Monday, September 19, 2011

Book Review

I'm in a class right now in which I get to grapple with all my problems with Christianity and it is a great time. The first book we had to read this semester touched on many things I have those problems with (written by an Episcopalian minister who ironically is divorced from one of Madeleine L'Engle's daughters). There were a number of good quotes in it and since I am always putting quotes on here and sharing my opinions - I will post the review and y'all can take what you like from it.

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In Soul Making Alan Jones explores the ideas that came to him after going on a trip around the world to expose himself to many variations of Christianity.

His favorite, he concludes, is the “desert spirituality” of the monks from a monastery in Egypt. Unlike so many others, their faith is devoid of “moralism, behaviorism, and emotionalism.” Instead, it is full of unconditional love, generosity, and a deep honesty about suffering. The head monk allows him to doubt some of the mythology surrounding the more fantastical aspects of their tradition, and gives him the gift of healing oils – loving him with action and fullness instead of words and stipulations. This makes a deep impression on Jones.

Jones claims, “The task of love is to help us rid ourselves of our exoskeleton, to lay us bare, to set us free. We have to come out from behind the protective carapace provided by analysis and system, and expose ourselves to the elements.” Much of the book is spent exploring the how of this. He describes concise “stages” of growth, even while he presents growth as non-linear and never-ending. (“Conversion is not a once and for all event, but a way of psychological and spiritual formation that takes a lifetime.”) The three parts of the book are basically “before being emptied, while being emptied, love filling the emptiness up.”

A conclusive statement Jones makes about the end goal is that “true spiritual maturity is the serious honoring of the validity of our deepest longings” – a fascinating nugget that seems to be an affront to at least 50% of traditional Christianity (with its obsessions about sin, perfection, self-negation), a nugget that could springboard off into one of the most important areas modern Christians need help with – but Jones didn’t do much with it! Alas.

He had a number of clear descriptions of soul making:

Longing and desire play a great part in it.

It has something to do with paying attention to the Things Invisible.

It is becoming more and more who we are, especially as we struggle with love, death, power, and time.

It is aborted when pity, joy, grief, and passion are denied.

It has to do with the removing of masks and with setting us free.

It is fraught with difficulty but the basic thrust of life is on our side.

It requires surrender.

It is a matter of choosing the reality of love.

Jones claims that the unmaking of a soul depends on how far it refuses to follow its own homing instinct – ironic when much of religion, including many Christian denominations, seems bent on interfering with that very instinct.

I appreciated Jones’ acknowledgement of the dark side of Christianity. “Jesus is sold as a narcotic that will take away all your pain and make you intensely happy all the time.” The best line? “Religion is in part what we do with our craziness.” I feel like one could almost link specific denominations with the personality disorders in the DSM-IV – Histrionic? – Pentecostal! OCD? – Catholic! Borderline? – Baptist! That’s a little extreme and reductionist, but I still appreciated his acknowledgement of the crazy. (At the same time – his believing in our profound individual value was deeply helpful for me: “There is something irreducibly mysterious about a human being. There is something of a god in us.” Even the very broken ones. One on one, I sense that God in each person; it is when groups form that the crazy gets overwhelming.)

My other favorite quote having to do with his truly seeing religiosity for what it can be: “Much of religion seems to be a tired pattern of cosmetic surgery performed on the ravaged face of human experience.” This is a great analogy for the inadequacy religion often offers to people in the midst of suffering – perhaps because suffering and doubt can go hand in hand, and religion gets very scared of doubt as anything beyond a concept we are supposed to allow people in order to ultimately get them closer to God. Too much doubt and the soul is (supposedly) lost forever!

I found Jones’ explorations of suffering both helpful and not. “Everything that happens to Christ also happens to us.” A subtly different but more helpful way of putting that might be “Everything that happens to us also happens to Christ.” This is what makes Christianity so fascinating and different from other religions (as the novel Life of Pi by Yanni Patel notes – Christ as an empathetic god makes the other gods seem inhuman). Yet the claim – made by Jones and, probably not coincidentally, my pastor during the children’s sermon this past Sunday – that we are always being held by God, even in the midst of suffering, is the hardest claim for me to swallow right now. Sometimes we’re held - and sometimes it sure seems like we’re dropped. What does “God is always holding us” actually, pragmatically, mean? There are times in life that feel like a complete free fall ending with the splatter of your soul.

