Tamie and I are teaching a writing class at the local community jail. Yesterday I taught the class by myself, because Tamie was not feeling well.
Here is the link to my experience yesterday:
Tamie has been tracking the progress of our interesting experiences on her blog, and she asked me to write a guest post, to summarize the most recent episode.
A LOVE SUPREME
If you post comments here at Theos Project, please know that I will respond and engage your thoughts in a timely manner.
Thursday, July 30, 2009
Sunday, July 26, 2009
Does our American culture suffer from a lack of meaning?
Well, in one sense the answer is no. Meaning is everywhere, in everything. In professional sports, for example, every game has the potential to be "historic" and spectacular. Meaning is the pull of most sales pitches. Watching a toilet paper commercial or a fabric softener commercial is an exercise in living a more meaningful life, as this Downy commercial from 1990 illustrates:
And yet in an era where everything is meaningful, nothing is meaningful. That is, we are saturated in meaning, we live in a hyper-meaningful society. Our lives are intensely meaningful, much of this is due to the fact that Corporate America needs to link "a meaningful life" with the product or service that it is selling.
You need an investing company that understand how meaningful your life is. You need to invest in a laptop that can really (no, I mean really) express your unique creativity and interests. And, of course, your toilet paper is an intimate aspect of what really defines you.
So, in this meaning-saturated context, we walk this tightrope, we exist in this tension: we want this life to be meaningful, even though we know that the meaningful life we are being sold isn't nearly as meaningful as it appears on tv.
The result, I think, is that we kind of surrender to the cycle of over-hyped products that can't deliver the meaning they promise. But if we just keep going, we can kind of numb ourselves to the fact that there are no alternatives.
Meaning has become so commonplace that it is almost as if we transcend meaning completely.
Meaning is banal, boring.
Where does the Good Book fit into this mix?
For those of us from 20th century religious backgrounds, the Bible was that above which there is no higher meaning. It was the uber-meaningful. Meaning to the tenth power.
But this was a sales job. It was part of a mad scramble to compete with the hyper-meaning of the greater culture, or just a desire to completely disconnect from the culture of meaning and insulate the religious community, gathering around the Good Book each night and shunning all other forms of meaningful expression.
So, to the extent that the Good Book became caught up in the competition for meaning, it became so meaningful that it became banal. In fact, I suggest that for some, since the Bible was the ultimate source of meaning, it follows that the Bible suffers from being ultra-banal and uber-boring. Since we are numb to meaning, we are particularly numb to things that are particularly meaningful.
In what sense, then, is there hope for the Bible?
Where does that leave the Good Book?
A while back on this blog, I suggested that we burn our Bibles. That the Good Book was too common place, not sacred enough.
Anyone have a less radical solution? Or did I misidentify the problem?
Thursday, July 23, 2009
We tend to identify with what is right with us.
Or we tend to identify with what is wrong with us.
Or, some of us are like a ping-pong ball being paddled back and forth between the two: I am bad, I am good, I am bad, I am good.
Various theologies of spiritually tend to identify us with what is wrong: human beings are bad. You are bad. You are totally bad.
For many Christian theologies, our identity as bad people is the reason why we need Jesus. For example, you need your badness to be transferred to someone else.
Is this a truly transformative theology? I mean, humility is important. I understand this. But, is such a negative identity theology truly transformative over the long haul?
On the other side, some theologies (whether religious, New Age, or other) tend to identify us with what is good about ourselves. Actually, truth be told, the Apostle Paul does a good deal of this in his epistles. He talks more about believers identifying themselves as saints, holy, righteous, chosen, loved, etc. than about an identity based on badness. In fact, it is almost to the point that the very definition of a believer is one who believes that he or she is a "new creation."
I think there is something to this, in terms of transformation, but is there something even deeper?
James Finley talks about identifying with what is wrong or right about us. He calls it the “idolatry of identity.”
