William A. Walker III

Pastor, Professor, Theologian, Spiritual Director

Category: Spirituality (Page 4 of 4)

The Inward/Upward and Outward

O Lord, who else or what else can I desire but you?  You are my Lord, Lord of my heart, mind, and soul.  You know me through and through.  In and through you everything that is finds tis origin and goal.  You embrace all that exists and care for it with divine love and compassion.  Why, then, do I keep expecting happiness and satisfaction outside of you?  Why do I keep relating to you as one of my many relationships, instead of my only relationship, in which all other ones are grounded?  Why do I keep looking for popularity, respect from others, success, acclaim, and sensual pleasures?  Why, Lord, is it so hard for me to make you the only one?  Why do I keep hesitating to surrender myself totally to you?  Help me, O Lord, to let my old self die, to let die the thousand big and small ways in which I am still building up my false self and trying to cling to my false desires.  Let me be reborn in you and see through you the world in the right way, so that all my actions, words, and thought can become a hymn of praise to you. I need your loving grace to travel on this hard road that leads to the death of my old self and to a new life in and for you.  I know and trust that this is the road to freedom.- from A Cry for Mercy by Henri J. M. Nouwen

Jesus in his solidarity with the marginal ones is moved to compassion.  Compassion constitutes a radical form of criticism, for it announces that the hurt is to be taken seriously, that the hurt is not to be accepted as normal and natural but is an abnormal and unacceptable condition for humanness.  In the arrangement of “lawfulness” in Jesus’ time, as in the ancient empire of Pharaoh, the one unpermitted quality of relation was compassion.  Empires are never built or maintained on the basis of compassion.  The norms of law (social control) are never accommodated to persons, but persons are accommodated to the norms.  Otherwise the norms will collapse and with them the whole power arrangement.  Thus the compassion of Jesus is to be understood not simply as a personal emotional reaction but as a public criticism in which he dares to act upon his concern against the entire numbness of his social context.

– from The Prophetic Imagination by Walter Brueggemann

The Prophetic and the Contemplative

People like to emphasize different aspects of Jesus’s life and teachings.  He taught that the pure in heart would be blessed, for example, seemingly indicating that the inward life is what truly matters.  Yet the miracles, warnings about judgment, and commands to care of the distressed and outcast are equally stressed.  A few weeks ago we discussed this passage at church from Mark Scandrette’s newest book, Practicing the Way of Jesus:

The baptism of Jesus provides a compelling picture of the kind of intimate union with God we were created for.  As he stepped out from the water, he heard a voice saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:16-17).  The Spirit then led Jesus into the wilderness where his identity as the beloved was tested.  He emerged after forty days a resolute son prepared to do “his father’s business.”  Subsequently, Jesus often withdrew to gardens and other lonely places.  In the most difficult hours leading up to his arrest, torture and crucifixion, he went into a garden one last time, kneeling to pray, “Abba, not my will but yours be done.”  A hidden life of solitude fueled his courageous public acts of love and service (p. 105).

Maybe it could be said then that the Christian life is meant to be lived out on the razor’s edge between prophetic action and contemplative reflection.  And it is not so much that one of the steps in this dialectical process must come before the other.  Nor do they necessarily coalesce, really, but remain in tension and are mutually reinforcing.  They form the two pillars that buttress discipleship.  Politically speaking, for instance, we can therefore work for justice and even invest ourselves in certain legislative reforms, electoral changes and grassroots movements.  The role of the contemplative in this case, however, will be to keep our expectations and emotional attachment in check and somewhat disinterested.  The contemplative reminds us that at the end of the day, a Christ-follower still must ultimately find rest in her Sustainer rather than in the outcome of political proposals.[i]  Duke theologian Paul J. Griffiths calls this approach “political quietism.”[ii]

On the other hand, the contemplative gives inspiration, energy and vision to our prophetic and “courageous public acts of love and service” (see above).  It enables one to meditate on the “agonistic weight of the world.”[iii]  At the same time, it also serves to critique and safeguard the extent to which our identities can become too closely aligned with nationalism or any other parochial allegiance.  It is the corrective to all our idolatries.  Accordingly, a Christian citizenship then is understood to be a revoked and “crucified” vocation – that is, it is self-emptied.  We act, but we act with a knowledge that the problems we face in this world can at best only be imperfectly resolved.  As she surveys the bloodshed in our world, it’s not easy for the Christian citizen to really expect the proposal she advocates to substantially curtail all the violence and oppression.  Occupy Wall Street might be a good example of this – a movement with so much positive potential but the lasting effect of which is still to be seen.  Thus, Griffiths also talks about three other  “notes” of Christian political agency: skepticism, hope and lament – skepticism with regard to over-realized eschatological promises, hope for the coming Kingdom, and lament over the real and terrible suffering in the meantime.

