Thanks to Ian from Ethos for drawing my attention to these Jesus Creed blog posts on Joel B Green’s book Body, Soul and Human Life: The Nature of Humanity in the Bible. ‘RJS’ is posting on one chapter at a time and he’s up to chapter 3. Joel Green is a NT Scholar who embarked on Grad Neuroscience study in order to purse these questions about human nature. I really like the theological method (let the science speak for itself, the bible speak for itself, and then see how the two interact) and I share the questions.
Chapter 1 in Mystical Theology: The Integrity of Spirituality and Theology (Oxford; Blackwell, 1998: 3-34)
There is a hightened interest in the ancient wisdoms of Mystical/ Spiritual/ Aesthetic Theology in the Academy just as there is a hightened interest in spirituality in Western cultures. It is instructive that there is a congregation of creative, postmodern theologians and pastors exploring contemplative theology and practice who have previously been formed in a great range of modernist traditions. Catholics and Evangelicals alike are discovering the passion and possibilities within Mystical Theology.
Mark McIntosh is a prominent Anglican Theologian in this field who is easy to read and inspiring to reflect upon. The particular task of the Mystic is ‘contemplation’ and hence is the particular method of Mystic Theology.
“contemplation is not like normal thinking only muddled and tentative, on the contrary it is seen as an activity in which the mind is liberated to perceive clearly, freed from the usual constraints of distraction, self-preoccupation or prejudice.”
“the more classical notion of mind [as opposed to Enlightenment preoccupation with linear, empirical rationality] refers to the desire of our whole being for deep understanding and relationship with all that is intelligible.”
“what the mind is fixed upon in clear vision by an act of suspended wonder is ‘the manifestation of wisdom’… [Hence] it is in contemplation that theology and spirituality meet.”
These concerns echo a recurring theme in all the theologians I have been reading this year! McIntosh warns that there is a danger with postmodern fascination with spirituality that is becomes self-absorbed and self-serving. Wisdom (theology) moves us in a direction away from unhealthy spirituality which, as with everything else human, has the capacity to harm as much as it does to bless.
It is the discussion about definitions of spirituality in this chapter which helped me clarify something that has been slowly evolving in my mind. First, McIntosh is particular about a definition of spirituality within the realm of Mystical Religious Experience:
“spirituality… is inherently oriented towards discovery, towards new perceptions and new understandings of reality, and hence is intimately related to theology”
“the spiritual is that dimension of life which is engendered and empowered by God.. [and] is connected with the active presence of God and not primarily with extraordinary inner experiences”
“personal experience is not in itself the goal of spirituality”
He favours a ‘God-centric’ definition of spirituality as opposed to a Human-centric definition. Contrast this with the opinion he cites from Sandra Schneiders (US spirituality ‘expert’):
“just as one says that a person has a certain ‘psychology’, a shape or pattern to their psychic life, so one could well say that every human being has a spirituality, that is, a ‘fundamental dimension of the human being’ … [i.e.]… that dimension of the human which is oriented towards self-transcendence”
“[there is a distinction between] ‘the lived experience which actualizes’ one’s spirituality … [and the] … inherent feature of human existence.”
“[the academic discipline of spirituality is] the experimental and theoretical study of human efforts at self-transcending integration and to the pastoral practices aimed at fostering the spirituality of individuals and groups”.
Personally, I favor Schneiders definition, but the contrast in itself draws an important distinction between the ‘Mystical Experience’ (of particular persons) and ‘Basic Human Spirituality’ which should not be lost as it has important implications for both mission and ministry. (McIntosh shows how they result in quite different academic disciplines.) The Christian Gospel contains both particular declarations about God and generic declarations about Humanity. There is ample ground for working together with others in our community to develop healthy human spirituality without any compromise the particularities of Jesus for professing Christians.