What we are, says Finley, is “that which arises from a longing for infinite love. Children of infinite love, trapped in the rubble. The illusion is believing that our circumstances define us.”
Finley is in practice as a psychotherapist, working primarily with victims of trauma. He discusses from a therapeutic/counseling perspective the healing and transformation that comes through loving compassion: “always the answer is to touch the hurting part with infinite love.”
Tuesday, July 21, 2009
"When life comes to a grinding halt, it is the one who listens that can bring healing and perseverance....Sometimes we have so much pain that we cannot hear ourselves." –James Finley
Certainly the healing and therapeutic element of listening is clear, going back to Freud's early days when he simply called it his "talking cure.” And yet listening still remains an elusive art form that few truly engage. Who wants to listen? There’s much more interesting things to be doing. And, more importantly, who actually wants to share? Deep exposure and vulnerability is a bit of a hassle.
Finley shares Jesus’ Parable of the Sower, found in Mark 4:3-8. I’m sure you, Readers, are informed: Jesus talks about seed that is planted in all sorts of bad soil (planted on rocky soil, in the weeds, on the road, etc.) and seed that is planted in good, fertile soil. To no one’s surprise, the seed planted in fertile soil grows and bears fruit. This parable is, in fact, quite unremarkable. Everyone knows that seed planted in bad soil won’t grow and seed planted in good soil will grow. It’s obvious. Jesus tells us what we already know.
Why does Jesus tell us what we already know?
Well, interestingly, as simple and clear as this parable is, the disciples didn’t understand it, and they approached Jesus to explain!
Finley believes that Jesus’ teachings were deceptively simple. And that the point is to attune to this simplicity. The disciples were looking for the “deep truth” to be revealed by Jesus, the spiritual guru. In fact, all they needed to do was to attune to what is obvious.
The different types of soil represent our capacity to listen, to hear the word. It represents our ability to be present and to attune.
“Every verse of Scripture is an invitation to listen more deeply to life.”
“Deep listening comes from love….love teaches us to listen.”
“God loves to listen….God is infinitely who we are.”
“If we open our hearts to listen, we manifest our true nature. When we listen we learn to be like God.”
Posted by Jonathan Erdman at Tuesday, July 21, 2009
Monday, July 20, 2009
I'm off to South Dakota, land of the pheasant, for a family reunion.
Each year, my mother's side of the family all descend upon the family farm on Silver Lake for a party that rivals that of Woodstock.....minus the nudity.
In any event, being as I will be in the middle of South Dakota for a week, I will probably only have limited access to email, but I've got a few scheduled posts, nonetheless, to share with you, my adoring readers. I am going to continue sharing some of my short reflections on the retreat I attended, led by James Finley.
Friday, July 17, 2009
I’ve always wondered about “peace that surpasses understanding;” something deep that goes beyond cognitive explanation.
I’d like to present a few, short blogs sharing a few of the notes I took on a weekend spiritual retreat led by James Finley, a psychotherapist, spiritual teacher, and former monk who resided with and learned from Thomas Merton. I’ll space only a day or so between them, sharing some of the short but thoughtful things that were of particular interest to me.
Finley talked about peace that is not dependent on outcome or circumstance, the ultimate lesson of the cross. Peace in the midst of deep suffering.
Interestingly, Finley links this kind of peace to deep acceptance. The kind of acceptance that only a child can have.
“Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will not enter it.” (Mark 10:15; Luke 18:17)
A child is accepting by nature. A child knows nothing else other than acceptance. It is beyond cognitive understanding. It is deep.
I have heard that a child does not have the capability of hating its parent without a psychotic breakdown. That is, it is not within a child’s psychological capacity to hate. Children are emotional, yes. Very emotional. But not hateful. They have deep acceptance.
Finley links this deep, childlike acceptance to peace. It is a certain disposition to the world that accepts the world as it is, a certain trust in God, in ourselves, and in the world that goes beyond cognition and leads to peace.
