Thursday, December 24, 2015

A Theology of Cracked Spaces: A Confluence of Traditions to a Confluence of Spirit

“A Theology of Cracked Spaces: A Confluence of Traditions toa Confluence of Spirit” is a holiday reflection that comes from Omid Safi, a columnist for On Being.

A Christmas card by Banksy, showing Joseph and Mary blocked from Bethlehem by the Israeli West Bank barrier. 
(Banksy / Flickr  All rights reserved.)

Friday, November 27, 2015

The Art of Self

One of the inherent frustrations among Westerns in modernity is the quest to discover one’s purpose, sustainable contentment, and further making a livelihood out of meaningful work. Daily we are subject to an overwhelming barrage of scripts that promise to make us safe and happy yet fail to do so.  Hence the notion of happiness is generally connected to moments in a day that must be maintained by rising above boredom or repressing chronic, internal anxieties or stress that would quickly exhaust the average person if it were not for material consumption, the technologies created to “save time” and the need to be always doing something. God forbid that we try to contemplate the reality of death or sit in silence for more than five minutes which are the kind of moments that lead us closer to moments of awakening.  

Carl Jung said that with all this resistance and distraction, consciousness is still pressing forward "to its own inertia, but the unconscious lags behind, because the strength and inner resolve needed for further expansion have been sapped." Hence there is a disunity with oneself that breeds discontent. A critical atmosphere thus must develop—the necessary prelude to conscious realization. This is a quiet call from within to listen, to pay attention to the hidden, to possess the secret imprisoned in inescapable egotism yet gradually to be revealed by way of discovery, a natural progression within all of us that often goes unnoticed or unheard until it is late in life. It is the inner voice that begs your reflection now and over time and promises wholeness, completeness, human flourishing.

While I have been on this path for some years, I recently came across an exercise in Friedrich Nietzsche’s  Schopenhauer as Educator that essentially was written to provide a starting point to youth or any searching individual who is willing to chase a set of probing questions over time as a method to assist in the cardinal yet byzantine task of knowing oneself. Nietzsche begins, and I recommend as a threshold this project.   

How can one know himself? It is a dark, mysterious business: if a hare has seven skins, an individual may skin himself seventy times seven times without being able to say, "Now that is truly you; that is no longer your outside." It is also an agonizing, hazardous undertaking thus to dig into oneself, to climb down toughly and directly into the tunnels of one's being. How easy it is thereby to give oneself such injuries as no physician can heal. Moreover, why should it even be necessary given that everything bears witness to our being – our friendships and animosities, our glances and handshakes, our memories and all that we forget, our books as well as our pens. For the most important inquiry, however, there is a method. Let the young soul survey its own life with a view of the following question: 
Here is Nietzsche’s method laid out in the form of questions. I suggest take several weeks to do this--there is no time line. Lay out your musings on paper or document; keep coming back to it and lay it out, expand it as described below.  The numbering is mine for which I recommend following a process that follows natural steps. I have provided some alternative translations in the brackets.

[1] "What have you up to now truly loved, [2] what has drawn your soul upward, [3] mastered [dominated] it and blessed [uplifted] it too [at the same time]?" [4] Set up these things that you have honored [revered objects] before you, and, maybe, they will show you, in their being and their order, a law which is the fundamental law of your own self. [5] Compare these objects, consider how one completes and broadens and transcends and explains another, [6] how they form a ladder on which you have all the time been climbing to your [true] self: for your true being lies not deeply hidden in you, but an infinite height above you, or at least above that which you do commonly take to be yourself.
Nietzsche embodied and laid credit to Schopenhauer for the challenge and insight to always pay attention, study and know our personal life/self that we might come to see our true selves. If not we are thus prone to become like the masses, exposed to the dominant scripts enacted through advertising, propaganda and ideology that promise to make us safe and to make us happy, yet have and will fail.*  In order to escape the gravitational pull of the dominant societal narratives that cannot begin to support the project of knowing one’s self, we must become de-scripted so that over time we might relinquish a world that no longer exists and indeed never did exist.  In a real sense, we must construct over time a counter script. A counter script in the words of William Stafford is conveyed with a metaphor of the “thread” in “The Way it is”.