Universal human spirituality, as a definable characteristic independent from ‘The Proclamation Of The Gospel’, is a theological anthropology at the heart of emerging church models of missional community and the Cof E ‘fresh expressions’ and we who consider ourselves proponents of experimental forms of missional church would do well to be more articulate about it. We might differ on how they go together but I don’t think we will disagree that they are distinct. I do wonder whether misunderstanding this at the heart of Davison & Milbank’s For the Parish, but that is on my bookshelf waiting for the end of term!
Musing with a friend recently about the dearth of spirituality encountered in our interactions with institutional church, it struck me that if the Church is married to Christ, it has become a Sexless Marriage. I’m referring of course to Paul’s analogy in Ephesians 5 about the relationship between Jesus and the community of believers forged in His name, but it’s not the only time marriage is used to describe the relationship between God and God’s People. Hosea is a diatribe against unfaithful Israel depicted as an unfaithful and immoral wife. Song of Songs is often seen to be analogous to God’s relationship with God’s people – though it need not be to have a valid place within the canon in my opinion!
‘Rethinking sex and the church’ is a theological essay by Coakley addressing some of the categorical errors we make when it comes to discuss the incredibly sensitive differences of ‘opinion’ about sex in the Church. Her arguments under gird my own view that the anglican church will not be able to constructively address the question of homosexual faithfulness until it addresses the de-sexed state of our spirituality and theology. We have ‘disembodied’ our faith and lost any knowledge of what it is to be a whole, sexual person in relation to ourselves, to others and to God. This is a spiritual problem, not just a moral one. There is so very little ‘mystical union’ going on between the bride and groom, which just makes things, well sexless: there is no seduction, no sensuality, (no sensibility,) no sacredness, no specialness and no regeneration. What strikes me most about sex is its capacity (promise?) to create something new. Two opposites create a third other: whether that other be a child, an orgasm or the inward sacred journey opening up for both partners.
Though I suspect Coakley would agree with me, her concern in this essay is the sex debates in the roman catholic and anglican churches. Whilst we are disconnected from the interconnectedness of human spirituality and sexuality, any conversation about sexual conduct is going to be reduced to moralistic rationalisms expressed in sound-bite propaganda between warring factions. The suggestion that we can ‘debate’ sexuality has long made me mad!
There are several ‘worldly’ presuppositions about eroticism which the church has integrated unexamined. Notable Christian Saints of the past have found spiritual ecstasy in celibacy but we now tend to assume that life without explicit sexual activity is intrinsically impossible. Coakley quotes David Brooks as saying (in 2003) that “our age is in a crisis – not so much of homosexuality – but more generally of erotic faithfulness.” The disintegration of marriage which has produced children has far more concerning social consequences than gay relationships, yet divorce not longer receives moralizing condemnation. Being married is by no means a guarantee of fulfilling and faithful sexual activity.
Coakley goes on to make a really interesting clarification about Freud’s mature understanding of ‘eros’ (sexual desire) and the potential for positive redirection. It seems that there is a difference between actual Freud and pseudo-Freud of pop culture. She argues that “the concept of ‘sublimination’ that started in Freud’s early work as related to mere biological drive, has now become [in his later work] a theory of a positive, and seemingly non-repressive, ‘rechannelling’ of psychic energy.
She then goes on to the Christian witness of Gregory of Nyssa, 4th century Cappadocian Church Father (younger brother of Basil of Caesarea). Gregory was married, but he wrote in praise of celebacy inspired by the experience of Basil. In both cases, he saw that the ‘stream of desire’ was equally channelled into spirituality. Sexual Desire, guided by the Spirit in contemplation, flows into Spiritual Desire. The sparkling stream of eroticism gains pace and volume as it rushes towards the glistening ocean of Divine Love. Gregory “sees good, spiritually-productive, marriage as almost on a par with celibacy given its equal potential capacity, when desire is rightly ‘aimed’, to bear the fruits of ‘service’ to others, especially the poor.
