Monday, November 14, 2016

Subverting the Apocalyptic Imagination: Three Imperatives for Living in History

Our Scripture readings today match the mood of much of the country: apocalyptic!  While the election results are not exactly the end of the world, they do mark the end of an era.  We’ve never seen a nationalist populism of this kind dominate a once mainstream political party and achieve electoral college success.  This election season was marked by an unprecedented level of vulgarity, vitriol, deceit and pure hatred.  There is nearly universal uncertainty about the future and more than a little fear. 

Apocalyptic reflects this moment, not simply because of its association with convulsive transitions, but also because of the worldview with which it is associated.  At the heart of the apocalyptic imagination is a perception of reality marked by a series of binary oppositions:  a cosmic dualism between heaven and earth, a temporal dualism between this age and the age to come, which will begin with the destruction of this age, and a social dualism between good people and evil people.[i]  Apocalyptic is about polarization and its tension, a tension that can be overcome only by the utter annihilation of one of the poles:  heaven will displace earth when this evil age and its people are destroyed.

This is clearly expressed in the text from the prophet Malachi this morning:

See, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord of hosts . . .[ii]

Please note that this kind of thinking is not limited to images of that mean “Old Testament” god.  We find it also in the New Testament’s second letter to the Thessalonians:

For it is indeed just of God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to give relief to the afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.[iii]

The apocalyptic imagination is one thread within the biblical traditions, but it is not the only or ultimate perspective.  Jesus offers a very different take on apocalyptic. While it is true that Jesus takes over the language of apocalyptic, he turns it to a very different purpose, subverting its meaning from within.   “Apocalyptic” literally means “revelation” or “unveiling.”  In his teaching and practice, Jesus collapses the polarities of the apocalyptic imagination to reveal what is really going on. 

This is most evident in Jesus’ practice of inclusive table fellowship, his healing of outcasts, and his parabolic reversals of insiders and outsiders.  The polarity between good and evil people is undone by the forgiving love of a God who makes the rain to fall on the righteous and on the unrighteous.  There is judgment and condemnation of evil, but in the service of a larger wholeness.

Similarly, the polarity between heaven and earth is undone by the prayer that God’s will be done on earth as in heaven.  Heaven and earth are correlated dimensions of reality, overlapping if you will.  The kingdom of heaven is “at hand,” it is within and among you.  It is not the destruction of earth and flight to heaven for which we hope, but rather a new heaven and earth emerging from the transfiguration of present reality. 

Finally, the polarity between the present age and the age to come is elided by a sense of continuity between past, present, and future held in an eternal now.  The emphasis is less on a rupture between the present age and the age to come, than it is on the age to come invading the present age, so to speak, and subverting it from within: like leaven in the dough.  Justice rises to fill the whole, but only after it does can we eat the bread of reconciliation.  There is no reconciliation without justice.  There is no cheap grace in Jesus’ teaching or practice – it comes at the cost of any claim to privilege or self-sufficiency -  but that grace is available here and now as well as then and there.[iv] 

So when Jesus speaks of wars and uprisings and natural disasters, he is not evoking a cataclysmic end time, but rather the difficult reality of history and its very gradual, sometimes barely perceptible, leavening by God’s gracious work in and through us.  He is clear that the “end” will not follow immediately.  In fact, he warns us against those who claim the end is near.  He goes on to note that nation will be raised upon nation and kingdom upon kingdom (not nation against nation):  that is to say, nations will rise and fall, but that isn’t the end of the world.[v]  Empires, political parties, leaders come and go – don’t freak out about it.  Don’t be fascinated by those who manipulate the fear and uncertainty inherent in such moments of upheaval. 

Notice something else that is unusual about Jesus’ evocation of apocalyptic imagery:  the violence, which is real, is purely a human phenomenon.  It has nothing to do with divine vengeance.  Jesus assumes – even warns – his disciples that, rather than being triumphant beneficiaries of such violence, they will be its victims.  They will arrest you and persecute you.  You will be imprisoned and brought before kings and governors because of your loyalty to the way of Jesus.  You will be hated, betrayed by members of your own family. 

It is here that the apocalyptic imagination is turned on its head.  Jesus adopts the perspective of victims, from the underside of history.  What is unveiled or revealed is the innocence of history’s victims and the mendacity of our violent culture constructed of mutually exclusive binary opposites.  God is not the source of this violence, but rather the gracious energy of love that witnesses for justice no matter what the cost, for the sake of a reconciliation that lies ahead of us.  The arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice. 

When Jesus counsels us to love our enemies and to pray for them, he also instructs us to find creative, nonviolent ways to shift the balance of power in society in ways that protect the vulnerable.[vi]  Jesus is not na├»ve.  He knows there are enemies of the Gospel.   He knows history is a long slog.  But he also reveals a resource against the violent rulers of this and every age:  the power of God that flows through those willing to receive it and bear witness to it. 

This election is not the end of the world.  It is one more moment in the long evolution of human consciousness into the fullness of Christ consciousness.  In becoming human in Christ Jesus, God revealed the true meaning of history: the unfathomable love of God for all that She has created and redeemed.  Nothing can ultimately stand against the power of this love.  In bearing witness to this truth, Jesus outlines three imperatives for living in history.[vii]

“Watch, that you may not be lead astray.”  This is the contemplative imperative:  cultivate the capacity to pay attention.  Listen to the still small voice within.  Listen to the wisdom of the body and of the earth.  Embrace the discerning wisdom that comes from the practice of listening, allowing us to touch into the reality of God’s presence so as to shape our perception of reality.  Silent prayer is the taproot of wisdom to read the signs of the times.  Plenty of fools throughout history have claimed “I am he, only I can save you.”  Don’t believe it for a minute.

“Put it into your hearts not to prepare a defense ahead of time.”  This is the trust imperative. We will be called before the court of history to defend its victims.  Our first responsibility is to protect the vulnerable.  This inevitably gets us into trouble with those in power who exploit the vulnerable.  The question is not if we will need to testify, but how we will do it.  Jesus says, “Don’t worry about it.”  Don’t prepare ahead of time, anxious about getting it right.  It isn’t about being persuasive, or manipulating others, or even “winning” in the conventional sense.  It is about solidarity and truth-telling.

Finally, “In your patience, possess your souls.”  This is a more accurate rendering of the somewhat misleading translation, “By your endurance you will gain your souls.”[viii] It isn’t a quid pro quo:  if you endure, you will be saved.  It is an instruction about how to conduct ourselves as witnesses for God in history:  with dignity, not frenzy; guarding your soul’s integrity, not selling it to the highest bidder.  It can be tempting, in the real struggle for justice in history, to sell our soul to the devil, to become the evil we resist.  Don’t lose your soul, not even to gain the world.  The world already belongs to God.  You don’t need to mirror evil.  This is the integrity imperative.

Pay attention.  Trust God.  Guard your soul.

In the days ahead, we must resist the cynical manipulation of the masses by the demagogue de jour.  That much is obvious.  We must also resist the temptation to retreat to tend our little garden, refusing the risks of engagement with public life.  We will be called to bear witness, says Jesus.  If not now, then when? 

There is also another temptation we must resist – the call to a premature “unity” that seeks a rush to reconciliation without justice in the name of a sincere, but misguided idea of love of our enemies.  Writing in Germany in the early 1940’s, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a leader of the Confessing Church who cooperated with the German resistance to the Nazi regime, describes such misguided love in this way:

“It rests on evaluating human beings according to their dormant values – the health, reasonableness, and goodness deep beneath the surface . . . With forced tolerance, evil is reinterpreted as good, meanness is overlooked, and the reprehensible is excused.  For various reasons one shies away from a clear No, and finally agrees to everything.  One loves a self-made picture of human beings that has little similarity to reality, and one ends up despising the real human being whom God has loved and whose being God has taken on.”[ix]

We are entering into a dark period of our history.  The shadow side of the American psyche is in the ascendant, unleashing the racism and misogyny, the fear of the other, that always has been a part of our national life.  Those who have long been its victims are not surprised by the outcome of this election.  I wish it were otherwise. I wish I could paint a rosier picture, but only an honest appraisal of the situation can offer us a way forward.  Pay attention.  Trust God.  Guard your soul.  Let our “No” be loud and clear.  Anything less betrays contempt for the very people and earth that we claim to love in the name of Jesus.    

Our victory comes from God, and the Spirit is the source of the wisdom and power we need to respond to the vicissitudes of history.  We must follow Jesus in the subversion of the apocalyptic imagination.  This is our opportunity to testify.

[i] James Alison, Raising Abel: The Recovery of the Eschatological Imagination (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1996), p. 124.
[ii] Malachi 4:1.
[iii] II Thessalonians 1:6-7.
[iv] Alison, p. 125-130.
[vi] Luke 6:27-36.
[vii] Luke 21: 7-19.
[viii] Davis, op cit. 
[ix] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 2005), p. 87.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Work of Silence

Review of Silence: A User’s Guide, Volume 1: Process 

Maggie Ross is an Anglican solitary in the tradition of St. Julian of Norwich.  Her most recent book, Silence: A User’s Guide, is the first installment of her two-volume magnum opus.  It is the fruit of a lifetime of contemplative prayer and scholarly reflection, and serves as a fine example of the material effects of what she refers to in this book as “the work of silence.”

Ross defines the work of silence as the process of “restoring communion with, and re-centering in, the deep mind within us.” (Ross, p. 23) 

The purpose of the work of silence is to re-establish the flow between self-consciousness, which discriminates, dominates, and distorts our lives, and the clarity and wisdom of the deep mind, which is not directly accessible, but whose activities we can influence. (p. 23)

She argues that this distinction between “self-consciousness” and “deep mind” is correlated with the bicameral brain.  Self-consciousness is correlated with left-brain functioning, which is finite, linear, and self-reflexive.  Deep mind is correlated with right-brain functioning, which is infinite, holographic, and inclusive.  Human beings are naturally equipped with these dual epistemological capacities, and both are necessary for human flourishing.  Ross is careful not to conflate mind with brain, but wants to emphasize that how we use our mind shapes the structure and function of the brain.  We’ve become an almost exclusively, and dangerously, “left brain” culture. (p. 31) 

The problem arises when, as in modern Western culture (including mainstream Christian traditions), human self-consciousness is sundered from the transfiguring power of the deep mind.  Human perception is reduced to a closed system that is solipsistic and merely virtual, confusing representations (however helpful and necessary) for direct encounter with reality, reinforcing prejudices and projections. 

This superficial conceptual mind is not “bad,” but when the flow of exchange with the deep mind is cut off it is a mess.  In its optimal relationship with deep mind, self-consciousness plays a positive role.  It offers the human person awareness of his or her imagination.  Self-consciousness provides essential services by sorting and classifying by means of linear reason the perceptions given to it by deep mind.  It receives, orders, and interprets images and relationships, and the beauties and wonders of the sensory and material worlds.  But the world self-consciousness creates is paradoxical:  by organizing what it receives, it reduces deep mind’s living direct perceptions to lifeless summaries . . . To make its contribution useful instead of destructive, its perspective must be continually yielded back to and trans-figured in the silence of the deep mind; that is to say, it must continually submit its interpretations to the silence so that its habitual patterns, the way it “figures things out,” can be modified more accurately to reflect the deep mind’s direct perception of reality. (pp. 42-43).

The restoration of connection between these two dimensions of mind occurs “primarily by means of intention, paradox and resonance.” (p. 47).  Ross describes the relinquishment of self-consciousness into deep mind in terms of the “paradox of intention.”  This refers to our willingness to re-engage the connection through the work of silence.  By entering into silent contemplation, the contents of consciousness are emptied as the liminal space between self-consciousness and deep mind is approached (including our intention to do so, hence the paradox). 

There are a variety of methods to support this intention, generally focused on cultivating one-pointed attention.  However, these only serve to bring one to the point of liminality, to the possibility of openness to deep mind.  It involves a shift of concentration from the contents of consciousness to a wide-open awareness.

Liminality is as far as self-consciousness can go.  It is the threshold where effects of unseen communication with, and input from, the deep mind become manifest.  The person must wait in liminality, in unknowing, for gratuity, for whatever irrupts – often unawares – from the deep mind.  This is contemplation properly speaking. (p. 47)

Movement across the threshold of liminality into deep mind is what the Christian tradition refers to as excessus mentis: the cessation of self-consciousness in pure awareness beyond the subject-object duality of discursive reason.   It is the encounter with Reality, with God, that trans-figures our perception, the effects of which can be discerned after the fact.  Such an encounter cannot be forced; it is pure gift.  We can simply become willing to surrender self-consciousness at the borderland of deep mind. 

The paradox of intention that opens the door to divine encounter is similarly, albeit more poetically, described by Tilden Edwards.

Such direct knowing involves, first of all, a deep desire to participate in the flow of God’s grace in the living moment.  Put another way, I bring a desire to identify the core of my being with the radiant Love who, according to scripture, shapes each of us into a unique image of itself.  I also bring a desire to live out of that Love in my daily life.  Finally, I bring a trust, or at least a hope, that by suspending attachment to the conditioned concepts and images of my conceptual mind I will be left more vulnerable to the grace at hand that so exceeds what my thinking mind can hold.  I will be more available to the movements of the Holy Spirit that animate what is most vital in the living moment.  The awareness of deep Reality from my deep soul-self will be awakened. (Edwards, p. 13)

Ross describes this surrender of self-consciousness as “free falling into God’s love.”  In Christian terms, it is the process of what she names “en-Christening” or, to use a biblical turn of phrase, “putting on the mind of Christ.” Ross, however, would add two cautions to Edwards’ description.  The first would be to emphasize that deep mind is also “thinking mind.”  It is not irrational.  It simply operates on a different, more expansive epistemological model than the limited, self-conscious mind.   

The second would be to emphasize that the elision of self-consciousness in deep mind, which makes possible the encounter with God, is not an “experience.”  To speak of an “experience of God” requires self-conscious awareness of the subject of the experience, and God can never be spoken of as an object among other objects.  To speak of such an “experience” indicates that one is several degrees of interpretation removed from the direct encounter itself. 

Reconnection with deep mind requires a self-forgetfulness that renounces all claims to experience.  It can only be talked about retrospectively with reference to its affects. (Ross, pp. 78-80) St. John Cassian observed similarly that “Prayer is not perfect when the monk is conscious of himself and of the fact that he is actually praying.” (Conferences, 9:31)

Ross argues that access to the deep mind is necessary in order to think properly at all.  The danger of self-consciousness locked in upon itself is manifest in such absurdities as our belief that infinite economic growth is possible on a finite planet; that we can destroy our natural environment indefinitely without undermining the bases for human life; that human beings are isolated, autonomous, discreet, and fixed individual selves.  Deep mind opens us to sense of the whole, intuitive insight, and compassionate responsivity that are desperately needed in our world.

Ross pulls no punches when it comes to her understanding of the importance of silence to human flourishing.  Every seminarian learns the well-known first part of a quote from Irenaeus of Lyon: “The glory of God is the human being fully alive” – Ross reminds us of the less well-known second part of the quote: “and to be alive consists in beholding God.”  The loss of silence, which is the necessary condition for this beholding, is to risk the loss of life itself. 

The human race is sleepwalking into extinction.  If we are not to destroy our beautiful planet and our selves with it, then we must learn to live more simply, more carefully, more joyfully.  If religion is to be a viable catalyst for this way of living, then it must recover the work of silence. (p. 9)

Silence is a mature and challenging corrective to much of what passes for writing about “spirituality.”  Ross’ chapter on “Language About Silence” and her chapters on “Suppressing Silence” greatly help to clarify our conceptual understanding of the work of silence and how it has been marginalized in Western culture.  Her comment that “Silence is our natural habitat, and the work of silence is, as it were, a process of returning to the wild” (p. 13) is a beautiful reminder that contemplative silence is not a flight from the world, but rather a means of engaging with it more deeply. 

This is a perspective that Ross returns to repeatedly, insisting that “The work of silence is not a separate compartment of life called “spirituality”: it is living the ordinary through trans-figured perception.” (p. 33) Indeed, the work of silence itself does not occur in a vacuum, but rather sustains and is sustained by an entire way of life.

In terms of the relationship between self-consciousness and the work of silence with the deep mind, the trajectory looks something like this: a person who has taken the time to observe his or her own mind rediscovers the way to re-center the person, the way that communication between the self-conscious mind and deep mind can be re-established, often expressed through paradoxes (they are paradoxes only to the self-conscious mind) that move the mind through liminality into reciprocity with deep mind.  This way is not confined to mere technique (such as meditation) but requires a context, a value system (whether or not it is recognized or denied), and a re-integration into the natural world.  These are some of the most important elements essential to becoming a mature human being. (p. 143)

Contrary to popular misinterpretations, this vision of maturity humanity was held by the early fathers and mothers of desert monasticism and later Benedictine monasticism, who, rather than fleeing into the hell of the isolated self, lived the truth that “my life is with my neighbor.”  The work of silence is not a flight from the world for the sake of saving one’s self, but rather the willingness to empty one’s self for the sake of the salvation of the world.  It is a way of wisdom that goes back to Jesus, who engaged the work of silence himself and taught the way of metanoia, conversion or expansion of mind, perfectly embodying the emptying of self-consciousness or kenosis that metanoia entails.  

In the second volume of Silence, Ross will include a re-reading of Hebrew and Christian scriptures from the perspective of the work of silence.  It should be anticipated eagerly, if the first volume is any indication of its importance and value. 

Works Cited

Cassian, John, Conferences (Mahwah:  Paulist Press, 1985).

Edwards, Tilden, Embracing the Call to Spiritual Depth: Gifts for Contemplative Living
 (Mahwah:  Paulist Press, 2010).

Ross, Maggie, Silence: A User’s Guide, Volume 1: Process (London: Darton, Longman, and
            Todd, 2014).