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.
 William Stafford, from The Way It Is, 1998

Furthermore, Nietzsche’s method guides one in this needful process of de-scripting and re-scripting by way of what Robert Pippin describes as Nietzsche’s defense of a . . .

 . . .novel conception of genuine selfhood as a never-to-be completed process of self-development and self-overcoming, a philosophical project that recognizes the elements of truth contained in both essentialist and existentialist theories of the self, while committing itself fully to neither. The 'true' self, according to the author of Schopenhauer as Educator, is neither an externally given and unchangeable 'essence' (such as Schopenhauer's 'intelligible character’) nor an arbitrary and freely-willed 'construct'. My 'true' self is something I have to 'become', but it is also what I already 'am'. (Introduction to Nietzsche, R Pippin, Ed. Cambridge Univ. Press, 2012, 80)
Nietzsche further exhorts,

No one can construct for you the bridge upon which precisely you must cross the stream of life, no one but you yourself alone. There are, to be sure, countless paths and bridges and demi-gods which would bear you through this stream; but only at the cost of yourself: you would put yourself in pawn and lose yourself. There exists in the world a single path [the tread] along which no one can go except you: whither does it lead? Do not ask, go along it.
If we do not discover and claim our selves, which includes ours gifts, knowing our true talents and place in life, embracing and following our star or call, we will never unite in the words of Frost (“Two Tramps in Mud Time”),  

My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For heaven and the future’s sakes.

The failure to know one’s self is to be disembodied, disordered and confused, and unable to pass beyond ourselves among the psyche’s struggle to silence the secret voice of anxiety in order to discover through contemplation our true self, what Thomas Merton named the “hidden wholeness.”  This may well be a way of describing a place of human flourishing when we discover ourselves being fully actualized as we are meant to be. (T Merton, The New Man, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux , 1961)

Finally Nietzsche: “There may be other methods for finding oneself, for waking up to oneself out of the anesthesia in which we are commonly enshrouded as if in a gloomy cloud — but I know of none better than that of reflecting upon one’s educators and cultivators.” Here (the method above) Nietzsche gives us a place to start to consider those who have informed use over time, the various people and actions of others that have influenced us and have in part breathed life into us or imparted to us a model of what we intrinsically view as genuine and worthy of holding on to which may well inform us about the person we are and wish to be.

Image, Isabelle Arsenault from Mr. Gauguin's Heart
* While there are various dominant scripts and ideologies, one rational summation of the scripting in our society is a script of "technological, therapeutic, consumer militarism that socializes us all, liberal and conservative". (Walter Brueggemann)

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Hope and the Gentle Cynic

The combination of critical thinking and hope
Maria Popova of the website Brain Pickings, in an interview with Krista Tippet argued,
Critical thinking without hope is cynicism. But hope without critical thinking is naïveté. I try to live in this place between the two to try to carve a life out there because finding fault and feeling hopeless about improving our situation produces resignation of which cynicism is a symptom and against which it is the sort of futile self-protection mechanism.
Here Popova practice provides an elegant example of a well-adjusted, thoughtful person who tackles via “a subjective lens on what matters in the world and why." It is a public example into how to live and what it means to lead a good life, a honing of one's niche. 
Here I unpack the above statement a bit as it oscillates with my idea of gentle cynicism and way of navigating the challenging territory between and to prevent full-blown cynicism while working with hope.  For me gentle cynicism is dealing with the limitations of a world juxtaposed with the social and moral issues of the day filtered through narrative, poetry, philosophy and social ethic (tools for critical thinking).
Here is a visual, continuum model that places “hope” as the mean good.