Coakley’s conclusion in relation to the so-called ‘anglican crisis about homosexuality’ is that we will get nowhere “unless we first, all of us, re-imagine theologically the whole project of our human sorting, taming, and purifying of desires within the crucible of divine desire.” I would add to this that we will also get nowhere on the revival and renewal of our Church as a community of spiritually flourishing human beings, made alive through the most amazing person of Jesus Christ and the gift of Christ’s Spirit, unless we do the same.
I love this guy’s work. He’s an artist/methodist minister/art psychotherapist! This series of 14 photos took my breath away and led me into all sorts of contemplations of my Self and my Place In The World.
(San Francisco; Jossey-Bass, 2011)
“There is much evidence on several levels that there are at least two major tasks to human life. The first task is to build a strong ‘container’ or identity; the second is to find the contents that the container was meant to hold.”
This is more than a book about spiritual maturity, it’s a book about making sense of life when the wheels fall off. For those of us who allow life to move us beyond simplistic answers and responses, seeking meaning in our suffering as well as our love, we will eventually find ourselves on the ‘second journey’. Rohr proposes that if we know about this basic journey of life, we conduct our early years differently and we construct our generational relationships more significantly. I’m not sure that I could have understood his concerns prior to experiencing transition into the second journey, which indeed, is something Rohr himself suspects will be true for most of us.
Carl Jung believed that “one cannot live the afternoon of life according to the program of life’s morning for what was great in the morning will be of little importance in the evening, and what in the morning was true will at evening have become a lie.” That is, when we fail to grow up, we become absurd in our immaturity. Or, in the characteristic simplicity of the Dalai Lama, “learn and obey the rules very well, so you will know how to break them properly.” Intellectually, this is likely to be an experience of of discovering that “beyond rational and critical thinking, we need to be called again. This can lead to the discovery of a ‘second naiveté’ which is a return to the joy of our first naiveté, but now totally new, inclusive, and mature thinking” (Paul Ricoeur). All of which sheds a soft dawning light upon Jesus’ words: “Anyone who wants to save his life, must lose it. Anyone who loses here life will find it. What gain is there if you win the whole world and lose your very self? What can you offer in exchange for your one life?” (Matthew 16:25-26)
So, you can see how Rohr combines Jung’s psychological framework with teaching from a great variety of Spiritual Giants, across the ages and across religious perspectives, to present a convincing picture of this journey as basic to human nature, one that Jesus understood very well because God created into the very fabric of the universe. “God wanted to give human beings their fullness right from the beginning, but they were incapable of receiving it, because they were still little children” (St Irenaus).
This is not entirely a practical book, though it was very comforting to recognize myself in its pages and that in and of itself is useful. There are insights and wisdom rather than advice. Certainly, I’d be happy to pass it on to someone who had an open heart to seeing the mystery of life in their own crumbling world (it’s inexpensive and beautiful printed as well). I have found Rohr’s approach to be very helpful for making sense of my own life experience and reflecting anew with the Spiritual Wisdom of Jesus and the uniquely beautiful salvation available in Christ, who wraps up all suffering and pain through his own death into our shared resurrected life.
“Jesus, I am convinced, was the first nondualistic [i.e. both/and rather than either/or thinking] religious thinker in the West (there were philosophers like Heraclitus), but his teachings were quickly filtered through Greek dualistic logic! Nondualistic wisdom is just not helpful when you are trying to form a strong group, clarify first principles, or demonstrate that your idea is superior to others’ ideas. At that stage, real wisdom appears to be pious and dangerous poetry. And at that necessary early stage, such warnings are probably right! But that is also why clergy and spiritual teachers need to be second-half-of-life people, and why so many of us have mangled, manipulated, and minimized the brilliance of Jesus when we heard him in our early stage of development.”
(Chicago; Loyola Press, 2010)
I can think of several reasons why it was good for a woman to read ‘daily meditations for men.’ I bought this book for a friend and had a (careful) speed read before wrapping it up – so glad I did! This book is for men who are prepared to take a moment to engage themselves. The questions are searching and the reflections sometimes surprising, gathered from Rohr’s work with, and writing about, male spirituality over many years, and gathered together in this format for daily meditations. I am thrilled to pass it on to my friend.
