:

NIV: "he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.  In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory."

GWC: "Infinite and far-reaching beyond the bounds of all mortal vision is the wealth and power of that grace, so abundant in its wisdom and understanding, whereby there opens to the inner eye the wondrous revelation of His will, of His ever benevolent purpose, foreseen and fore-ordained in the Christ, which the gathering up and unfolding of the ages was to effect, even the subjection of all things to the Christ, the making of him as the sum and head of all as his consequent effect, a purpose to be carried out on earth as in heaven. Yes, the inheritance which we have now obtained is part of that consummating purpose, is in him, in whom we were first seen and known as the objects of this infinite purpose which subdues all things, destined to adorn his glory as we even now hope and expect by faith to do."


What I find so compelling in this particular case is the poetic articulation of the cosmic nature of this Christ; his "eternal existence" which is "beyond the bounds of all mortal vision".  This "ever benevolent purpose" that is grounded in the Christ.

These words breathe differently.

I could provide other examples. Now this is obviously not a word for word translation.  I don't know how "scholarly" it is and I’ll leave that to others.  In general I’m quite conscious of the variations in translations, but in this case it doesn’t concern me.  Why not?  For several reasons I suppose, but mostly because I’ve yet to find a translation that so powerfully communicates this cosmic wonder, this love and complete victory of God in Jesus Christ, articulated with particular eloquence in 1 Cor 15:

"That is the only significance of that practice which obtains amongst some of you, whereby the living are baptised on behalf of those already dead. It means that this progressive victory over death will ultimately include all who have died. The purpose of the Christ penetrates far beyond the little sphere of this life. But if you think that the Christ only comes to you on earth and for this life, what significance has this rite of baptism on behalf of those already beyond its pale? Unless they too are changed by the infinite operation of the Christ life, the rite is meaningless. And if the dead rise not, if there be no such victory and struggle at work, what is the significance of present struggles? I have faced the beasts in the circus before the crowd at Ephesus, I have run every risk, endured every danger, and won through them successfully — that is your boast, and the glory which you accord me for my service of the Christ; but if in this daily death of mine there is no underlying meaning, if it does not mean that even now Christ in me is fighting his victory over death, and successfully putting it under his feet and rescuing me from it, then what is the use of it all? I would rather say with the disobedient “Let us eat and drink; for to-morrow we shall die” (Is. xxii. 13) for there is no longer any meaning in my struggles. Beware! Do not let sleep overtake you, and your spiritual perception be cheated and fade."
‭‭1 Corinthians‬ ‭15:29-32‬ ‭GWC‬‬

Christ in me
far beyond the little sphere of this life
the progressive victory over death
ultimately including those who have died
the infinite operation of the Christ life
fighting his victory over death
successfully putting it under his feet
and rescuing me from it.

Those are some of the phrases and images that have stuck with me.  They breathe.  They give me hope.  They proclaim Christ.  In all of human history, to whom else could these words be applied?

Cornish’s translation confronts me with this Christ's victory in ways that I’m unaccustomed to, ways that I cannot dismiss as the banal Christianese "hope" that quickly crumbles when I look closely.  Bleaker darkness reveals a brighter hope, the triumph of a cosmic benevolent Christ, Lord of space and time.

Seeing what men do to one another and God's seeming silence in the face of it, I can understand why he might have left the work of translation behind.  Nearly two thousand years had passed since the Kingdom had “come near”.  Billions of births and deaths.  Bill-yons.  There've been billions since, by the way.  That could wear on a person.  It might make you want to find some theological loopholes to tone it down a little bit.

He faced the choice to either plunge into the darkness of his own unique and time bound existence - into the unique yet hauntingly recurrent depths of the human condition and experience - and to let refined words of the Christ victory emerge anew, or to live in despair, having left the Greek text behind at the halls of the university.

I dare not minimize their power, nor limit the hope and victory that they proclaim.  If I read them as they're truly written, I can't.  And I don't want to.

Back to Part 1

Saturday, January 9, 2016

St. Paul in the Trenches, Part 1 of 2

**Note, this is the 1st of 2 posts on the GWC Bible Translation - otherwise known as "St Paul in the Trenches".

While I do appreciate the feel of imitation leather and wispy paper, I often use a Bible App on my phone while at church.  (No, I’m not checking my fantasy football teams…..usually).  I’m not partial to any one translation and like having the option to flip through a few different versions on a given Sunday.

Now if I had to settle on a single translation it’d be the NRSV (though the app that I use doesn't have it).  My pastor uses the NKJV (having moved on from the NIV after many years, as have I), so when I want to follow along word for word I’ll go with that one.  The NET, CEB, HCSB, and the Message are some of the other translations that I’ll commonly use.  At other times I’ll turn to a translation that’s quite unfamiliar to me: the Orthodox Jewish Bible, the Tree of Life Bible, the Jubilee Bible.

While scanning the different translations available on the app, I noticed the GWC Translation - ”St. Paul From the Trenches 1916" - a translation of only 1st and 2nd Corinthians and the first 4 chapters of Ephesians.

And I love it.

