Monday, May 5, 2014

Spirituality Is ...

I am closing in on a second year of research for my dissertation at Durham.  It has been a challenging path to walk, requiring some discipline I didn't necessarily have at the onset.  For the most part I have been receptive to that intrusion.  Some days not so much.

One question I have wrestled with for a long time is 'What is spirituality?'  I suppose I had my own organic definition of this all along.  But it has only been in the past couple of years that I have willingly put some scrutiny to it.  I search Scripture for queues.  I read source literature from many Christian voices.  I follow philosophical/theological scholarship on the discussion.  I listen to friends, co-workers, members of my faith community, and those who have little interest in anything Christian.  And there's some ongoing personal reflection mixed in.

Like most things, no one word emerges from all that listening.  It is more like an ongoing conversation in a mall food court, snippets here and there, rising up together in an uneven cacophony of perspectives.  The listening has brought me to a few conclusions though.

The first is that spirituality is thinking.  Or to put it differently, when I am being spiritual, I am actively thinking about the world and my place in it.  It's common for people involved in spiritual formation to say things like 'shut off your brain' or 'use your heart, not your head'.  I understand the sentiment behind that, but in truth whenever I am conscious (or even unconscious I bet), I am thinking.  To give spirituality a free pass, to say it's not a thinking process, is to short change the experience on the physical and metaphysical levels.  It's like turning wine back into water. 

Spirituality is also both/and, not an either/or.  It may feel helpful to place the experiential focus on the intuitive/non-verbal spectrum of personhood, especially for those immersed in hyper-rational religious systems.  But in the end, a communal vocabulary should also arise that explains things.  I should be able to talk about my spirituality and to correct concepts about it with others traveling my path.  Spirituality needs refinement, not privatization.  Even more so, I actualize my spiritual life when I find ways to integrate it into my daily comings and goings, including my forms of public speech.  To interact with God only in the retreat setting (whatever that might look like), is to short-change the transformative power Christian spirituality espouses.  I am not interesting in retreating to the ineffable.  I would rather restore the creative tension within my spiritual life that acknowledges the mystery in the midst of texts I live in with others.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Aging Annie

My dog is getter older.  She's somewhere around 10 years.  I forget the math.  When she had a bout with distemper, the vet said it would likely shorten her life.  I find myself counting time now.

Annie is the first dog I've owned, one that came to our house from the woods.  She is some sort of mix between blue healer and miscellaneous mutt.  Very smart, very unruly, and very loyal.  She dutifully follows me around the property, protecting me from some unseen danger, always happy to put a nose into what I'm working on (this past weekend it was a brake job on the Nissan).  She leads our cars down the driveway and waits patiently for their return.   

I find myself watching her more now, enjoying her idiosyncrasies.  I give her an extra pat on the head and a kinder greeting on the porch.  She's getting a few more table scraps.  I take time to wrestle with her in the grass most weekends.  The list goes on.

Feeling imminent loss changes my understanding of time.  It's a mystery to me why that is.  I can reason things enough, see the benefits of time well spent, etc.  But it doesn't compare to the way I act under the shadow of loss.  Time becomes palatable.  When the sun sets, I subtract.  When the morning comes, my desire for connection has increased.  There's a focus at work in me, one deeply in tune with transience.   

Annie is surely not conscious of this, though at times I wonder.     

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Cul de Sac of Grace

In the past month or so I've felt a little more attuned to discussions on grace.  I don't know why exactly.  One phrase, which is probably more familiar to those in traditions with legalistic tendencies, has caught my attention:  when our church discovered grace.  This person was sharing something about a shift from works mentality to grace orientation.  The change sounded like a crossing over into the promised land, a new way to understand faith, discipleship, and a community that didn't previously function in that congregation.  It was a clear historical moment to identify.

I understand this description even though I can't remember traveling the same road in congregations I've been a part of.  I've also heard people use the same language for their own spirituality, that they embraced grace as an act of liberation.  These personal narratives sounded like a second conversion to me, sort of like they were dead in Christianity until grace entered the picture in a distinct fashion.

I confess that grace is a theological concept too large for me to nail down.  It's historically significant in Christian thought, both because of its use in Scripture and its parsing by different traditions (ironically ending in contentious divisions).  Coming to grips with grace and its effect on self-conceptualization is a important threshold faithful disciples need cross.

Grace is not a cul de sac for me.  It's not the place I arrive in conclusion.  It is rather an ongoing transformative contact with God, a participative knowledge that reality is defined by the salvific work of Christ.

Grace has the power to reshape memory and imagination.  The past is enlightened by forgiveness and the shaking off of death.  I no longer see myself as I once did.  The future, likewise, opens up to the consequences of grace.  The mission of God in creation sits not as accomplished fact but rather open invitation to imagine.  I work the ground in front of me, able to see the possibilities for transformation by grace's light in the soul.  And I move accordingly.

To reduce grace to the static, to claim constant irresponsibility because I am overshadowed by Supreme grace, misses the opportunities inherent in the Beautiful Life.  It is akin to hiding the talent in the sand.  While participation will always carry the risk of failure and shame, the parable guides me to action, to partnership, to co-creation in the Day that has been freely given.       

Monday, August 5, 2013

Theology Still Matters

I remember reading about a seminar at Durham a few months ago named "Nothing Really Matters:
A Bohemian Rhapsody for a Dead Queen ‐ A Thomist‐Lacanian Reflection on the Future of Theology in the Academy".  Here's a related upcoming book from the professor that gave the lecture. 

It makes me think ... what good is theological education these days?  It's a fair question to raise.  All things humanities are taking a hit, showing themselves to be 'unprofitable' for college graduates racked with onerous debt.  Why would anyone invest in a discipline that doesn't usually pay out vocationally?  The pragmatic commercialization of academia, especially in our free market culture, seems to be winning the narrative right now.  That's not a good thing. 

In my own Christian heritage, there's another complication.  The word theology can have a negative connotation.  I've honestly never been sure why.  Applying one's mind to a deeper understanding of God, Scripture, and historical Christian thought, especially with eyes of faith, seems like a good use of time and energy.  Yet the stigma shows itself every now and then, discouraging some potentially bright students and nullifying the contributions each could have made if he/she had taken up the task.

When I study major transitions in Western culture, Christian theology is perceptibly present at the big intersections.  It is engaging the shift underway, navigating amongst the other impulses at work that cause societal change.  It doesn't always stand on the ideological high ground, but it's there for sure.

When I think about contemporary anxiety about what truth is, I'm afraid faith-affirming theology has lost some of its confidence to live in the public arena.  We seem to be looking far too much in the rear view mirror, trying to preserve our sense of self rather than risk potential reformulation.  It's a very human thing to do.

Humble thoughtful theological engagement is so very needed right now.  And I suspect that the careful theologian might be surprised at the reception he/she could have as we collectively look down the road at the big questions on the horizon.           

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Fear Of Hoodies

The Zimmerman trial and its paradoxical conclusion have affirmed the rule of law in our society and simultaneously highlighted injustice.  The events of the lethal altercation leave me to wonder how we have collectively become comfortable with escalated forms of violence to ease our unending fears and prejudices.

It reminds me of an earlier time when I worked in retail sporting goods, when the election of a president fueled an unprecedented run on firearms, so much so that the company issued an edict to its employees to not engage the media on the profit bonanza they were experiencing.  Anxiety sold guns well back then.

It resonates much further back, too.  I remember wearing a grey hoodie in a rainstorm once.  My $350 car broke down on an affluent stretch of road.  I put up my hoodie and ran from house to house to find assistance.  The knocking was in vain.  Within 10 minutes the police picked me up.

I knew I didn't belong there, but in my youth I didn't understand the ramifications of that.  I didn't know that I was a threat, that I could generate fear because of my unusual behavior.  Twenty-five years later I can understand it better.  But those same twenty-five years have also taught me to manage my fear, to see through it, to humanize the unknown, and to trust.

I suppose it is a vulnerability.  But it's one that connects me to the Christian story, one that demonstrates a bit of Christ in me.  It's one I choose to have because the alternative is increasing lethal.          

Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Gate Called Beautiful

In Acts 3, Peter and John encounter a lame beggar working the Temple traffic at a time of prayer.  Having experienced the generosity of Pentecost, they re-enact the outpouring with a discarded soul asking for money.  In response to his solicitation they offer movement rooted in profound grace.  Peter then explains the nature of this reality rendered through the Messiah's suffering.

Generosity is linked to proclamation.  The message of the suffering prophet finds validity in the raising up by God.  So too do contemporary admonitions for repentance.  To separate a call for repentance from the inherent generosity of God's power is to render the Gospel incoherent.  At the gate called Beautiful, generosity precedes illumination.  The life of Jesus was filled with similar episodes, a pattern carried forward by his Apostles and commended to future followers.

If I want to reveal the Beautiful to others, it will certainly involve a turning.  But well before then, I must share that radical generosity.  Spoken or unspoken, is it clear that I have drank from a well I did not dig?  If not, then what reality do I manifest?           

Saturday, June 15, 2013


Since entering a PhD program last October, I've been regularly reflecting on human potential.  As I research Thomas Traherne and his day, I've come to appreciate the importance of understanding man's capacity.  So many modern theological traditions stem from definitions of what man is in soul and flesh.

Despite numerous life experiences to the contrary, I find myself still believing in the potential of humanity.  I've seen atrocities first hand and witnessed from afar evil on the grand scale.  It has not yet quelled my fundamental belief that humanity can reach further toward Goodness.  Some days are all clouds, to be sure, but the Light, if not seen directly, is still perceived in my spirit.

This makes a difference.  When I relate to others, I salt those interactions with this pervasive hope that more will come to them, that they will reach towards Love and trust the goodness of Creation.  Beyond this, I gamble against adversity and extend my own being towards the uncertain prospect of an emerging redemption in my relationships.  This, for me, is discipleship, mimicking a 2000 year old bet the Incarnate wagered that turned out very well indeed.