            Cynicism            gentle cynicism                                  Hope                      mediocrity                          Naiveté    
             -------------------------------------------------------> -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  >
                                                        Critical Thinking                                                                                Unreflected life
                      [Self-protective resignation]                                                                                                                                                      [Blind resignation]

But on the other hand, believing blindly that everything will work out just fine also produces a kind of resignation because we have no motive to apply ourselves toward making things better [telos] . And I think in order to survive, both as individuals and as a civilization, but especially in order to thrive; we need to bridge critical thinking with hope.
Hope seeks out possibility, requires necessity, and is the proper relating of self to itself.  (Paul Ricoeur).  In Kierkegaard’s Sickness unto Death, Ricoeur writes that despair comes from the self misrelating to itself. The misrelation is not recognizing what the self is, which is synthesis of the infinite and the finite. Hope, conversely, is a proper relating of the self to itself, especially concerning the expectations one has of oneself. Expect too much of self, then one may despair of attaining one’s goals; expect too little of self and one may well despair of ever accomplishing anything at all.  
Hope theory (CR Snyder) is the perceived capacity to derive pathways to desired goals (in relation to mean goods) and to motivate oneself via agency thinking to use those pathways. Here hope is a positive motivational state that is based on an interactively derived sense of successful (a) agency (goal-directed energy) and (b) pathways (planning to meet goals).
The trilogy of Hope:
Goals - anchor one’s thinking about the future to specific goals
Agency - those capable of pursuing goals, who believe in their own capacity
Pathways - those that can imagine or plan way to achieve goals step by step along a pathway
* *
Gentle Cynicism is a place of tension where to prevent full-blown cynicism while working out or negotiating a context of time requiring a response to move more fully to a place where hope enlarges.  For me gentle cynicism is a realm of practices and mindset where one works with the limitations of a world juxtaposed with the social and moral issues of the day filtered through narrative, poetry, philosophy and social ethic.
On one level gentle cynicism is a response to an overly enthusiastic cultural philosophy that does not take into serious consideration the reality of time and chance, which smacks the face of most people, even those with the best intentions.
The ancient practice of gentle cynicism can be seen in the text of Qohelet.   Here is a recognizable line from this text (also known in its later Greek title of Ecclesiastes).
Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful; but time and chance happen to them all. (3.19)
While Qohelet does not completely disavow the idea of cause and effect, he genuinely recognizes that one cannot assume it is that simple. To be sure, the relationship between merit and recompense is chaotic. One is better served by exercising a healthy measure of doubt rather than just simply “having faith” in conventional thinking (cultural and "religious" assumption). Take the example of medicine. Medicine indeed may be a remedy in this sphere of temporality; yet one may be better (or best) served through other unrevealed (hidden) alternatives that are in tune with perhaps more original aspects of what it means to be fully human; e.g., suffering, doubt. Furthermore, what will become of us in the end is the kind of inquiry that begs our attention.
Practicing cynicism today (not the modern concept, but a philosophical way of living with ancient classical and medieval roots) takes the form of a dynamic filter between one’s soul and the world that sifts chaff from wheat; i.e., what is accepted from what is best and what misses the mark from what is actually participating with or working toward God’s Shalom (a vision of wholeness, peace, grace, wellness, wisdom; Greek eudaimonia ).
This kind and quality of cynicism is a way of training the mind and soul (self) to discover and experience more fully the fullness of God's creative, available energy or life, and less the draining emptiness and forthcoming bitterness of the things, ways and scripts of this world that (without this training) will ensnare and pull us into its subtle downward spiral without our knowing it.
Gentle cynicism is a way of moving through (not stepping away from) tensions where there is a complex array of easy-to-get-to thin practices (answers) and ideals on one side; while on the other, profound, thick sources of questions and insights that invite persistent souls toward the way of becoming more fully human.
Huskey, Rebecca K., Paul Ricoeur on Hope: Expecting the Good . New York, Peter Lang Publishing. 2009.
Popova, Maria,  transcript from interview with, “Cartographer of Meaning in a Digital Age” accessed from On Being, 05/14/2015.
Snyder, C. R. (Ed.).  Handbook of Hope: Theory, Measures, and Applications . San Diego, CA: Academic Press, 2000.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Memorial Day: Honoring the Truth with David Jay's Gallery, "The Unknown Soldier"

Elizabeth Blair of NPR News is right when she entitled her May 25, 2015 article, “It's Not Rude: These Portraits of Wounded Vets Are Meantto Be Stared At.”

