William A. Walker III

Pastor, Professor, Theologian, Spiritual Director

Category: Spirituality (Page 3 of 4)

Richard Rohr on the Importance of Law

I cannot think of a culture in human history (before the present postmodern era) that did not value law, tradition, custom, authority, boundaries, and morality of some clear sort. These containers give us the necessary security, continuity, predictability, impulse control, and ego structure that we need, before the chaos of real life shows up. It is my studied opinion that healthily conservative people tend to grow up more naturally and more happily than those who receive only free-form “build it yourself” worldviews. This is the tragic blind spot of many liberals and free thinkers.

Here is my conviction: without law in some form, and also without butting up against that law, we cannot move forward easily and naturally. The rebellions of two-year-olds and teenagers are in our hardwiring, and we have to have something hard and half-good to rebel against. We need a worthy opponent against which we test our mettle. As Rilke put it, “When we are only victorious over small things, it leaves us feeling small.” Cultures which do not allow any questioning or rebelling might create order, but they pay a huge price for it in terms of inner development. Even the Amish have learned this, and allow their teens the rumspringa freedom and rebellion, so they can make a free choice to be Amish. And most do!

Perhaps no one has said it better than the Dalai Lama: “Learn and obey the rules very well, so you will know how to break them properly.” This also sums up Paul’s teaching about the law in Romans and Galatians!

Adapted from Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life,
pp. 25-26

Hope and Christian Leadership

While personal concern is sustained by a continuously growing faith in the value and meaning of life, the deepest motivation for leading our fellow human beings to the future is hope.  For hope makes it possible to look beyond the fulfillment of urgent wishes and pressing desires and offers a vision beyond human suffering and even death.  A Christian leader is a person of hope whose strength in the final analysis is based neither on self-confidence derived from his personality, nor on specific expectations for the future, but on a promise given to him or her.

This promise not only made Abraham travel to unknown territory; it not only inspired Moses to lead his people out of slavery; it is also the guiding motive for any Christian who keeps pointing to new life even in the face of corruption and death.

Without this hope, we will never be able to see value and meaning in the encounter with a decaying human being and become personally concerned.  This hope stretches far beyond the limitations of one’s own psychological strength, for it is anchored not just in the soul of the individual but in God’s self-disclosure in history.  Leadership therefore is not called Christian because it is permeated with optimism against all the odds of life, but because it is grounded in the historic Christ-event which is understood as a definitive breach in the deterministic chain of human trial and error, and as a dramatic affirmation that there is light on the other side of darkness.

Every attempt to attach this hope of visible symptoms in our surroundings becomes a temptation when it prevents us from the realization that promises, not concrete successes, are the basis for Christian leadership.  Many ministers, priests and Christian laypersons have become disillusioned, bitter and even hostile when years of hard work bear no fruit, when little change is accomplished.  Building a vocation on the expectation of concrete results, however, is like building a house on sand instead of on solid rock, and even takes away the ability to accept successes as free gifts.

Hope prevents us from clinging to what we have and frees us to move away from the safe place and enter unknown and fearful territory.  This might sound romantic, but when a person enters with his fellow human being into his or her fear of death and is able to wait for that person right there, “leaving the safe place” might turn out to be a very difficult act of leadership.  It is an act of discipleship in which we follow the hard road of Christ, who entered death with nothing but bare hope.

From The Wounded Healer, Henri J. M. Nouwen

Spirituality, Prayer and Mortification according to Evelyn Underhill

English: Evelyn Underhill. Author given as Wil...

English: Evelyn Underhill. Author given as William Edward Downey (1855–1908) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Any spiritual view which focuses attention on ourselves, and puts the human creature with its small ideas and adventures in the center foreground, is dangerous till we recognize its absurdity. . . .

We mostly spend those lives conjugating three verbs: to Want, to Have, and to Do.  Craving, clutching and fussing, on the material, political, social, emotional, intellectual – even on the religious – plane, we are kept in perpetual unrest: forgetting that none of these verbs have any ultimate significance, except so far as they are transcended by and included in, the fundamental verb, to Be: and that Being, not wanting, having or doing, is the essence of a spiritual life. . . .