The question of male and female sexuality is a vexed one in my corner of Christian Church Culture. Are men and women essentially different beings or are our differences ‘mere’ social constructions? In part the conversation is hindered by our culture’s insistence on individualistic self-fulfillment, in part it is our tendency to reduce who men and women ARE to what men and women DO. So before I go any further, let me offer this quote from postmodern, feminist theologian Luce Ingaray, which has begun to direct me through that particular maze of objections: “Essence is not a given, behind us, but a collective creation, ahead of us, a horizon.”
To address the question of male/female distinctiveness we must think about human beings as irreducibly complex and inter-related. If it is important to distinguish gender, it is in order that we might embrace our finitude, the limitedness of human beings who are not complete until we are co-joined with others. In Christian theology, it is the Church as a unified whole that represents Christ on earth, not Christians as individual parts. Apart from the necessity to understand human sexuality for its own sake, coming to terms with male/female difference enables us to live with human uniqueness in a way that leads to love and peace. Hence, Rohr writes:
authentic masculinity is the other side of feminine energy. It’s the complement, the balance, the counterpoint, the needed energy to create a lovely whole. Together these two energies are always new life and new beauty. Separate they are overstatement, imbalance, sterility, and boredom.
Richard Rohr believes that there is a unique masculine spirituality which has been lost in western men. (David Tacey also writes about this brilliantly in relation to the Australian male – will post on his books eventually.) The masculinity we see in culture is over-cooked, from the shadow of the human personality, an ill-fitting suit of armor. Our culture does not encourage men to take the time for self-reflection nor does it offer enough diversity in the expressions of masculinity honored. If consumer media culture has created problems for women in regard to body image, our media has created problems for men in regard to ego and the inner life.
So how does Rohr define masculinity?
By the ‘feminine principle’ I mean everything vulnerable, interior, powerless, subtle, personal , intimate, and relational. By the ‘masculine principle’ I mean everything clear, rational, linear, ordered, in control, bounded, provable, and hard.
I am aware of a discomfort in myself each time I read this quote. It’s a discomfort I am keen to befriend because it is a guide into further understanding of myself and the constraints of culturally constructed notions of sexuality. Its a post-it-note from my soul to explore further!
(in The Expository Times journal, 2006, Vol. 117, No. 7, Pp. 277-281)
Peter Neilson is an elder of the Fresh Expressions movement in the Church of Scotland. This is an interesting little article obviously motivated to equip Christians for ministry in and beyond the Church. He explores the question of why “many people find Christendom patterns of spirituality no longer sustain them” from developmental, historical, cultural and pastoral-missional perspectives.
For me, development ‘stages of faith’ don’t really hold enough explanatory power to account for such a widespread shift in spirituality, no matter how good your process model is. (Neilson draws on John Drane, Hagberg & Guelich and David Lyall.) However, it is helpful to realise that historical and cultural shifts do draw people into a ‘critical’ and ‘postcritical’ or ‘integrative’ stage of faith development more quickly than they might otherwise have arrived. Neilson sums this up when he says, “the concern to be engaged with the outer landscape of the culture affects the inner landscape of our spirituality.” So, “ministers engaging with the missionary challenges of our culture speak of the experience of an inner deconstruction in order to be reassembled for the task in hand.” Absolutely!
Neilson references Alan Roxburgh’s models of leadership in a period of liminality, Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead’s model of subjective meaning systems and the biblical testimony of homesickness from Jeremiah 29, as resources for this kind of ministry and mission. However, it’s the reference to Henri Nouwen that most resonated with me:
“the Christian leader must be able to be an interpreter of the inner landscape and be the ‘first to enter the promised but dangerous land, the first to tell those who are afraid what he [sic] has seen, heard and touched’. People seek wisdom not information.”
(Morehouse Publishing: PA, 1999)
I picked this book up three times before I conceded a need to persist with it. Its not that it is difficult to read, but rather at first take it seemed, how can a say, ‘a little way out’! This is the difficulty with dealing with the metaphysical! Language only ever faultingly testifies to the inner reality of human experience, let alone the transcendent realities of God and the Universe.
Countryman argues that humanity shares a ‘universal human priesthood’. Every human has the capacity to encounter and then pass on something of transcendent significance. He uses the imagery of a ‘border country’ – a place still in the everyday, but close enough to the mysteries of life beyond the everyday that one catches glimpses of existence over the border. It is not possible to manufacture knowledge of the transcendent, but it is possible to nurture exposure trips to the uncomfortable climate of borderland where we might be more likely to encounter it. It is the place where we discover our own finitude and our incontrovertible interconnectedness. This experience of humanity under-girds the priestly ministry of the church, both the whole people of God as the priesthood of all believers, and the sacramental ministry of ordained priests. Countryman has some wonderful descriptions and advice about the nature of ordained ministry, its training and selection which resonated with me strongly.
I continue to struggle with Countryman’s choice of the language of ‘priesthood of all humanity’, but I do understand why he’s chosen it. He wants to emphasise the human capacity for deep connection with each other in relation to the Mysteries of Life. For the unlikely stranger showing us the true meaning of Love; the rescue-hero stories from New Zealand and Japan inspiring us with Goodness; even in a negative sense, the charlatan evangelist revealing our deepest human Longings. All these individuals are mediating knowledge, either consciously or unconsciously, of something beyond themselves.
In the theological categories I was schooled in, this is Creation Theology – “since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made” (Romans 1:20) Yet there is something more subtle as well, which I think is evidenced in the bible’s Wisdom Tradition: “By wisdom the LORD laid the earth’s foundations, by understanding he set the heavens in place” (Proverbs 3:19). This Eternal Wisdom is built into the very nature of the universe and publicly declares her voice, “Out in the open wisdom calls aloud, she raises her voice in the public square” (Proverbs 1:20). I imagine it as God’s gift to the universe as I gift skills for living to my children, that they might develop a maturity through which they can manage their own pathway through life. Such Wisdom requires human humility – “the fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge” (Proverbs 1:7) – which ultimately leads the willing spirit to Christ:
For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength… It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. (1 Corinthians 1:27-30)
It is relation to Christ where Countryman’s vision of priesthood finally made sense to me. For it is the priestly ministry of Christ on which all of (Christian) Life turns. Christ does little more than present his own knowledge and intimacy with the Divine for the benefit and learning of others – it’s the boundless magnitude of the Son of Man’s relationship with the Transcendent (i.e. Christ was God at one and the same time as being Human) that sets him apart from other human beings and equips him with the power to transforms all Existence. Maybe this is what is captured in Hebrews: Jesus’ perfect priesthood is dependent on both his own sinlessness and his capacity to identify with our weaknesses that he might intercede for us.
“What made Jesus’ priesthood perfect was its authenticity and clarity. Jesus’ life was so filled with Truth and so open the the Holy that it admitted no falsehood and no dimming of its transparency to God. It becomes a kind of touchstone by which our own authenticity and clarity may be gauged… It becomes the priesthood that counsels us in our deepest encounter with the Holy” (p,62)
Book 1 in The Ancient Practice Series (Thomas Nelson; USA, 2008)
There are 8 books in this series on the Ancient Practises – Prayer (what I am calling centering and the series calls constant prayer); Sabbath; Fasting; Sacred Meal; Pilgrimage; Liturgical Year; and Tithing. Brian McLaren provides a kind of introduction to and rationale for embracing these ancient spiritual disciplines in the postmodern context. It’s something I love about the Emerging Church and resonates strongly with my own Anglican tradition. It’s an easy read, which is quite an achievement when you discover that McLaren is explaining key theological concepts like katharsis, fotosis and theosis! A great book to get started on a well worn path.