Friday, November 22, 2013

tough subject

Image from studyinuk.universiablogs.net
The next milestone in my doctorate is looming on the horizon: the dreaded comprehensive exams. Basically, these exams test the student's general knowledge of their subject and two other related areas.  In my case the three areas of study are 20th century theology, ethics end encounter, and performance studies. I have spent the better part of six months plowing through a reading list of 69 titles in preparation for this exam which has two parts: a 3-hour test and a research paper. To be honest, this was the element of the degree that I most feared when I considered doctoral studies.  I have no problem doing research, writing papers, or even teaching, but being put on the spot with no idea what the questions might be and a very limited time to prove that I know what I am talking about: that's a scary thought. I am afraid I will draw a blank. It has happened before. I am one of those people who comes up with the perfect answer or comeback line the day after a conversation.  
 
Surprisingly, I am a lot less apprehensive about the upcoming exams than I thought I would be. For the most part, it is because I know a lot more about the subject matter than I did a few years ago. But also, I don't scare as easily and I am more accepting of the process I need to submit to in order to get where I want to go. Something I came across in my readings, an article by Anglican theologian Rowan Williams, resonated with my experience of studying theology and the learning journey in general.

Williams observes that difficult texts were highly prized in certain cultures, and he identifies three reasons for placing an elevated value on troublesome subject matter: 1) we do not value that which we discover rapidly or easily, 2) the unraveling of obscurity brings delight, and 3) learning (especially from Scripture) is a process - not a triumphant moment of penetration and mastery; it is an extended play of invitation and exploration. Williams concludes that studying the scriptures is a pilgrimage, a parable of our life.

In my experience as a teacher in both ecclesiastical and academic settings, the valuing of obscure texts and demanding subjects is in short supply. Many students want the easiest way through a class, trying to get maximum marks for minimum effort. Likewise, a good number of people in church settings are looking for simple answers to complex questions. These just don't exist, and Williams gives three good reasons why they shouldn't. I think part of the problem might be that we view understanding the scriptures as a task, an object to master, instead of a loving friendship to give oneself to. Another factor is that we lead such busy lives that many of us no longer have the patience for curiosity, wonder, and play. If you have ever watched a child with a new puzzle or game, you will observe the hours they spend focused on the challenge. If a simple game can garner such a devoted investment of energy, thought, and time, shouldn't the eternal sacred mysteries engage us to an even greater extent? In our fast-paced world, our values seem a bit skewed on this. Perhaps the most important factor here is the relationship between knowledge and love. The Swiss theologian, Balthasar, wrote that love precedes knowledge, and it is believed that Goethe said that one learns nothing except that which one loves. This has proven to be true in my situation. Love opens our hearts, our minds, and our lives. Love offers us a gift, and in return, it asks us to give ourselves. 

So bring on the comprehensive exams. I pray that I will be able to give my answers from a place of both love and knowledge. 

Reference: Rowan Williams, "Language, Reality, and Desire in Augustine's de Doctrina," Journal of Literature and Theology 3.2 (July 1989), 138-150.

Friday, November 15, 2013

black and white

3D chalk drawing by Julian Beever
Some people (and I can be one of them) tend to see the world in black and white, in terms of either good or bad, right or wrong, hot or cold, left or right. It makes life easier in many ways because when there are only two choices it is simple to tell the difference between them. Compartmentalizing life in this way (either/or) means that when we find ourselves on the "good" side of things (and we place ourselves there most of the time, admit it), we can relax. No gray areas to worry about, no nuances to unravel, no complex ethical quandaries to wrestle through. Just do the right thing and we're good, no questions asked. But not asking questions is a bit of a problem. People who don't ask questions, who don't look at situations from different angles...well, we call them extremists, blind followers, and even radical fundamentalists. We know them as people who don't bother to engage in the complexities of human experience. We recognize them as people who find change and transformation difficult to embrace. And perhaps worst of all, we cringe at their tendency to judge too quickly, very often squeezing everyone into one of two boxes: either we are in the "good" box with them or we are excluded, relegated to the "bad" box.

So as comforting as it may seem to think of life in terms of black and white, it is pitifully inadequate. Life is not black and white or even different shades of gray. Life is a full spectrum of colour.  Life is so much more than two dimensions such as left or right, liberal or conservative. Our world is three-dimensional which means we cannot catch the different angles of it from only one perspective. In fact, illusions are based on the observer being limited to only one perspective, many times looking through only one eye. Optical illusions are fun, but making life decisions based on a limited perspective, an illusion, is a bad idea.
The drawing from another angle

One thing I have learned about this world and the people in it is that there is always more to it than I first thought. There is always more information to be gleaned, there are always different ways to engage with people, there is always more wisdom to be gained. Life is not static; the nature of living beings is that they grow and change and move. There are some things which are bigger than our lives, things like love, joy, peace, faithfulness, goodness, and justice, and though these are solid and unfailing, they are difficult to grasp. Simply acting good does not make someone good (Jesus' interactions with the religious rulers of his day illustrates that point). These virtues have to come from a much deeper place, a place which operates on a spectrum much broader and more colourful than black and white.

One of the best examples of full colour living is God. Hey wait, you may be saying, doesn't he view the world as either for me or against me? As righteous or unrighteous?  Either good or evil? In some ways, yes, there is indeed a definite distinction between that which belongs to God and that which does not, but for me to assume that I can always tell the two apart, easy peasey, would be a severe overestimation of my level of discernment. Only God truly knows if someone is coming towards him or walking away from him. Let's take a look at the scriptures which say that God changed his mind. This is always an uncomfortable concept to grapple with, especially if we view life as either black or white. But a closer look at these stories reveals that God "changed" because the relationship changed. God's actions are based in relationship, not in abstract ideals, because God is love and love is always relational, not a rigid structure or system.

Take the story of Jonah's trip to Nineveh. Jonah changed his mind, the people of Nineveh changed their minds, and as a result, God also changed his mind. (I realize that we are dealing with anthropomorphism here, but it is the only way we can talk about God, in terms of our experience. As Dorothy Sayers says, we have no other measuring stick.) God's love is unchanging, yes, and God's justice is reliable, but how exactly God enacts these in relation to humanity is a beautiful story which unfolds with a certain amount of unpredictability. I am not suggesting that God's character is unpredictable, but that because of his all-encompassing perspective, his interactions with his world take on a wonderfully spontaneous and dynamic character from our limited perspective. Where we try to whittle God's goodness down to a set of rules, God reveals the expanding nature of his generosity. Where we would limit righteousness to moral rectitude, God extends mercy farther than we think it can stretch. Where we would call down judgment on the evil in this world, God patiently goes about transforming death into life.  These overabundant, more than enough, multi-dimensional, colour-saturated perspectives are difficult for me to see, but every so often I catch a glimpse of a world where nothing is separated from God's love and my black and white view is flooded with colours that defy description.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

public vs. private

Photo by Jeff Gynane (www.123rf.com)
This fall I am facilitating a spiritual formation course based on the book "The Good and Beautiful Life" by James Bryan Smith. Each week there are what the author calls "soul training" exercises: simple tasks to explore and practice the week's topic. This past week we read a chapter titled "Learning to Live Without Vainglory." The task was to perform five secret acts of service. That sounds pretty easy, right? Do five things to help other people? Well, it proved to be a bit more challenging than I thought. The first thing I did was to make special preparations in my home for some guests; really, I went way beyond what I normally do.  When Dean came home, I pointed it out to him: "Hey, do you see all the extra decorations?" And while I was speaking, I realized what I was doing. Service: yes. Secret: no. Fail.

The next day I decided to get a special treat for my love. I found something I thought he would really like and I brought it home and put it where he was sure to find it. When he called me from work that afternoon, I mentioned that there was a surprise waiting for him at home.  And once again, as I said the words, I realized that I had failed. In trying to build anticipation and heighten the surprise, I had taken away any aspect of secrecy. Man, this was proving to be harder than I thought.  And it also made me think about why I feel the need to share things with Dean or a friend or the world of facebook or even this blog. Yes, I get excited about helping others and that's good, but part of me also wants to be noticed, to have someone affirm that I am indeed a good person, that my actions are pointing my life in the right direction. Because I often doubt myself and the decisions I make, and the encouragement of others goes a long way.

This wee exercise showed me a few things, some good and some not so good. First, the good. I realised that I do have a heart to serve others and am not quite as self-centred as I sometimes accuse myself of being. Second, I am very blessed to be part of a community that values kindness, goodness, and loving service for others. This community is very encouraging to me, and I have learned much from them, especially how to love better. On the not so good end, I seem to have an internal narrative that believes my actions need to acknowledged in order to be valid or effective. Part of the reason is because I don't always trust my judgment in matters dealing with interpersonal relationships or large-scale vision. I have made errors in both areas and there is definitely a time and place for others to give helpful feedback and input. However, there is also a time and place when it is just between me and God.

I want to cultivate a profound and rich spiritual life which does not need constant outside validation. In my experience, this inner life flourishes when I plunge my face into the fountain of Life and drink deeply, not by constantly asking others if I am close enough to the water. In any intimate relationship, certain matters are not for public consumption. The more significant the friendship, the more exclusive are the conversations, the experiences, and the communication.  The little intimacies of lovers demonstrate vulnerability, trust, and a certain amount of sacrifice. In order to protect the integrity of an intimate relationship, these precious moments must not be flaunted in front of the world, must not be the subject of boasting or coarse jesting, must not be used as a measuring stick of comparison, must not end up as an illustration or anecdote, and must not be made to serve as a stepping stone for a greater purpose.  Because this depth of spirit, this intimacy, is the greater purpose. And it needs no advertising or applause to validate it. What it does need is gentle tending and diligent protection against becoming a means to a self-serving end.

Take care! Don't do your good deeds publicly, to be admired, for then you will lose the reward from your Father in heaven. When you give a gift to a beggar, don't shout about it as the hypocrites do - blowing trumpets in the synagogues and streets to call attention to their acts of charity! I tell you in all earnestness, they have received all the reward they will ever get. But when you do a kindness to someone, do it secretly - don't tell your left hand what your right hand is doing. And your Father, who knows all secrets, will reward you. And now about prayer. When you pray, don't be like the hypocrites who pretend piety by praying publicly on street corners and in the synagogues where everyone can see them. Truly, that is all the reward they will ever get. But when you pray, go away by yourself, all alone, and shut the door behind you and pray to your Father secretly, and your Father, who knows your secrets, will reward you. - Matthew 6, The Living Bible