[or] Mortification and Prayer.  These are formidable words, and modern humanity tends to recoil from them.  Yet they only mean, when translated into our own language, that the development of the spiritual life involves both dealing with ourselves and attending to God.  Or, to put it the other way around and in more general terms, first turning to Reality, and then getting our tangled, half-real psychic lives – so tightly coiled about ourselves and our own interests, including our spiritual interests – into harmony with the great movement of Reality.  Mortification means killing the very roots of self-love; pride and possessiveness, anger and violence, ambition and greed in all their disguises, however respectable those disguises may be, whatever uniforms they wear.  In fact, it really means the entire transformation of our personal, professional and political life into something more consistent with our real situation as small dependent, fugitive creatures; all sharing the same limitation and inheriting the same half-animal past. That may not sound very impressive or unusual; but it is the foundation of all genuine spiritual life, and sets a standard which is not peculiar to orthodox Christianity.  Those who are familiar with Blake’s poetry will recognize that it is all to be found there.  Indeed, wherever we find people whose spiritual life is robust and creative, we find that in one way or another this transformation has been effected and this price has been paid.

Prayer means turning to Reality, taking our part, however humble, tentative and half-understood, in the continual conversation, the communion of our spirits with the Eternal Spirit; the acknowledgement of our entire dependence, which is yet the partly free dependence of the child.  For Prayer is really our whole life toward God: our longing for him, our “incurable God-sickness,” as Barth calls it, our whole drive towards him.  It is the humble correspondence of the human spirit with the Sum of all Perfection, the Fountain of Life.  No narrower definition than this is truly satisfactory, or covers all the ground.

— From The Spiritual Life by Evelyn Underhill

A Holistic Gospel: Seeing our Sinful Selves in the Despised Other

The Meal at the House of Simon the Pharisee

The Meal at the House of Simon the Pharisee (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For some reason I think I have often tended to assume that God’s preferential option for the oppressed on the one hand and the call for our own personal repentance on the other are very different and separate aspects of the Christian faith (individual vs. social salvation, etc.).  And indeed, in the history of American Christianity in the last century, conservative and liberal churches have usually swung to one side or the other, respectively.  What I find in the quote below, and as those like Gustavo Gutierrez and Jon Sobrino have taught me before, however, is that these two dimensions of faith and spirituality are intimately linked.

A sermon in church yesterday also reminded me of this, as the story from Luke 7 of the sinful woman with the alabaster jar of perfume who anoints Jesus was expounded.  Simon the Pharisee is unable to see that he and the woman ultimately stand on the same ground.

Why does the Bible, and why does Jesus, tell us to care for the poor and the outsider? It is because we all need to stand in that position for our own conversion. We each need to stand under the mercy of God, the forgiveness of God, and the grace of God—to understand the very nature of reality. When we are too smug and content, then grace and mercy have no meaning—and God has no meaning. Forgiveness is not even desired. When we have pulled ourselves up by our own bootstraps, religion is always corrupted because it doesn’t understand the mystery of how divine life is transferred, how people change, and how life flows. It has been said by others that religion is largely filled with people who are afraid of hell, and spirituality is for people who have gone through hell.

Jesus is always on the side of the crucified ones. He is not loyal to one religion, or this or that group, or the “worthy” ones—Jesus is loyal to suffering itself, wherever it is. He is just as loyal to the suffering of Iraqis or Afghanis as he is to the suffering of Americans. He is just as loyal to an oppressed gay man as he is to an oppressed married woman. We do not like that! He grabs all of our self-created boundaries away from us, and suddenly all we have is a free fall into the arms of God, who is our only and solid security. This seems to be God’s very surprising agenda, if I am to believe the Bible.

