The Orthodox Mysticism of John Caputo

by Micah Cavaleri

We may be starting with a senseless oxymoron in the minds of a few.  But I can’t help myself.  I recognize the faith of John Caputo (Hoping Against Hope) as a member of the family from which I draw my own faith.  Caputo knows the God, Father and Son and Holy Spirit, I am growing to trust and have fallen in love with over the years, although Caputo would object to the assertion of knowledge.  His radical theology creeps into my preaching, shapes my responses to my daughter’s worries about the truth of our faith, and he would be a most honored guest at my pulpit or confirmation class.

The existence of God has long been exposed as a lost cause to anyone with familiarity with formal logic and a willingness to drink in the explanatory power of the sciences.  People such as Alvin Plantinga are intellectually dishonest in their attempts to place faith at the foundation of our knowledge.  The worries over faith of any child, as well as the most gifted adults, give away the uncertainty of religious beliefs.

Immanuel Kant’s notion of antinomies helps to illustrate what is wrong with the thought of people who want to talk about the existence of God and knowledge of God.  The concept of a divine creator is incoherent and gives rise to wildly divergent claims about any theological matter under the Sun.  Kant held that the incoherence showed an uncertainty in our knowledge, but what it opens up for all to see is that the concept of God is not defined in such a way as to make existential and epistemological claims possible.  Religious history is testimony to the fact that humans do not know God.

Caputo correctly refuses to fit the God of experience, the God of the mystics, into the box of existence.  Institutional orthodoxy wants to force us to choose sides here.  Caputo clearly sees that and chooses to correct the confused existence and knowledge claims of theologians by denying the existence of God, replacing existence with the category of insistence.  In my mind, orthodoxy, not the monster that has been taken over by institutions, does not choose one side.  Rather, orthodoxy chooses all sides: human and divine, one and three, saint and sinner.

The human categories of existence and knowledge are just that… human.  Orthodox theology insists on incomprehensibility.  It affirms a divinity that is uncontained.  We cannot, then, simply deny or affirm God’s existence, as Caputo writes.  What we can do is search for a third alternative.  Caputo chooses insistence.  I choose a description of God as exceeding the boundaries of reality.

I suspect Caputo may agree with me here, but which conception is correct misses the point entirely.  The God of mysticism, the God of the orthodoxy that refuses to be contained by institutions and binaries, lives.  The God who is found in the darkness of faith refuses our intellectual arrogance.  We are continually changed by the Incomprehensible One who is Love.

How can we talk about God then, you may wonder? The world is full of answers, and, with a heart full of thanks I can say, full of mystics.  We cannot reach the Incomprehensible, but the Incomprehensible reaches out to us.  For we who are Christians, Jesus is the Incomprehensible One reaching out to us.  How dangerous that was, when Jesus was rejected by the people of Galilee because they knew his mother and father and sisters and brothers.  God is with us, but we cannot find God because we know God too well.

May we all fall in love with the pregnant emptiness that is underneath all that is.  Amen.

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The Party of Trump is an Enemy of the Church

By Micah Cavaleri

Let us be clear: Republicans are enemies of an open society.  We can no longer pretend that there are two sides in the political sphere committed to a free republic.  The evidence in the public domain implicating Donald Trump and his cronies as cooperating with enemies of the United States is overwhelming.  The only reason this matter has not gone further is that Republicans refuse to try their own.

How do we proceed when our enemies have taken hold of political power in our own country? The way through this cloud is difficult to find, but Robert Mueller is a hero in his efforts to push through.

As a Christian, I take some comfort in the fact that Jesus told us that political machinations, wars and poverty and all the troubles of the crumbling earthly kingdom would be with us after He rose.  Somehow, this fire is contained and promises fresh growth.

In our churches, we must take a stand.  Trump is not a Christian.  Republicanism is antithetical to the way of Jesus Christ.  The Lord gave us the power to expel enemies of the Kingdom of God from our midst.  It is time to do so.

95 (More) Theses

In memory of October 31, 1517.

Here are my theses to be nailed to the Cathedral door later this week.  Add yours, and we will build a new set of 95 Theses to guide a renewed Christian revolution.

Father

  1. God is the Incomprehensible One Who is Love.
  2. The Incomprehensible One is revealed in Scripture and experience.
  3. The Father’s power is the power of intimacy. He is so close to His creation that it is impossible to determine what is His and what is ours.
  4. Creation is a deep mystery. Genesis 1 is a liturgy of creation.  Genesis 2ff. is a set of poetic myths.  Scripture, poetry and liturgy are the means to approach the ‘Why?’ of creation.  Science is the appropriate method to uncover the How of creation.
  5. God is not a man. God is Father because He is the source of life.  If your father is not a source of life for you, God is Mother, Auntie and Nana.