By saying that “I love it”, I don’t want to imply that my relationship with the Bible is akin to a love affair, because it’s not.  Far from it actually. To be honest, I don’t buy ”the Bible as a Love Letter" trope - it strikes me as being rather…..(to keep things amicable)……disengaged with the actual text of the Bible. No, my relationship with the Bible is as messy and confusing as the Bible itself (whichever canon).  And yet something of this translation has fixed itself to me.

Now, I'm aware of the difficulty in translating the biblical texts.

Translators bring their own complex and highly personal theological presuppositions to the translation process.  They don't check their human selves at the door, passing through a magical sieve leaving only a mind purged of all but pure unsullied objectivity, masters standing over and above a perspicuous text.  Translations are thus inextricably tangled up with translators.  This is true no matter the time nor place nor stature of the translator.  Translation is thus as much an art as it is a science, a process involving the whole person and the person's surroundings.  That is, it involves words.

I’ve grown to love words, to appreciate their beauty and power, that beauty and power being found in both their precision and in their wideness.  They live and breathe, communicate what was, what is, what could be.  They connect people, a medium by which experiences are intimately shared and by which they live on.  A gift for words is truly a wonderful gift.  I admire the creative ability of the architects who build and create with the raw materials of these squiggly lines.

For all the perceived solidity of the finished product, however, words are also a dynamic thing; connected to culture, tied to symbols and experiences.  In the end though, they’re mere blots of ink spoken movements of air that have no meaning in and of themselves, no substance outside of shared experience and comprehension.  Language is born, it changes and evolves, and it dies.  A word or phrase that may once have been provocative or subversive may, over time, become stale or impotent.  As human understanding of reality grows and changes, language must grow and change with it.

So while the various Bible translations may ring at roughly the same frequency, they aren’t identical.  They simply aren’t.  Not only do they communicate different things, they each possess a unique timbre - a rhythm, order, and tone of their own that may resonate with the reader/listener in different ways *even when* they’re communicating something *substantially* similar.    One or two English words rendered differently, removed, added, put in a different order, etc. can significantly alter the meaning of a text.

Suffice it to say, it’s a conscious choice for me to turn to a number of different translations.

Back to St. Paul in the Trenches.

It has a cool backstory.

Gerald Warre Cornish, a professor of Ancient Greek at Manchester University, England in the early 20th century, is the author of the GWC. Cornish joined the English army during WW1 (I'm uncertain as to whether he was drafted or joined of his own accord), achieved the rank of Major, and was killed in action on September 16, 1916 at the age of 41.  Cornish began his translation of St Paul's letters during active service using only a Greek New Testament and King James Bible. The muddied journal housing the translation that later came to be known as "St. Paul in the Trenches" was found on his body, the words having quite literally been put to paper "in the trenches" of the "war to end all wars".

I’ve spent some time thinking about this backstory.

These are not words inked in the safety or sophistication of a warm library of dark wood, or bathed in the tranquility of firelight.  Flickering tongues of fire danced on a battlefield rather than within a hearth of sturdy brick.  There are no scholarly notes.  No board of directors nor co-translators.

It was penned in the midst of darkness, death, suffering, fear, and loss.  Bullets whizzing by. Bombs exploding. Cold, dirty, muddy.  Lonely.  I don’t believe this to be a sensationalized overstatement.

Does that matter?  What sort of timbre emerges from this muck and mire?  What rhythm, order, and tone?

Read part 2

Friday, January 8, 2016

Welcome to Shadows & Light and About Me

Hi, my name is Mike. Thanks for visiting my blog.

I live in the suburbs of Chicago with a beautiful wife (married in 2006), a beautiful daughter (born in 2013), and a cat who, after years of transformative therapy (ok, not really) and treats, has (mostly) stopped trying to trip me while going up and down the stairs. I have an MBA in Finance from a local college, and work in corporate finance. I currently attend a small non-denominational church in the suburbs.

“Shadows and Light” seems like an apt title for my blog because it summarizes my own experience of life - moments of joy, clarity and hope contrasted with moments of sorrow, confusion, and doubt. My experience is one of chiaroscuro. I don't mean to sensationalize my life as in many (most) ways it's quite ordinary. This is fine by me; “ordinary” is merely a term to denote something common to humanity.  And I think we all know chiaroscuro.

As far as the content of this blog (while it may go without saying), the ramblings, meditations, theories, opinions, impressions, and musings present here aren't those of a trained theologian, philosopher, literary or music critic (citations excluded of course!).  I am no chaplain, scholar, or cultural commentator.

I read daily, widely, and wildly (and some might add “obsessively”) and I'm grateful for the possibilities that modern technology has afforded me to read, learn, converse, grow, and pursue truth. Before being anything else, however, this blog is a place to collect my own thoughts and the thoughts/work of others both modern and ancient, to process my own experience and chronicle my journey, to wrestle with God.  It's a mosaic of wandering thoughts,  a meandering narrative.

My modest hopes for this blog are thus related to what it inherently is; I simply hope to share some of what I've learned and to chronicle and express some of my own thoughts and experiences. I hope that my thoughts about faith and life will resonate with and challenge others, as I myself hope to connect with and be challenged by others.

Thanks again for visiting. Would love to hear your thoughts on any of the content here, so feel free to leave a comment!

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Love of Neighbor as Hermeneutical Key

Therefore, all such things as you wish men might do to you, so do to them as well; for this is the Law and the prophets .  -Matthew 7:1...