— adapted from A Lever and a Place to Stand: The Contemplative Stance, The Active Prayer by Richard Rohr

Kierkegaard's Passionate Individual Inwardness

Uncertainty - more work to do

“An objective uncertainty held fast in an appropriation process of the most passionate inwardness is the truth, the highest truth attainable for an existing individual . . . The truth is precisely the venture which chooses an objective uncertainty with the passion of the infinite.  I contemplate the order of nature in the hope of finding God, and I see omnipotence and wisdom; but I also see much else that disturbs my mind and excites anxiety.  The sum of all this is an objective uncertainty.  But it is for this very reason that the inwardness becomes as intense as it is, for it embraces this objective uncertainty with the entire passion of the infinite . . . Without risk there is no faith.  Faith is precisely the contradiction between the infinite passion of the individual’s inwardness and the objective uncertainty.” p. 182

“Existence is the child that is born of the infinite and the finite, the eternal and the temporal, and is therefore a constant striving.” p. 84

“An existing individual is himself in process of becoming . . . In existence the watchword is always forward.”  p. 368

Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript

A Little bit on the Gospel and Culture

I found the following selection from Simon Critchley‘s recent op-ed in the New York Times entitled “the Gospel According to ‘Me'” to be a particularly acute diagnosis of some popular spiritualities today (read it all here):

In the gospel of authenticity, well-being has become the primary goal of human life. Rather than being the by-product of some collective project, some upbuilding of the New Jerusalem, well-being is an end in itself. The stroke of genius in the ideology of authenticity is that it doesn’t really require a belief in anything, and certainly not a belief in anything that might transcend the serene and contented living of one’s authentic life and baseline well-being. In this, one can claim to be beyond dogma.

Whereas the American dream used to be tied to external reality — say, America as the place where one can openly practice any religion, America as a safe haven from political oppression or America as the land of opportunity where one need not struggle as hard as one’s parents — now, the dream is one of pure psychological transformation.

This is the phenomenon that one might call, with an appreciative nod to Nietzsche, passive nihilism. Authenticity is its dominant contemporary expression. In a seemingly meaningless, inauthentic world awash in nonstop media reports of war, violence and inequality, we close our eyes and turn ourselves into islands. We may even say a little prayer to an obscure but benign Eastern goddess and feel some weak spiritual energy connecting everything as we listen to some tastefully selected ambient music. Authenticity, needing no reference to anything outside itself, is an evacuation of history. The power of now.

Here Thomas Merton writes several decades earlier in a way that I think illumines a Christian response:

All over the face of the earth the avarice and lust of [people] breed unceasing division among them, and the wounds that tear [them] from union with one another widen and open out into huge wars.  Murder, massacres, revolution, hatred, the slaughter and torture of the bodies and souls of [human beings], the destruction of cities by fire, the starvation of millions, the annihilation of populations and finally the cosmic inhumanity of atomic war: Christ is massacred in his members, torn limb from limb; God is murdered in [humanity].

From such blood-drinking gods the human race was once liberated with great toil and terrible sorrow, by the death of God who delivered himself to the cross and suffered the pathological cruelty of his own creatures out of pity for them.  In conquering death God opened their eyes to the reality of love which overcomes hatred and destroys death.

Humanistic love will not serve.  As long as we believe that we hate no one, that we are merciful, that we are kind by our very nature, we deceive ourselves; our hatred is merely smoldering under the gray ashes of complacent optimism.  We are apparently at peace with everyone because we think we are worthy.

To serve the hate-gods, one has only to be blinded by collective passion.  To serve the God of Love one must be free, one must face the terrible responsibility of the decision to love in spite of all unworthiness whether in oneself or in one’s neighbor.

William James' "Will to Believe" for a Post-Christian Age

Portrait of William James and Josiah Royce

Portrait of William James and Josiah Royce (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On the one hand, it’s common to hear sometimes these days about a church or Christianity “beyond belief.”  I think this is good and needed.  On the other hand, obviously belief still matters.  This is why the words of William James are interesting to me.

The “will to believe” for James is a living, forced and momentous choice.  He calls those who might be willing to risk belief “tender-minded individuals.”  James talks about the benefits of religious belief in this life — not just the cost-benefit game of Pascal’s wager after life.