“By learning to accept as a small child, we realize that even if we burn to death, the fire is trustworthy….Even the violator is a confused and warped member of the trustworthy human race….Life is wholly trustworthy through childlike acceptance.”
“God protects us from nothing but sustains us in the midst of it. This is the centrality and mystery of the cross.”
This acceptance, says Finley, does not mean that one is passive toward evil. Rather, this deep acceptance is the trust that sustains. This allows us to engage the world in an aggressive stance toward evil, while remaining centered, trusting, and deeply accepting.
“Meditation grounds us in acceptance of God’s sustaining power, while guiding us toward not being passive toward the unacceptable.”
Tuesday, July 14, 2009
Recently I attended a short, two-day retreat with Tamie. James Finley led the sessions. It was an enriching time, and I would like to blog a bit in this and some of the upcoming posts on a few of the thoughts that I took away.
In walking meditation, the pace is slow.
So slow that you wobble a bit. But, hey, if you are walking in a group, then you all wobble together.
In the system, life tends to move at a breakneck pace. Time is money. We drive cars in order to get as fast as we can from one place to the next. Efficiency is greater productivity is profit.
And yet I think that moving fast in and of itself is not necessarily the root of the problem. For example, I can go on long, fast bike rides in the country. I move a lot faster than I move during walking meditation, and I move even faster than sitting meditation (where I don't move at all!) And during these bike rides, there is something about the consistent rhythm of the ride that is very conducive to moments of contemplation and awakening.
So, there is something deeper than just the pacing.
A person can watch television for an entire afternoon or evening and maintain a very slow pace.
There is something more than saying, "everyone just needs to slow down." No matter what our pacing might be, we can still remain numb, defensive, and closed. For someone who experiences a deep sense of awakening, they will have a deep appreciation for speed, for the beauty that belongs to the fast pace.
But still, it seems that something happens in the slowness, something is realized. There is no formula for spiritual awakening, for the work of the spirit.
What exactly it is that is happening is a bit difficult to understand, let alone describe, but it seems to have something to do with opening a space within which the spirit of awakening can take place.
James Finley said that the artist cannot make art happen. The lover cannot make love happen. Who understands how the art reveals itself to the artist? Who understand how love opens itself to the lovers?
That we cannot make ourselves spiritually awake does not mean that we do nothing to better understand it. We "assume the stance of least resistance," as Finley puts it. There is a recognition that something is already happening, that something can happen to deepen our spirits and souls, to become awake to the spirit of God within. The question then becomes, "How can I cooperate with what is happening in my heart?"
How can I assume the stance of least resistance?
It seems similar to Paul's perspective on spirituality: put off the "old man" and put on the "new man." (See Ephesians 4:22-24) We are asked to do that which is out of our control. We are asked to relinquish the obsession with change and rely on something which is beyond our ability to grasp. The "work" is a letting go. The effort seems to be in simply trusting.
Posted by Jonathan Erdman at Tuesday, July 14, 2009
Thursday, July 09, 2009
I found some interesting quotes at James's blog on John H. Walton's The Lost World of Genesis 1. I have not read the book, but the following are a list of ideas that I thought were interesting.