Activism remains, and indeed we must act – especially in solidarity with those on the underside of history – but it is only the spiritually and prayerfully formed person whose heart is prepared for the trials of a cross-bearing lifestyle.  Too often we are content with the contemplative or running dry in the prophetic.  May we remind and spur each other along to traverse the path between the two.

How does this tangibly play out in the rhythms of congregational and communal life?

[i] I’m using the term political here in the broadest possible sense to include practically all corporate civil activity – not just official or formal participation.

[ii] Douglas Harink, Paul, Philosophy, and the Theopolitical Vision: Critical Engagements with Agamben, Badiou, Zizek and Others (Cascade Books, 2010), 190.

[iii] Mark L Taylor, The Theological and the Political: On the Weight of the World (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011).

That to which Your Heart Clings: Diagnosing Consumerism

I try to be conscious of what I buy and what I eat, and to take an interest in where things are made, by who, for how much, and so on.  And yet, no matter how well I manage to do this, I remain a consumer.  I might purchase fair trade coffee and chocolate, but I’m still addicted to coffee and chocolate.  My wife tries to shop only for clothes made in the U.S., but she still really likes to shop.   So I started wondering how much of this is just human, and how much of it is culturally constructed.

Despite the fact that many Christians themselves get caught up in this pattern of behavior, there seems to at least be some level of awareness in the church about the problem.  This is a good thing.  Less understood though is the extent to which society is able to increasingly produce in us an insatiable desire for consumption in the first place.  You also hear the word materialism, but this could be a misnomer.  Material-ism implies the absolutization of the material, when in fact the lie we are fed is that the material offers something else: happiness, fulfillment… a certain image or experience.In their genuine intent to encourage counter-culturalism, we might hear pastors talk about the innate human drive to always want more.  But how much of this is rooted in a universal anthropology vs. just a modern Western phenomenon now gone viral?  I mean, people aren’t just born with preferences for television sets.  Our preferences typically  emerge from a context of social relations.

Of course there is a difference between our basic needs and deepest desires.  Theological anthropology has said that human beings live with a kind of openness directed toward possibility in the world, always becoming and searching.  Some people say there is a “God-shaped hole” in each us – a void.  This too can be a good a thing.  But this desire can be distorted.  It can be harnessed by market forces in such a way as to induce complacency in our individualism and trivialize any concern about our unsustainable standard of living.

Even more troubling, this desire is very difficult to control.  Theologian Joerg Rieger argues that in today’s world the drive to consume is frequently propelled by economic mechanisms and reinforced by the advertising industry.  The deceit of this system is increasingly taken for granted.  Obviously recognizing this, one of my former seminary professors Roger Olson recently wrote a blog post asking whether Christians should even work in marketing at all!  Rieger further contends that economic and religious desires often parallel each other.  This is illustrated by the way we tend to project our desires and ideals from the physical world onto the divine and thus replace the transcendent God with an idol.  If desire is shaped by the production of wealth in a given society, this process can have a subconscious effect on people’s deepest convictions and ultimate values.  This means that the way culture teaches us to view wealth has a tremendous impact on the kind of people we become – not to even mention the potential social costs that can be incurred on society’s most vulnerable citizens as a result.

As communities that are supposed to be convicting, healing and nurturing us on the path to holiness, churches have a vital part to play in resisting co-optation by the marketplace.  Sadly it’s not uncommon, however, for Christian congregations to become complicit in the cycle of consuming and selling as well, even if only in very subtle ways.  To a degree this might be unavoidable, but it’s imperative for us to be sensitized and attentive to how we succumb to various addictive, superimposed desires.  I’m interested in how the church can be a place that enables Christians to subvert the status quo in this regard.  I know there are many tangible ways to do this, but I’m curious as to what others have seen and discovered about how our local practice can transcend systems that resist and suppress change.

Speaking of which, I really liked what David Fitch had to say recently in a post he made about branding as the ultimate anti-missional act.  Seems very related to this struggle.