But by benefits now, James does not mean to endorse a kind of therapeutic or health and wealth gospel.  Nonetheless, belief gains us certain values and goods for living without which we would be much amiss.This view is not the same as advocating that we go around believing in fairy tales.  Moreover, the consolation that comes from belief is not about circumstance or even reward.  Rather, I think, he understands it to be about truth itself — beauty, goodness, and other “transcendentals.”  Of course, as a pragmatist James doesn’t tend to use the traditional metaphysical vocabulary much, but I don’t see why we can’t.

In sum, for James the religious question “is primarily a question of life, of living or not living in the higher union which opens itself to us a gift.”  I’m pretty sure this sort of thing resonates with people today, with those outside and inside the church alike:  “higher union,” “openness,” “gift”… this is the language of faith, serenity and purpose we all look for.

What Jesus does is concretize belief, but not in a way that confines or merely regionalizes it.  He makes belief accessible to everyone, always with respect for context.  As soon as folks gather around belief though in a more organized and religious way, it gets messy.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t organize, but it means we need to be careful about how and why we do.  I want to talk about some modes of ecclesial organization in the next post.

Dallas Willard, Evangelical Salvation and the Spirituality of Resistance

[Recently I’ve made a few more posts at HomebrewedChristianity.com.   Scroll down and click on their sidebar badge to the right side of the screen to take you there.  The post below is a re-post from the Homebrewed blog last week.]

“Isn’t the whole point of Christianity salvation? Not in terms of being “saved” from “eternal fire” but in terms of being saved from bondage, shame, fear, injustice, and all the other hells around us all the time… so that we can become new beings and find our true identities to “save” this world and all of humanity with it, with God leading the way. Not with platitudes but with actual restoration?” – Ryan Miller, re-quoted by Tony Jones

This tribute comes a bit late in terms of the speed and lifespan of internet news, but I hope Dallas Willard’s death just means that the best reflection on his work and the appreciation for his contribution and what kind of person he was has only begun.

Like no one else perhaps, as a philosopher-theologian of the human spirit, Willard rescues evangelical Christians from bad soteriology.  This is partly because he is able to speak the language so well and then transform it by uncovering its lack of depth.   He and a few others did this for me a while back, and I remain very grateful.

Willard says:

Spiritual formation is not something that may, or may not, be added to the gift of eternal life . . . It is the path one must be on if his or hers is to be an eternal kind of life” (Renovation of the Heart, p. 59).

I understand this as one of the great shortcomings of certain Protestant theologies – namely, the dualism of justification and sanctification that reduces salvation – or worse, “the gospel” – to the former.  As soon as salvation becomes something we simply get after death that must be “paid for,” I believe it loses its force.

But obviously we don’t see those like Willard going back to Medieval Catholicism either.  No, they’re much more Eastern than that. In other words, the urgency of salvation for Willard and others is transformation – and for transformation’s sake.  That is, not because of a self-interested preoccupation with avoiding punishment.[i]

For many though, I suspect this isn’t anything new, and some would even suggest it’s not enough – possibly because it still seems so focused on personal piety.  It’s ahistorical.  Salvation, whatever it is, should be more social, more political!  And Willard should be more aware of the role of gender in his diagnosis of the nature of sin, etc.

This is probably all true…

Recently I was reading Dorothee Soelle’s book The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance.  Chapter eleven opens with the following from Theodor Adorno:

“As far as possible, we ought to live as we believe we should live in a liberated world, in the form of our own existence, with all the unavoidable contradictions and conflicts that result from this. . . . Such endeavor is by necessity condemned to fail and to meet opposition, yet there is no option but to work through this opposition to the bitter end.  The most important form that this will take today is resistance.”

Soelle goes on to talk about how, unlike the European Marxist workers’ movements, the American farmworkers movement was led by a man who prepared himself carefully for every action through fasting and prayer.  Cesar Chavez, knowing poverty intimately, once fasted twenty-four days before a large and very dangerous strike.  Those who knew Chavez described him as free and happy.