It is deep, in your-your-face awareness of reality of war that will influence human enlightenment leading to nonviolence and genuine peacemaking. Images are clearly necessary since the ordinary, everyday person will not have contact with a real, wounded soldier.

Ron Shirtz writes, “These should hang in the office of every congressman, senator, and President to make them think twice before sending our troops into harms' way for dubious goals . . . [and] not a bad idea to have a brochure of these photos to hand out to teenagers when recruiters come calling at their high school to give them their pitch.

Link to David Jay Portfolios 

William Stafford in "Peace Walk" conveys the perceived awkwardness of the journey of pacifism among the masses that so easily gloss over the destruction of their own people in the name of a freedom over and against other’s freedoms and the natural environment with amnesia on one hand and almost religious ceremony to pacify their distaste for the horrid reality of failed wars and fallen people.

Peace Walk
William E. Stafford

We wondered what our walk should mean,
taking that un-march quietly;
the sun stared at our signs— “Thou shalt not kill.”

Men by a tavern said, “Those foreigners . . .”
to a woman with a fur, who turned away—
like an elevator going down, their look at us.

Along a curb, their signs lined across,
a picket line stopped and stared
the whole width of the street, at ours: “Unfair.”

Above our heads the sound truck blared—
by the park, under the autumn trees—
it said that love could fill the atmosphere:

Occur, slow the other fallout, unseen,
on islands everywhere—fallout, falling
unheard. We held our poster up to shade our eyes.

At the end we just walked away;
no one was there to tell us where to leave the signs.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

The Human Condition: A Theological Recollection from the Christian Tradition

Saint Paul, who was a highly seasoned scholar in the Hebraic tradition, seriously acquainted with the Hellenistic culture, and utterly committed to the vision of the kingdom of God, wrote the following to the ancient church of Philippi: "And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God."
Just blindly submitting to the dominate culture with little to no questioning of what it might mean in terms of one's true human self or journey to wholeness, is foolishness. As a gentle cynic steeped in the Christian tradition, I reflect on a full-bodied expression of sin and the fully human Jesus. This entails taking into account the reality of sin (metaphor: missing the mark).
A full-bodied expression of sin, according to James McClendon (Doctrine*), calls for dimensions of divine proportions. Sin is measured against the “full faithfulness” of Jesus Christ. Our humanness falls short of “true humanity” as measured against “authentic, undiminished humanity,” embodied in Jesus, who is “the truly human one.” And if Jesus is the archetype of a fully human person, our selfhood, as afar as it is sinful, falls short of true humanity. Borrowing from McClendon’s clever image, we are “Swiss cheese folk poked with holes from head to heel.” Possessing gaping holes, we are to be filled with human wholeness in every aspect of life through the embodiment of Jesus Christ. Taking the image further into the larger society, sin is a “puzzling vacancy or disorder in a God-created world” that is too complex for the concept like “original sin.”

This vantage point knocks the wind out of confusing sin with being human; for Jesus was human, yet portrayed without sin. Instead, we see ourselves as lacking in the vital wholeness that God through Jesus Christ fills with grace and truth. Thus the prayer of St. Paul, i.e., the answer to it, comes into play. What part does human initiative play alongside the monumental divine initiative to remedy the human condition in the fully human son of God?**

*James Wm. McClendon, Jr., Doctrine: Systematic Theology, Vol. II (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 124.
**"Son of God" refers back to the original myth of humanity in the person of Adam 

Artwork: White Crucifixion by Marc Chagall, 1938, oil on canvas, Art Institute of Chicago

Monday, January 19, 2015

Refocusing our Perspective of the United States--Barbaric?

Susan Neiman answering the questions,  "What should Americans know about how Europeans think?"