Son

  1. Jesus was a Jew. God the Son is now a Jew.
  2. The Son was not a man before He was born in Bethlehem. The maleness of Jesus is a contingency, not a necessity.  His manhood was a way of taking on our sin more fully.
  3. The birth of Jesus was miraculous… and completely within the bounds of nature. Miracles are not magic.  We do not believe in magic.
  4. Mary was not a virgin. That would be medically impossible and a notion based on the mistranslation of the Hebrew Scriptures.  Mary’s virginity is best understood as a means of honoring the Holy Mother of God.
  5. The State and temporal powers put Jesus to death. We owe them nothing.  All of creation is God’s, including the State and temporal powers.  It is our calling to form the powers that be into mechanisms that provide for human flourishing.
  6. Jesus has freed us from sin and death by his crucifixion and resurrection. But belief in the historical life, death and resurrection of Jesus are not essential doctrines of the Christian faith.  For one thing, there is an appalling lack of data to support such beliefs.

Holy Spirit

  1. The Holy Spirit is our admission that we do not understand what or who God is.
  2. God’s Trinitarian being places Him beyond all human categories.
  3. Scripture is a place of encounter with God, not an inerrant record of historical and scientific data.
  4. The Book of Concord is a faithful interpretation of the Gospel. Each of us as faithful Christians is a faithful interpreter of the Gospel.  We are not sinless and we are not inerrant… and, so, neither is the Book of Concord.
  5. We are the One Body of Christ, but our unity is not doctrinal. That unity has never been a matter of theology or practice or law.  Paul, James and Peter battled over theology and the Law.  John writes about those who went out from us but were not of us.  Jesus’s own disciples were corrected by our Lord for trying to prevent those who heal in Jesus’s name, even when those healers did not follow Jesus.
  6. Each of us is Holy and each of us is sin.
  7. Sin is something we take as righteous and natural and necessary. Militarism and patriotism, social conservatism and racism and misogyny, gender essentialism and homophobia are social diseases.  They reject the imagination of the Spirit.
  8. The Body we long for is not the body we have now. “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.”  (1 John 3:2)
  9. The life we hope for will be unexpected and unimagined. We can taste the life everlasting now, in prayer and in love, in friendships and in family, in experience and in learning.

Plato on the Demise of Democracy

Is it, then, in a sense, in the same way in which democracy arises out of oligarchy that tyranny arises from democracy?

The good that they proposed to themselves and that was the cause of the establishment of oligarchy – it was wealth was it not?

Well, then, the insatiate lust for wealth and the neglect of everything else for the sake of money-making were the cause of its undoing.

And is not the avidity of democracy for that which is its definition and criterion for good the thing which dissolves it too?

[Its criterion is] liberty… for you may hear it said that this is best managed in a democratic city, and for this reason that is the only city in which a man of free spirit will care to live…

But those who obey the rulers, I said, it reviles as willing slaves and men of nought, but it commends and honors in public and private rulers who resemble subjects and subjects who are like rulers.  Is it not inevitable that in such a state the spirit of liberty should go to all lengths?

And this anarchic temper, said I, my friend, must penetrate into private homes…

And do you note that the sum total of all these items when footed up is that they render the souls of the citizens so sensitive that they chafe at the slightest suggestion of servitude and will not endure it? For you are aware that they finally pay no heed even to the laws written or unwritten, so that forsooth they may have no master anywhere over them.

This, then, my friend, said I, is the fine and vigorous root from which tyranny grows, in my opinion…

And is it not always the way of a demos to put forward one man as its special champion and protector and cherish and magnify him?

This, then, is plain, said I, that when a tyrant arises he sprouts from a protectorate root and from nothing else…

And is it not true that in like manner a leader of the people who getting control of a docile mob, does not withhold his hand from the shedding of tribal blood, but by the customary unjust accusations brings a citizen into court and assassinates him, blotting out a human life, and with unhallowed tongue and lips that have tasted kindred blood, banishes and slays and hints at the abolition of debts and the partition of lands – is it not the inevitable consequence and a decree of fate that such a one be either slain by his enemies or become a tyrant and be transformed from a man into a wolf?