As least for now and in my context, I’ve come to agree with Soelle that the term “liberation” is to some degree inadequate, and could maybe be replaced with the word “resistance.”  My conviction, following Soelle, is not just that we need mysticism and resistance.  Rather, it’s that today, mysticism, or contemplative spirituality, is a very important form of resistance.

Specifically Soelle shows how mysticism serves to resist the ego, accumulation, and violence.  She criticized the First World for its failure to learn resistance.  Despite our “knowledge,” we are powerless.  She speaks of how most of the great women and men of mystical movements for a time being indeed practiced the contemplative “way inwards,” but their aim was consistently the unity of the contemplative and the active life, of ora et labora (work and prayer).

The superordination of contemplating over acting was criticized and overcome by the likes of Eckhart and Teresa of Avila.  “To know God means to know what has to be done,” Levinas said.  The mystics only echo back, “and here’s how you know!”

I might differ with Willard in this regard: spiritual formation doesn’t have to be the starting point for transformation.  As Soelle insists, “oneness with God, beginning in action, can also discover the mystical unity that undergirds resistance” (p. 201).  Nonetheless, for those of us whose faiths weren’t born out of the fruit of resistance movements, we’d probably do well to still apply the spiritual wisdom of Dallas Willard.

Whole Life Faith

Whole Life Faith

The following quotes are taken from last week’s selection in A Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants:

Because we cannot reasonably expect to erect a constantly expanding structure of social activism upon a constantly diminishing foundation of faith, attention to the cultivation of the inner life is our first order of business, even in a period of rapid social change.  The Church, if it is to affect the world, must become a center from which new spiritual power emanates.  While the Church must be secular in the sense that it operates in the world, if it is only secular it will not have the desired effect upon the secular order which it is called upon to penetrate.  With no diminution of concern for people, we can and must give new attention to the production of a trustworthy religious experience.

From The New Man for Our Time by Elton Trueblood

John Woolman is worth remembering because, more than most Christians, he kept his inner and outer life together.  In the happy expression employed by Elizabeth O’Connor, this man of travel engaged, at the same time, in both an inward and an outward journey.  The inward journey was marked by an unusual sense of holy obedience.  “I have been more and more instructed,” he wrote near the end, “as to the necessity of depending, . . . upon the fresh instructions of Christ, the prince of peace, from day to day.”  The outward journey was marked by an increasing sensitivity to suffering and to an intelligent effort to eliminate as much of this suffering as is humanly possible.

What is most remarkable in Woolman’s potent example is the complete bridging of the chasm that so mars our current Christian scene.  his devotional experience and his social concern, far from being in conflict, actually required each other.  He was acutely conscious of the danger of a social witness that could have become hard and cruel in its denunciation of others.  “Christ knoweth,” he said, “when the fruit-bearing branches themselves have need of purging.”

– From The New Man for Our time by Elton Trueblood

For a spiritual life is simply a life in which all that we do comes from the centre, where we are anchored in God: a life soaked through and through by a sense of his reality and claim, and self-given to the great movement of his will.

Most of our conflicts and difficulties come from trying to deal with the spiritual and practical aspects of our life separately instead of realizing them as parts of one whole.  If our practical life is centered on our own interests, cluttered up by possessions, distracted by ambitions, passions, wants and worries, beset by a sense of our own rights and importance, or anxieties for our own future, or longings for our own success, we need not expect that our spiritual life will be a contrast to all this.  The soul’s house is not built on such a convenient plan: there are few soundproof partitions in it.

From The Spiritual Life by Evelyn Underhill

Thomas Keating on Contemplative Spirituality and Social Ethics

Living in a world in which we are complicit in so much violence, inequality, and exploitation — especially as first-world consumers and benefactors of rampant militarism that is meant to secure our economic interests — we often struggle with understanding the relationship between Christian spirituality and social ethics.  It’s tempting on the one hand to ignore our own personal sin by focusing on the systemic and abstract issues — I’m definitely guilty of this sometimes.  Conversely, many Christians are satisfied by merely attending to their “personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”  Well, today I got to share a little bit about this tension as a guest lecturer for a class on Christian spirituality and social ethics.  So, before focusing too much on my understanding of “big problems” in general, here’s something I came across in preparation for class that identities and highlights the interdependency between spiritual formation and justice:

The Movement from Contemplation to Action according to Thomas Keating:

. . . is a question of responsibility for social justice.  What happens when the rights of the innocent interfere with the economic or territorial interests of world powers?  At the mythic membership level of consciousness, the response is, “Such is the way the world is.”  Whoever has the most money or power wins.  The national interest always comes first.  The mature Christian conscience says, “No! This is unjust!  The exploitation of the innocent by armed force cannot be tolerated.  Oppression is a collective sin of enormous magnitude and carries with it the most serious consequence.  How can I free myself from being implicated in so great an evil?”

The limitation of mythic membership consciousness [identity over-identification, tribalism, nationalism, etc], especially its naïve loyalty to the values of a particular culture or interest group, hinder us from fully responding to the values of the gospel.  We bring to personal and social problems the prepackaged values and preconceived ideas that are deeply ingrained in us.  The beatitude that hungers and thirsts for justice urges us to take personal responsibility for our attitude to God, other people, the ecology of the earth, and the vast and worsening social problems of our time . . .

The seventh beatitude is “Blessed are the peacemakers.”  Jesus did not say, “Blessed are the peace-lovers.”  The latter are people who do not want to rock the boat and hence sweep [uncomfortable] situations under the rug.  Capitalistic systems are [made uncomfortable] by the homeless and try to hide them . . . Authorities can deal with the peace-lovers by appealing to their desire not the have their lives upset by the oppression and misery of other people.  Mythic membership mindsets lead to serious injustice because they tend to disregard the rights and needs of others . . .

We cannot expect the military establishment to end war.  War is their profession.  The only way that war can be eliminated is to make it socially unacceptable . . .

One cannot be a Christian without social concern.  There is no reason why anyone should go hungry even for a day. Since the resources are there, why do millions continue to starve?  The answer must be great.  It is, for most people, an unconscious greed stemming from a mindset that does not ask the right questions and a worldview that is out of date . . .

The gift of fortitude creates the hunger and thirst for justice.  This disposition frees us from the downward pull of regressive tendencies and from the undue influence of cultural conditioning.

Keating goes on to explain that contemplative prayer provides a way out of this mess and way to receive such a gift of fortitude:

The primary spiritual practice is fidelity to one’s commitments in daily life . . . Contemplative prayer is addressed to the human situation just as it is.  It is designed to heal the consequences of the human condition, which is basically the privation of the divine presence.  Everyone suffers from this disease.  If we accept the fact that we are suffering from a serious pathology, we possess a point of departure for the spiritual journey.  The pathology is simply this: we have come to full reflective self-consciousness without the experience of intimacy with God.  Because that crucial reassurance is missing, our fragile egos desperately seek other means of shoring up our weaknesses and defending ourselves from the pain of alienation from God and other people.  Contemplative prayer is the divine remedy for this illness . . .

Anthony of Egypt discovered and organized the four basic elements of the contemplative lifestyle: solitude, silence, simplicity, and a discipline for prayer and action . . .

Contemplative prayer combines these four elements in a capsule that can be taken twice a day.  The period of deep prayer, like a capsule, acts like an antibiotic to heal the psychotoxins of the human conditions . . .

The disease of the human condition as we saw, is the false self, which, when sufficiently frustrated, is ready to trample on the rights and needs of others, as well as on our own true good, in order to ease its own pain or to obtain what it wants.  By dismantling the emotional programs [of the false self that is controlled by our natural desire for security, power, approval and affection], we are working to heal the disease and not just the symptoms.  The emotional programs were developed by repeated acts.  With God’s help, they can be taken down by repeated acts.

I am very much still a student of how to practice these “repeated acts” or spiritual disciplines (e.g., fasting, solitude, silence, meditation, seeking out people who are different and difficult, etc.), and I’m grateful for Keating’s reminder of just how integral the cultivation of such a devotional and contemplative life is to social ethics and helping to bring about God’s reign of justice in the world.

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