I wish they knew that they viewed it as absolutely barbaric not to have maternity and paternity leave. I wish they knew that they viewed it as barbaric not to have health insurance, not just as strange but as barbaric. I wish they knew that they consider all of these things to be rights and not privileges or benefits as they get called in salary packages. I wish they knew that it is infinitely more pleasurable to live in a place with great public transportation where you don’t have to jump in to a car every second to buy a bottle of milk. It’s not simply that it’s better for the environment, that the entire quality of life improves. I wish they knew that Europeans are mystified by the number of handgun deaths and by the fact that I can let my teenage girls go out--I go to sleep before they do in the middle of Berlin. They go out; they go to clubs; they go to art exhibits and enjoy themselves; they come home on safe public transportation. I neither have to worry about their being hit by a drunk driver nor being mugged by a poor person because you can have a functioning society if you view all of those things as rights that are well worth paying higher taxes for because they give you an overall quality of life even if again the salary- you don’t have the salary differential that you do here. You don’t have people making--  You have some people making giant amounts of money but not nearly as many but that it is infinitely worth--  Even in the terms of sheer self-interest it’s worth living in a society where rights are- also economic and social rights are distributed in that way because everybody’s life is better.
- Susan Neiman,

- - - - - - - - - - - - -

Psychologically, the United States is a bizarre mixture of overconfidence and insecurity. Interestingly, this is the precise description of the adolescent mind, and that is exactly the American condition in the twenty-first century. The worlds leading power is having an extended identity crisis, complete with incredible new strength and irrational mood swings. Historically, the United States is an extraordinary young and therefore immature society. So at this time we should expect nothing less from America than bravado and despair. How else would a adolescent feel about itself and the place in the world?

But if we think of the United States as an adolescent, early in its overall history, then we also know that, regardless of self image, adulthood lies ahead. Adults tend to be more stable and more powerful than adolescents. Therefore it is logical to conclude that America is in the earliest of phases of its power. It is not fully civilized. America like Europe in the sixteenth century is still barbaric ( a description, not a moral judgment). Its culture is unformed. Its will is powerful. Its emotions drive it in different and contradictory directions.

Cultures lives in three states. The first state is barbarism. Barbarians believe that the customs of their village are the laws of nature and that anyone who doesn’t live the way the live is beneath contempt and requiring redemption and destruction. The third state is decadence. Decadents cynically believe that nothing is better than anything else. If they hold anyone in contempt, it is those that believe in anything. Nothing is worth fighting for.

Civilization is the second and most rare state. Civilized people are able to balance two contradictory thoughts in their minds. They believe that there are truths and that their cultures approximate those truths. At the same time, they hold open their mind the possibility that they are in error. The combination of belief and skepticism is inherently unstable. Cultures pass through barbarism, to civilization to decadence, as skepticism undermines self-certainty. Civilized people fight selectively but effectively. Obviously all cultures contain people that are barbaric, civilized, or decadent, but each culture is dominated at different times by one principle.

Europe was barbaric in the sixteenth century, as self-certainty of Christianity fueled the first conquests. Europe passed into civilization in the eighteenth and nineteenth century and then collapsed into decadence in the twentieth century. The United States is just beginning its cultural and historic journey. Until now it has not been sufficiently coherent to have a definite culture. As it becomes the center of gravity of the world, it is developing that culture, which is inevitably barbaric. America is a place where the right wing despises Muslims for their faith and the left wing despises them for their treatment of women. Such seemingly different perspectives are tied together in a certainty that their own values are self-evidently best. And as all barbaric cultures, Americans are ready to fight for their self-evident truths.

This is not meant as a criticism, any more than an adolescent can be criticized for being and adolescent. It is necessary and inevitable state of development. But the United States is a young culture and as such clumsy, direct, at times brutal, and frequently torn by deep internal dissension – its dissidents being united only in the certainty that their values are best. The United States is all these things, but as Europe in the sixteenth century, the United States will, for all its apparent bumbling, be remarkably effective.”

- George Friedman, The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century. New York: Double Day, 2009. 28-29.