From "aha" to "uh oh" and then what?

Here is a post that went up on Provoketive.com recently which I am now occasionally writing for:

I was just listening to an interview with Doug Pagitt (whose book Preaching Re-imagined, among others, was a big eye-opener for me when i first started doing youth ministry) on the Homebrewed Christianity podcast, and he was talking about how the dominant narrative for Christendom prior to recent decades was one of moving from “being lost” to “being found.”  This is illustrated well by the extensive familiarly you find in the West with songs like “Amazing Grace”… “I once was blind but now I see.”  This idea was, and for many perhaps still is, the dominant thinking about religion in general and Christianity in particular.

What Pagitt suggests is that in today’s cultural climate, which he calls “the inventive age” (see his latest books with this phrase in the title here), people in North America are more likely to have conversions for “aha” to “uh-oh” than from “I don’t know” to “aha.”  Pagitt is not implying, however, that these people are all saying goodbye to their Christian faith.  He makes a distinction between the current context as a post-Christian era vs. post-Church era, arguing for the latter more so than the former.

In many ways, I find this to be true in my own experience.  It’s not a new story; I hear it frequently.  Like Pagitt, my faith background was significantly influenced by conservative evangelicalism.  For those who can relate, what’s funny about the way this story usually goes for people is that we started singing “Amazing Grace” so early, it’s hard to remember a time when we were ever “lost.”  I didn’t have time to get lost!  By my baptism at age ten, I don’t even know how many times I had already prayed for Jesus to come into my heart.  During high school and most of college, if I did any reading related to difficult theological questions, it was usually to seek out confirmation for what were already my solidified doctrinal presuppositions.

After college and partly during seminary though – though not really because of seminary – I went through a challenging season of having many of my assumptions questioned . . . in some ways I may have even been too open-minded for my own good.  Nonetheless, I experienced what I guess could be called a second-conversion – a conversion to not knowing.  It was a conversion to a place of frustration with preconceived boundaries and filters.  I wouldn’t have ever have called myself agnostic; nor would I fit into the popular category of “spiritual but not religious.”  But a fundamental paradigm shift definitely took place, and it has deeply affected my worldview. It wasn’t just about the creeds of orthodoxy.  My transformation touched the political, economic and cultural.  Nor was it about left and right – while there may have been implication there.  The product is unfinished, and there’s a combined sense of both liberty and estrangement as a result.

I still confess the faith of my upbringing, but its significance for me has evolved substantially.  I sometimes wonder how this fits into the rubric for discipleship.  Maybe I’m off course a bit? On the other hand, maybe I’ve learned how to be a little more honest and gracious toward myself and other people.  Most importantly perhaps, the journey doesn’t have to end at this point, and having conversation with others about it might be the doorway to the next chapter.

Despite my resonance with Pagitt’s thesis, I do have some doubts about its soundness insofar as it’s superimposed on American culture writ large.  To what extent do others really relate to this, and to what extent is it more of a sub-cultural, Bible-belt phenomenon as a result of things like the information revolution, hipster Christian trends, and environmental changes in the burgeoning stages of young adulthood?  In addition, this narrative might also just nicely follow the typical stages of faith development – rules, doctrine, doubt, mature belief (or second naiveté) – but for some reason I’m not sure.  Maybe I just want to feel more special than that 🙂  The Emergent Church movement (with which Pagitt is associated) has sometimes been accused of being too ethnically and culturally insular, of being composed primarily of middle-class folks.  Whether this is fair, would it necessarily take away from the legitimacy of this testimony for a portion of North American Christians like myself?

Peter Rollins talks a lot about a church “beyond belief”.  We have our differences, but what Pete proposes seems to me to be striking a chord with a lot disenchanted would-be Jesus followers.  In order to do or be much of anything, a community certainly needs belief.  Going beyond belief doesn’t mean doing away with it or even changing it – though change might happen.  Moving beyond belief means changing how we believe.  Do we believe primarily with epistemology (knowledge) or ontology (being)? Do we lead with confession or action?  Do our beliefs first comfort or direct us?  Which kind of belief did Jesus embrace?  Maybe it’s not always either/or.  Dark days require consolation.  But what does belief look like for privileged citizens in the land of plenty and power?  This is one of the main questions I hope to explore here, especially with regard to the responsibility that churches have in light of this belief.

Page 4 of 4

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén