Saturday, August 14, 2010

Apocalypse Now

Thomas Merton remains one of my favorite writers ever. I'd even go so far as to say that while the seminal work of spiritual autobiography has to be Augustine's Confessions, Merton's work put it on the map for the modern world. Everything since then pays homage to the North African bishop, but is effectively a footnote to Merton.

Merton comes to mind a lot these days as Christian mysticism seems to be enjoying a kind of renaissance. Carl McColman just published The Big Book of Christian Mysticism. People are gushing over Catholic contemplative Richard Rohr -- and Lord, do they gush. He's like a tonsured rock star. Okay, he's not really tonsured; I think he's just balding. But you get the idea.

I like mystics, and I'd like to think I have a deep respect for the contemplative tradition. I'm familiar with St. John of the Cross (as in, I've actually read St. John of the Cross, and Teresa of Avila to boot) and The Cloud of Unknowing. I'm no stranger to meditation or centering prayer, even if I haven't stopped to visit all that much lately. I learned to chant Psalms from an audiobook by Cynthia Borgeault. I know how to do lectio divina, and the difference between the moral, allegory, and unitive modes of reading scripture.

But -- and I say this at risk of hurting people of goodwill -- I don't buy all the hype. I don't like the implication, which is easy to get when reading contemplatives and the people who love them, that contemplation is the sine qua non of all religious life, that it is the thread that connects all religions, that it effects an unassailable unity with the Divine that constitutes the teleological end humanity itself.


I think meditation can be good for us, and to the extent that it can help us to not be such assholes, I'm very much in favor of it. But I think it's good for us the way that practicing the piano might be good for us, or physical conditioning might be good for us. I have no doubt that it opens up new insights and makes available new experiences, but it does this somewhat in the same way that learning to appreciate wine might, or learning to like opera. Coffee drinkers know the Joy of the First Cup. Others, who have not gone through the proper initiation, do not know this joy. They are cut off from this particular gnosis. I don't want to gloss over the ways in which meditation offers access to altered brain states that differ significantly from these other practices (unless one really overdoes the wine), but the gist of things, for me, is this:

The mystical or contemplative experience is the perfectly normal outcome of a particular kind of human practice.

I know this sounds reductive, but I'm not saying that this experience is reducible simply to its corresponding brain-states. Nor am I denying -- in fact I would insist -- that this experience is and must be given meaning within the framework of some tradition or another. But at the end of the day I see no clear evidence that this necessarily involves, implies, or requires transcendence, if by this one means some kind of definitive connection to things beyond the empirical world.

I also see no reason to think that contemplation isn't something that some might specialize in just as others might specialize in music or sports. Being a good musician -- and there are some profound experiences that go along with that -- is also the perfectly normal outcome of a particular kind of human practice, and some seem to be more suited to this than others. Ditto sports and other forms of practice. Each of these, incidentally, holistically engages the body/mind complex, so no special pleading from the contemplative camp on that one.

I am not, however, anywhere near Ken Silva on this issue:’s my contention that the practice of meditation in altered states of consciousness—transcendental i.e. transforming—is actually laying the foundation for a Global Religion, which will one day be headed by the Anti-Christ. That’s why I’ve been warning Christians to stay away from the growing fad of Contemplative/Centering Prayer, which is itself transcendental meditation-lite.
Um, yeah. Okay. Here's me, backing away slowly...

Actually, while Silva's paranoid fears of a "Global Religion" are part and parcel of his irrational and superstitious mythology, and I'm not sure his characterization of centering prayer as "transcendental meditation-lite" would be sensible to practitioners of either TM or centering prayer, he's not that far afield of the claims (implicit and explicit) of some contemplatives and mystics that contemplation constitutes a kind of meta-religion that can unite us all, that union with the godhead is the hidden goal of all religion. Silva agrees, after a fashion, but thinks it's of the devil. I disagree with both camps.

I'd like to suggest that knowing God, and being "partakers of the divine nature," are actually much more straightforward than herculean pursuits of the beatific vision. For, if the nature of God is the self-emptying act of creation (tzimtzum) and revealed in the self-emptying nature of Christ crucified, then we are partakers of that nature to the extent that live into that self-emptying love. I have no doubt that the contemplative arts can help us, or help those of us inclined toward them, in this process, but I am resistant to the idea that contemplation accomplishes this.