The place of humanity in the cosmos:
"It has already been mentioned that whereas in the rest of the ancient world creation was set up to serve the gods, a theocentric view, in Genesis, creation is not set up for the benefit of God but for the benefit of humanity—an anthropocentric view. Thus we can say that humanity is the climax of the creation account. Another contrast between Genesis and the rest of the ancient Near East is that in the ancient Near East people are created to serve the gods by supplying their needs. That is, the role of people is to bring all of creation to deity—the focus is from insde creation out to the gods. In Genesis people represent God to the rest of creation. So the focus moves from the divine realm, through people, to the world around them."—The Lost World of Genesis One, page 69 [Taken from http://anebooks.blogspot.com/2009/06/focus-of-creation-is.html]
"In the ancient Near East people were created as slaves to the gods. The world was created by the gods for the gods, and people met the needs of the gods. In the Bible God has no needs, and his cosmic temple has been created for people whom he desires to be in relationship with him. In modern materialism people are nothing but physical forms having no function other than to survive. The theology of Genesis 1 is crucial to a right understanding of our identity and our place in the world."—The Lost World of Genesis One, page 149 [Quote taken from http://anebooks.blogspot.com/2009/07/humanitys-role-in-world.html]
My thoughts: I have heard preachers who preach quite passionately about how important it is to have a "theocentric view" as opposed to an "anthropocentric view." The Westminster Confession claims that man was created to glorify God and enjoy him forever. But I think I take issue with the dichotomy between "theocentric" and "anthropocentric." If one views God as an imminent part of creation, as the New Testament certainly does (God is "in all," and "through all," etc.), then the point is not to find out who is at the center. Rather, the whole cosmos is interdependent. This seems to fit the entirety of the biblical texts, which do not place humanity or God on the throne, but present a narrative of God and human beings interacting together. Each move effects the other.
On a modern, scientific approach to life:
“Our scientific worldview has gradually worked God out of the practical ways in which we think about our world. When science can offer explanation for so much of what we see and experience, it is easy for our awareness of God's role to drift to the periphery. It is not that we believe any less that he is active, it is just that we are not as conscious of his role. The result is a practical (if not philosophical) deism in which God is removed from the arena of operations.
“In contrast, when God's work is fully integrated with our scientific worldview and science is seen to give definition to what God is doing and how he is doing it, we regain a more biblical perspective of the work—a perspective that is theologically healthier.”—The Lost World of Genesis One, page 143 [Taken from http://anebooks.blogspot.com/2009/07/gods-role-in-world.html]
On Genesis being an account of functional origins, not material origins:
“Unless people (or gods) are there to benefit from functions, existence is not achieved. Unless something is integrated into a working, ordered system, it does not exist. Consequently, the actual crative act is to assign something its functioning role in the ordered system. That is what brings it into existence. Of course something must have physical properties before it can be given its function, but the critical question is, what stage is defined as 'creation.'
“In the ancient world they were not ignorant of the senses and the level at which objects could be perceived by the senses. They wold have no difficulty understanding the physical nature of objects. The question here concerns not what they perceived but what they gave significance to...our ontology focuses on what we believe to be most significant. In the ancient world, what was most crucial and significant to their understanding of existence was the way that parts of the cosmos functioned, not their material status.”John Walton in —The Lost World of Genesis One, 27-28 [Taken from http://anebooks.blogspot.com/2009/06/what-constitutes-creation.html]
"Concordist approaches, day-age readings, literary or theological interpretation all struggle with the same basic problem. They are still working with the premise that Genesis 1 is an account of material origins for an audience that has a material ontology. Modern inability to think in any other way has resulted in recourse to all of this variety of attempts to make the text tolerable to our scientific naturalism and materialism."—The Lost World of Genesis One, pages 106-107 [Quote taken from http://anebooks.blogspot.com/2009/07/more-thoughts-on-genesis-1.html]
"...This book has proposed, instead, that Genesis 1 was never intended to offer an account of material origins and that the original author and audience did not view it that way. In fact, the material cosmos was of little significance to them when it came to questions of origins. In this view, science cannot offer an unbiblical view of material origins, because there is no biblical view of material origins aside from the very general idea that whatever happened, whenever it happened, and however it happened, God did it."—The Lost World of Genesis One, page 113 [Quote taken from http://anebooks.blogspot.com/2009/07/more-thoughts-on-genesis-1.html]
Doyle's Meaning/Language Approach:
Our friend, John Doyle at ktismatics has been writing, researching, and blogging about a theory similar to the above "functional" creation account. John suggests that God is actually creating something in Genesis 1, but the point of the narrative is not to suggest that God is creating physical material--that's just not the intention of the text. Rather, the text is showing us that God is creating meaning, linguistically marking off what is what. It makes sense then, that as text moves along God will hand off this task to the man he created: I've shown you how to create meaning with language, now it's your turn.
That's Doyle's approach, in a very small nutshell. I'll let him flesh it out a bit more, if he has a few extra moments.
I like the "functional" creation account and I like the "meaning" creation account. I think they both get us closer to the intention of the text, which is not to convey the creation of matter (as we think of it in our Modern scientific mindset), but the creation of something eve more profound: meaning, language, function. That, like God, we have the ability to create the linguistic meaning and parameters of our world.
For more on Doyle's approach see the following links:
Maybe the Witness is Me
The Mythic Truth
Does Genesis Qualify as True Myth? (Cf. True Myth--5 interpretations)
Original Sin Reinterpreted
Monday, July 06, 2009
The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing.
To shed a bit more light on the system of consumerism and the psychological consequences, we have been looking at a few thoughts from Slovaj Zizek’s The Fragile Absolute. Zizek is some combination of philosopher, psychoanalyst, and cultural critic.
“It is no surprise that Coke was first introduced as a medicine—its strange taste does not seem to provide any particular satisfaction; it is not directly pleasing and endearing; however, it is precisely as such, as transcending any immediate use-value (unlike water, beer or wine, which definitely do quench our thirst or produce the desired effect of satisfied calm), that Coke functions as the direct embodiment of ‘it’: of the pure surplus of enjoyment over standard satisfactions, of the mysterious and elusive X we are all after in our compulsive consumption of merchandise.” (p. 22)
In the prior post, we discussed Zizek's objet petit a: “The nearer you get to it, the more it eludes your grasp (or the more you possess it, the greater the lack).” (24)
In this post, we will look at Coke, as an example of objet petit a and explore Zizek’s psychology: what is the psychology behind possessing more but simultaneously experiencing greater lack. This is a psychological paradox, but one which helps us explore the spirituality of the system of consumerism in our disposable society.
Coke is “the mysterious and elusive X we are all after in our compulsive consumption of merchandise.” (22)
And yet Coke has nothing in itself that makes it desirable. The desire for Coke comes from something else. Zizek suggests that it is (in part at least) Coke’s inherent undesirability that makes it desirable.
“It is this very superfluous character that makes our thirst for Coke all the more insatiable: as Jacques-Alain Miller put it so succinctly, Coke has the paradoxical property that the more you drink the thirstier you get, the greater your need to drink more—with that strange, bitter-sweet taste, our thirst is never effectively quenched.” (22)
So, although being thirsty leads us to drink Coke, the physiological reality is that Coke does not quench our thirst, ironically, it makes us even more thirsty.
What this seems to illustrate is that what we are after when we drink Coke is something more than a drink. There is something deeper. We think to ourselves consciously that we reach for Coke to quench our thirst. But biologically, Coke has the opposite effect. So, what is that we desire when we desire Coke?
Coke, of course, claims that it is precisely because of the product that we want more. I recently watched a documentary on the Coke company, and the executives and marketing strategists showed how the unique mixture of Coca-cola itself is what people desire. And, of course, they all believe it. We all believe it. We all believe it is the product itself. Coke is the stuff of legends, of American legends. As such, there is no conspiracy to sell us something that we don’t want. It’s just that most of us do not understand what it is that is motivating our desire to drink Coke. The motivation isn't the product itself.
There is nothing in the drink itself. The drink itself gives us nothing that a drink should give us.
Where does the desire come from?
Zizek’s point is that what we desire from Coke is precisely its ability not to quench our thirst. In a consumeristic society, what we desire from Coke is “the ineffable spiritual surplus.” (22) We actually desire to desire more. We desire desire itself, and all the while we consciously operate as though we are satisfying real needs and actual “legitimate” desires. But in a hyper-consumeristic culture, it is consuming itself that becomes the prime motivating factor.
“The ineffable spiritual surplus.”