He it is, I said, who becomes the leader of faction…

(Republic, VIII:562-566)

Thomas Keating and the Psychology of Centering Prayer

Father Thomas Keating has done wonderful work by making contemplative prayer a form of prayer for the laity.  His books make Centering Prayer simple and clear and systematic.  We do not have to search the often confusing history of mystical Christianity.  With Fr Keating’s work, we are able to enter an ongoing experience of the Incomprehensible One Who is Love immediately… if only we have the desire, which is the presence of the Holy Spirit in our hearts.

There is a great deal to celebrate in Fr Keating’s work.  My attention, though, has been drawn to certain failures of the Centering Prayer movement that threaten access to the contemplative life Fr Keating wants to help us live.  There are two major shortcomings I think we need to note here.  First, Fr Keating tries to modernize Centering Prayer by couching the practice in terms of Freudian psychology.  Secondly, Fr Keating’s work tries to distinguish Christian contemplation from other forms of mysticism such as Buddhist Zen meditation, painting a harmful picture of Christian exclusivism that needs to be grown out of if Christianity is to get beyond its deadly, destructive history.

In principle, there is no problem with using contemporary science to analyze spiritual practice.  Fr Keating, however, seems unaware that Freud’s school of psychology is wholly unscientific, a modern myth rejected by empirically-minded experts and refuted by research and philosophy.  For instance, in his book Open Mind, Open Heart, Fr Keating defines the concept of Unloading the Unconscious as follows: “The spontaneous release of previously unconscious material from early childhood in the form of primitive feelings or a barrage of images or commentaries; it may occur during the time of centering prayer and outside the time of prayer.”  To put it directly, there is no such unconscious material.  The unconscious is a figment of the Freudian imagination.  There are, to be sure, damaging memories and destructive habits, but the unconscious as conceived of by Freud does not exist.  Unconscious energies do not register on any meters.

Going beyond the philosophical and scientific critique of Freud’s model of the mind, experience teaches that Fr Keating’s claim that contemplative exercises risk a flood of “primitive feelings or a barrage of images or commentaries” is pretty clearly false.  The gentle practice of meditation and contemplation is healing and lays down a solid and stable foundation for a psychologically and spiritually healthy life.  Letting go of attachments and assumptions clears the mind and allows it to drink in reality without worry or the distorted values we usually assume in daily life.  There are often enough difficult lessons along the way.  We are fallen, after all.  As the mind clears, we see sometimes painful truths.  But there is no risk to anyone who wants to sit and pray.  There is no need for special retreats, a spiritual director or an analyst to help us sort through our unconscious detritus.  The only thing we need to begin is the desire that is poured into our hearts.

Fr Keating’s Christian exclusivism is much more alarming than his reliance on Freudian psychology.  By way of example, look at this passage from Open Mind, Open Heart: “Noticing one’s breathing can also serve as a sacred symbol of one’s consent to God’s presence and action within.  In this case, one does not follow one’s breathing physically as is done in Eastern techniques of meditation, but simply observes it.  In centering prayer the purpose is not simply to let go of all thoughts but to deepen our contact with the Divine Indwelling.  The intentionality of faith is fundamental.”  It is a truly strange set of remarks, perplexing because Fr Keating is, in fact, familiar with Eastern practices.  Observing and following the breath are identical techniques.  Fr Keating is making a distinction without a difference for the sake of preserving what he sees as the “Christian essence” of Centering Prayer.

The attempt to paint Eastern meditation as simply a matter of letting go of thoughts is equally troubling.  In Zen, for instance, all of the eightfold path and the paramitas flow out of the practice of sitting.  Meditation is not a mere relaxation technique.  It is the source of life, exactly as it is for the Christian.  Furthermore, Fr Keating’s remark that the distinguishing characteristic of Christian contemplation is faith and seeking “to deepen our contact with the Divine Indwelling” blindly ignores the need for the difficult work of careful translation between the religious vocabularies of different holy traditions.  Of course a Buddhist will not describe her practice in terms of the Divine Indwelling or as flowing from the theological virtue of faith.  That is because she uses her own language and her own experience and her own tradition to make sense of the spirit… or emptiness, or whatever concept she finds appropriate and useful.  Attending lovingly to our sisters and brothers is the only way to escape the deep and enduring hate of our long history.

Religion is scarred by narrow-minded theologians and the smallness of politics and the ugliness of self-righteousness.  Yet, I believe, it is too precious to leave to rot in sin.  We must be careful not to lapse into the religious hypocrisy Jesus condemned, for the sake of our own health and the well-being of our friends and neighbors.  Contemplation is a gift.  If the Spirit has given you desire, follow the Spirit.