If it’s true that in those times we are being held but we can’t feel it – how do we know it’s true? If we can’t trust our experience or feelings during a time of intense suffering, we are supposed to know it is true because other people say so? (Not helpful, people say all sorts of things.) Because we feel the love of concrete human beings who carry us? (Helpful, but if your brain is suffering from neuron synapses being broken by abuse and a severe deficiency in the neurotransmitters that create bonding, you will both push people away and be unable to receive what they manage to get through your defenses.)

If “we are always being held” is a truth, it is a truth that can feel condescending to someone in the middle of the suffering, and it can be salt in the wound to say something to them about it. I reached a point three years ago where the only words I found helpful in the whole Bible were “Why have you forsaken me?” If God could yell that to God in the midst of intense pain, then it’s okay for me to feel that, too.

Jones claimed, “The hardest part of moving into mature believing is allowing oneself to be the object of God’s delight.” I agree, but not because I think I’m a wormy sinful human – it’s because sometimes when you are suffering, self-love is very hard to conjure up, and you feel no delight coming at you from anywhere – people around you, God, life.

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Jones’ emphasis on community was also both helpful and not. He asked the very good question, “How can we be truly formed into a community without our swallowing or dominating one another?” I do not know. I’ve never experienced it outside of my family of origin; I’ve mostly just been burned by groups (and I’ve run the gamut). We are animals, even as there is the god in us, and we love power. Organic and healthy community is rare and special.

Community between two individuals – “the free and loving inclination towards one another” - is more frequent, more frequently helpful, and more life-giving. Perhaps this quote was the best answer: “Self-revelation takes place slowly and quietly between two people who are attentive to one another, understand one another, know one another, love one another. In this way I become the mirror in which the other sees himself; the other becomes the mirror in which I see myself. Yet this takes time. For much dust must be removed from that mirror.” (William Johnston)

My very favorite quote – I think from the whole book! - was “To be truly me I have to turn to you, and you open me up to what I am not yet. I cannot be me without you.”

Jones made a claim for God/Christianity that I disagreed with. “Unless I know the One who loves me, I have no way of responding, no way of loving in return. If not Jesus, than who or what?” I know people who I would describe as full of light who do not “know God” in the Christian sense. We do not require the labels to experience the mystery. Perhaps we require a paradigm, as Jones talks about, but I feel like that paradigm is almost 100% simply making connections to other loving people. As he said, “I need a model of love” – but that model can be found outside of Christianity just as much as within. People who love teach others to love, and the way to love is inside all of us, all the time. Sometimes specific spiritual homes help to cultivate it, sometimes they squelch it. But I don’t think they are a requirement.

Ultimately, I liked his words “failing, struggling, loving” to capture the stages of soul making because they are something that every human is undergoing all the time, no matter what they profess to believe, and they can happen over the course of a day, two months, twenty years… There are thousands of cycles of salvation in every life. It’s not one progression, though the love seems to get deeper the more times the cycles happen and/or the older people get. I’m glad those cycles help all of us to “tell the truth so that what we are and what we present are both genuinely hopeful and uncompromisingly realistic.”

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Walker Percy

"Christ should leave us. He is too much with us and I don't like his friends. We have no hope of recovering Christ until Christ leaves us. There is after all something worse than being God-forsaken. It is when God overstays his welcome and takes up with the wrong people."

(I don't actually know if that is worse than being God-forsaken. Having that feeling of "Why have you forsaken me?" in response to sexual abuse or the death of a partner - that's pretty much the worst feeling imaginable.)

Christians are always saying in response to things like this "The church is a hospital for sinners so why are you surprised to experience so much dysfunction there?" but I think I said this awhile ago: many many forms of Christianity seem to make a lot of people worse. There is so much that is pure power trip. It's like the poppie field in the wizard of Oz which lulls people into thinking they are getting better and making God happy when in actuality they're getting thrown off course and are nowhere near the Emerald City of their true soul.

At the same time - along the line of the tribes - there are seasons in life when someone finds a home and a family in a religious group and that is very much what they need at that point. It's grey like everything.


This is a huge thing I've been noticing and it affects everything I want to say about just about anything, especially related to the soul:

We are fundamentally wired to categorize and group ourselves and others.

This results in racism, and it also results in churches, and knitting clubs, and families. It is what it is: sometimes it's bad (racism), sometimes it's neutral (...churches?), sometimes it's good, especially when it helps reflect to you Who You Are and What Your Identity Is. We need to see ourselves in a group around us. We need to know we belong and we fit. (We need this so profoundly that a lot of us end up in cult-like situations - you're in one if they refuse to acknowledge that you are part of other groups at the same time, like your family or friends. