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.
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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.

 

A First Reading of Steven D Paulson’s “Lutheran Theology”

Right now I am working my way through Lutheran Theology (Bloomsbury, 2011) by Steven D Paulson, professor of Systematic Theology at Luther Seminary in Saint Paul, MN.  As a new member of the ELCA, I find the work frightening.  (Stay tuned.  I have only just begun my work on Paulson’s book, so there is surely more to come from a project that spans so much of Christian thinking.)  Paulson is at pains to maintain the old, contorted language of a faith that sought to distinguish the value of faith and works.  The context of that distinction is all important.  Indulgences and penitential manuals and politics had corrupted the understanding (and practice) of the order of justification.  In order to restore that order, Luther and the Lutheran reformers took some bold steps to overthrow a legalistic vision of love.  This resulted in some theology that ignored the perfectly acceptable place of Christian love as the crowning theological virtue.  In fact, left on its own, Luther’s theology seemed to run contrary to James on living faith and Paul on the preeminence of love.  The Lutheran claim that faith is primary in the Christian life and that, as Paulson has it, with her restored vision, the theologian of the cross can name evil as it is, is a position that is simply dead.  “You believe God is one; you do well.  Even the demons believe – and shudder.” (James 2:19)  Restored vision is not a product of faith alone, but faith working through hope and love.  The holy life of the Christian is not a product of faith, as James tells us, but of faith working through love.  All of Christian history testifies against the notion that faith alone is justifying or in any way gives rise to the good works that Paulson calls the fruits of faith.  Only by blindly holding to a worn out and discredited theological vocabulary can Paulson maintain his vision of Lutheran theology.

Luther’s stand was a necessary move for reform.  Paulson’s position is a retreat from reform into an impoverished dogmatism.  Paulson fails to grasp the points of the reformers stances and places his own idea of how a system of Lutheran theology ought to hang together above demanding a new clarity and hewing to a commitment to real love.  The ecumenical movement can save us from this horror.  Agreements between Catholics and Lutherans ought to free us from this sort of dogmatic contortionism that bastardizes language and ignores history.

The understanding that is coming out of our ecumenical work is permission enough to adopt new language… as if we needed permission.  We are Lutherans!  Founders of the Reformation!  As Christians, we Lutherans believe that God is love.  Love is fundamental to reality, not faith, truth or being.  Theology has had the pyramid of faith, hope and love on its head for too long.  (Catholic theology did it too; it just added more elements to the articles of faith.)  Faith alone is dead faith.  Understanding that we are in an era that demands a revision of our theological language to take seriously the tragedy of the cross that scars the world, that is a mission for a true Church of the Reformation.

Apophatic Theodicy

Ten years ago a tsunami ripped through the Indian Ocean claiming more than a quarter of a million lives and displacing nearly two million more. In the face of such devastation, horrified silence is the only proper response I can think of; but many voices arose, claiming that God is clearly dead or that God was again cleansing the earth. It was against these voices that David Bentley Hart wrote The Doors of the Sea.

Hart’s Doors did little to calm the furor. The book drips with contempt for Hart’s interlocutors. As a work of theology it fails to attain to love, and as a work of rational reflection it fails, well, to be rational. Richard Dawkins has dismissed Hart’s theology as apophatuous. This is unfortunate, as Hart gives no evidence of appreciating the profound demands of silence.

But let me linger for a moment to consider the text. Take, by way of example, Hart’s attempt at defending God on apophatic grounds early in the book:

Unless one can see the beginning and end of all things, unless one possesses a divine, eternal vantage upon all of time, unless one knows the precise nature of the relation between divine and created freedom, unless indeed one can fathom infinite wisdom, one can draw no conclusions from finite experience regarding the coincidence in God of omnipotence and perfect goodness. One may still hate God for worldly suffering, if one chooses, or deny him, but one cannot in this way ‘disprove’ him. (pgs. 13-14)

The defense here would be laughable were the issue not so serious. Hart goes wrong by taking the atheist to say anything at all about omnipotence and perfect goodness. What the atheist objects to is calling God loving as well as powerful enough to intervene in the course of nature and history. Love is a perfectly familiar and ordinary sort of concept, so the atheist is surely on firm footing here. Similar points can be made about intervening in nature and history (although human attempts at such interventions have a horrible track record).

Hart, of course, wants to move the conversation to another level, a theological level. He wants our vocabulary to be restricted by the uses of theologians and Church fathers. One problem with doing so is that Hart has already as much as admitted that God’s wisdom, power and love are beyond our comprehension. Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent… or something along those lines. Wittgenstein’s admonition is both an ethical tautology and a metaphysical fact about meaning.

I have suggested that there is another problem with Hart’s apophatic defense. That issue is simply this: it is not the atheist who is burdened with defending her position but the Christian. We make extraordinary claims about the unseen, claims on which we have often enough staked our reputations and lives, claims we believe have the power to transform human life itself. The atheist, on the other hand, the best among them, thinks things are as she thinks they are, to steal a line from Wallace Stevens. Things are as we find them and nothing more…. She has no patience for the postmodern mojo that would wrap everything in shadows.

The problem with the atheist position, if there is one, is that she must take care to not trust in her intuitions. She must let her intuitions be trained. Otherwise she falls victim to the tyranny of common sense. But, of course, that is not a problem really, but an expectation of intellectual honesty. The atheist’s position is one of moral responsibility, a position Hart could learn a lot from.

It strikes me as interesting that Hart’s theology, not being a Western Christian, is so wedded to scholastic philosophy. Intellectual responsibility, one would think, demands a rejection of a metaphysics and epistemology developed in almost complete ignorance of the various mechanisms at work in nature and psychology science has uncovered over the last few centuries. The development of scholastic philosophy strikes me as the epitome of religion developed without the benefit of deep experience of God…. an experience that demands silence.

What is a Christian to do in the face of overwhelming tragedy? In the Gospel of John, Jesus addresses human suffering and Christian hope:

Very truly, I tell you, you will weep and mourn, but the world will rejoice; you will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy. When a woman is in labor, she has pain, because her hour has come. But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world. (Jn 16: 20-21)

We Christians can say nothing more than that we hope for some sort of transformative apocalypse, a revelation that will wipe away all tears, give meaning and value to the suffering endured during this life, and reconcile us all to one another and to nature. In other words, the Christian does not have anything to add. Silence and enduring with our brothers and sisters is the only gift we have to give.