What Does Thick Description Do?

Clifford Geertz’s research tool of Thick Description gets handed around enough in my areas of study, religion and philosophy, so it deserves a deeper look.  Often it is treated as the Middle Way between the cold and blind operational definitions of a hard-nosed approach to social sciences and the conceptually muddled, overly-emotional, uncritically committed essays of so much work in the humanities.  Thick Description is an intriguing notion and is certainly a fruitful research pursuit, but I am afraid that it is uncritically embraced as a means of answering research questions.  We see Thick Description as analogous to natural experiments and quasi-experiments.  No one seems to want to address the question of what it is that Thick Description can, in fact, do.  We take for granted that a research tool is for answering research questions.  That is not the case.

Thick Description is an observational study placed within an appropriately detailed context so that the meaning of the behaviors or phenomena under consideration become meaningful to third-party observers.  It is indispensable for an understanding of human psychology and society, culture and practice.  We are variables in a physical equation.  That reduction, though, destroys the meaningfulness  of human activity.  Closing our minds to the realm of meaning and intentionality is not the same thing as explaining that realm away.  (Asking meaning and intentionality to account for themselves in terms of physics or biology or chemistry is a conceptual confusion.)  Thick Description is necessary for tapping into that mysterious realm.

So the question of what Thick Description is capable of doing is an important and ignored question.  I have no clear answers to the question at hand right now, but I do have a couple suggestions on where we might head.  There are a number of phases to any research project, and we need tools for each phase along the way.  In practice, it seems to me, Thick Description is not a strong enough or precise enough tool to avoid conceptual confusions and the mistaking of a researcher’s opinions and assumptions for factual findings.  It simply does not have the built-in safety valves of mathematics and operationalization needed to help check bias, however imperfect those mechanisms may be.   Thick Description, therefore, cannot be used to answer a research question in the way that experiments are employed.

Where Thick Description promises to deepen our understanding is in the initial stages of research: grappling with a problem for the sake of building an initial understanding of the context and issues as well as generating testable hypotheses.  Depending on the genius and insight of researchers to formulate the foundations of a research project is, well, unscientific.  Developing Thick Descriptions can become a method for setting the stage for a research project so that the questions asked are relevant and interesting.

These are just some initial thoughts.  Real work needs to be done if we are to understand Thick Description… or any other aspect of the research process, for that matter.  Simply because we cook up a methodology does not mean we understand its purpose or power.  Let us take nothing for granted, even if we have to take one step at a time and rebuild this boat midstream.

A Citizen Soldier Stands Against the President

Is it time to take to the bunker yet? I do not think so.  Though, things are getting quite scary.  As a soldier and a citizen and a Christian, the President of the United States of America is an enemy of the people.  Not the press, not the Democrats, and not the Muslims of the world.  The President daily signs death warrants for soldiers he does not care a scrap for nor gives more than an afterthought over dinner.  The President has chosen his own power and prestige over truth and the good of the American people.  And it is our own President who incites violence (in violation of his own claimed faith) at home and around the world against Muslims, compared to the uncountable hundreds of thousands of Muslims who have taken up arms in our defense in Iraq and Afghanistan and around the world… not to mention here at home in the USA.

As someone who risked his life daily for the American people, I resent the fact that the President has portrayed the US institutions of truth, science and the press, as enemies of the people, institutions without virtually any monetary reward and little notoriety who do their virtuous work in silence.  I deplore the fact that the President has deliberately undermined the Department of Justice and the FBI, organizations which have worked for decades and for over a century to work against the current of politics and protect every American’s rights.  And finally, I despise our President for putting his own politics above the integrity of our electoral system.  There is overwhelming evidence that members of his advisory team and cabinet were beholden to the Russians, and President Trump can do nothing but refuse to talk about the matter or lie.  He would rather repeat a lie than dig up the truth, a play fit only for the Mein Kampf.

Maybe I am exaggerating our situation, but I do not think I am.  There is not anywhere left for the Republican regime left to run except to crime.  This is not an evenly divided system between right and left.  The right has clearly gone off the rails.  They have their own networks of black ops that regularly and consistently distort the truth in a demonstrable and refutable manner.  They have constructed legislation behind closed doors without hearings.  If our Constitutional Republic can survive Trump’s assault intact, it will be a miracle.  We can only match this assault with an army of spirit-warriors.  Satyagraha is our weapon.  Only by peace, mercy and the truth will we find a foundation for a true government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

May our Republic survive by the way of love.  Amen.