If I might be permitted a bit of indulgent prooftexting, John has Jesus telling us that eternal life is to know God (John 17:3), and Jeremiah has God saying, of one of the good kings, "He defended the cause of the poor and that not what it means to know me?" (Jer 22:16). Prooftexting notwithstanding, here's the general principle I'd like to offer: knowing God means being about the things that God is about, and if we take the teaching of Jesus seriously, as well as the prophetic tradition in which he seems to have situated himself (or in which his biographers situated him), this would seem to mean championing the poor, the widow, the alien, and the fatherless -- the "looking after widows and orphans in their distress" that James calls true religion.

Now, if that's the "Global Religion" Silva is afraid of, then I say bring on the Antichrist.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Church's One Foundation

Randall Balmer once quipped that he'd leave evangelicalism but he didn't know where to send the letter. Balmer, who has since been ordained an Episcopal priest, seems to have figured it out, but recently someone came up with a better idea: quit the whole thing (Christianity), and do it on Facebook.

Of course I'm talking about Anne Rice, author of Interview with the Vampire and Queen of the Damned (among many others), who turned from atheism to Catholicism about ten years ago and started writing books about Jesus. Judging from interviews and articles, she retains a fairly orthodox view of the Son of God but thinks the church sucks (vampire pun unintended) and wants nothing to do with it. Any part of it. Her announcement has launched a media -- and social media -- firestorm that has been interesting to watch.

I can't say that I blame her, either for her announcement or for making it on Facebook. As to the former, she has good reasons for wanting to distance herself, and although quitting Christianity, even while clinging to Jesus, is not particularly unique or novel, it's certainly her prerogative. As to the latter, it seems to have been a savvy move; her Facebook site, 70k strong to begin with, jumped to 90k, and while I'm not one to doubt her sincerity, there's no such thing as bad publicity, and she does have to sell books. She also notes that making the announcement in a public forum has provided both the incentive and the means to quote her accurately. That -- how does one say? -- doesn't suck.

What surprises me (sort of) is the galvanizing effect she seems to have had. Reactions tend to be polar, with some anathematizing Rice, or ridiculing her, and others lionizing her and praising her bravery. Facebook posts and blogs about the development attract dozens, even hundreds, of emotionally charged comments. It seems pretty easy to connect the dots to a zeitgeist in which people are calling themselves "Jesus followers" and/or saying they're "spiritual but not religious."

I find such claims both fascinating and a little perplexing. Some of this has to do with my being engaged in the academic study of religion, an occupational hazard of which is the tendency to see religion in everything. It's also connected to my postsecularist bent, which insists that the human subject is ipso facto, a religious subject. It's also related to my more cynical observation that if one wants to find a truly irreligious person, one is more likely to find such a person not in the atheism section of the local bookstore but casually gracing the pew of the nearest church.

But even aside from all those things that mark my personal bias, these claims are a bit like those of someone running for office saying they're not a politician. The underlying meaning is something along the lines of "I'm not like those other people," but taken at face value the claims are a bit ridiculous. A person running for office is, unavoidably (and pretty much by definition) a politician. The idea that the spiritual and the religious are distinct categories and that one can choose to be one or the other is a uniquely modern luxury. Someone who follows Jesus is -- again, by definition -- a Christian, regardless of what he or she might think of particular expressions of Christianity. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that if you feel compelled to do something with Jesus, regardless of what that might be, you have not in any meaningful way escaped the orbit of Christianity. David Henson and Thom Stark both express this well.

This, then, is my version of Big Tent Christianity: the idea that we remain part of the larger theological conversation for at least as long as we have something to say about Jesus. Anne Rice is more than welcome to say she quits, to grab some communion wine and jump on the ecclesiastical version of an inflatable slide. That gesture means something, and it definitely seems to be doing some kind of work. But it's doing that work inside that big tent. Likewise, the claim to be spiritual and not religious means something, but the force of that meaning comes precisely from its being a religious claim.

So, if you need to distance yourself, do it. If you need people to know you're not like those other people, there are ways to accomplish that, and I can't tell you which of them is right for you. Join a house church. Be "emergent." Say you're quitting Christianity. Be a Jesus-follower, or a "follower of God in the way of Jesus." Call yourself "postchristian." Say you're "spiritual but not religious." Put "Jesus" down as your religious affiliation. Call yourself a heretic. Embrace theological non-realism. De-bunk everything orthodox Christianity believes about Jesus. Go on a life-long quest to systematically disbelieve each of the 5 fundamentals. Do what you have to do.

But you might as well close that tent flap. You're not going anywhere.