Zizek summarizes: “So, when some years ago, the advertising slogan for Coke was ‘Coke is it!’, we should note its thorough ambituity: ‘that’s it’ precisely in so far as that’s never actually it, precisely in so far as every satisfaction opens up a gap of ‘I want more!’.” (22)
But there is more.
It gets better.
There isn’t just “Coke,” there is caffeine-free diet Coke.
With caffeine-free diet Coke, “all that remains is a pure semblance, an artificial promise of a substance which never materialized.” (23)
There isn’t even any caffeine left, for god’s sake!
Zizek sees in this Nietzsche’s classic opposition between “wanting nothing” and the nihilistic stance of actively wanting Nothingness itself. For example, Zizek notes Lacan’s idea that the anorexic does not desire to eat nothing, rather, the desire is for Nothingness itself, the Void. “Along the same lines, in the case of caffeine-free diet Coke, we drink the Nothingness itself, the pure semblance of a property that is in effect merely an envelope of a void.” (23)
So, the move from Coke to caffeine-free diet Coke is a move from endless consumption and eternal dissatisfaction (wanting to drink something that will not quench your thirst and keep you wanting more—“the ineffable spiritual surplus”) to desiring the Nothingness and Void.
Zizek further explores this in terms of Freud’s super ego paradox: “the more Coke you drink, the thirstier you are; the more profit you make, the more you want; the more you obey the superego command, the guiltier you are….or the more you have what you long for, the more you lack, the greater your craving; or—the consumerist version—‘the more you buy, the more you have to spend….that is to say, of the paradox which is the very opposite of the paradox of love where, as Juliet put it in her immortal words to Romeo, ‘the more I give, the more I have.’”
This paradox is difficult to define. Easier to illustrate, more difficult to define.
What seems to be in play is that the fulfillment of desire somehow opens up the space for more desire. Or, perhaps it is that chasing desire itself is an eternal quest. The more we pursue desire, the more that desire grows. Desire breeds desire.
“The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing.” (Ecclesiastes 1:8)
Desire exists for desire’s own sake, as in the illustration of Coke. Or, in the case of caffeine-free diet Coke, desire opens up the desire for the Nothingness, the Void.
For Zizek, the key is the object petit a, “which exists (or, rather, persists) in a kind of curved space—the nearer you get to it, the more it eludes your grasp (or the more you possess it, the greater the lack.” (24)
The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing.
This is the psychological and spiritual element of the consumeristic desire for desire itself.
The result of this hyper-consumerism within which we move and breath and have our being is that we live in a disposable society. Our legacy becomes waste.
“So, on the one hand, instead of stable products destined to last for generations, capitalism introduces a breathtaking dynamics of obsolescence: we are bombarded by new and newer products which are sometimes obsolete even before they come fully into use—PCs have to be replaced every year if one is to keep up with the Joneses; long-playing records were followed by CDs, and now by DVDs. The aftermath of this constant innovation is, of course, the permanent production of piles of discarded waste.” (40)
Zizek then cites Jacques-Alain Miller: The main production of the modern and postmodern capitalist industry is precisely waste. We are post modern beings because we realize that all our aesthetically appealing consumption artifacts will eventually end as leftover, to the point that it will transform the earth into a vast waste land. You lose the sense of tragedy, you perceive progress as derisive. (40-41)
Interesting to think of the postmodern legacy being one of waste.
“The obverse of the incessant capitalist drive to produce new and newer objects is therefore the growing pile of useless waste, mountains of used cars, computers, and so on.” (41)
The waste that hyper-consumerism produces is the visible testimony to a deeper psychological and spiritual phenomenon, an invisible force that keeps us locked into the endless pursuit of goods and services. The desire opens up the spiritual spaces within us for more desire to grow. The joy we find in the newest and latest purchase becomes the springboard for more pursuits. We work harder and longer for more.
This is the intersection of economics and psychology, the crossroads of spiritual longing and the American capitalist system that has transformed itself into desire for the sake of desire, or in its more extreme form, the desire for the Nothingness, the Void.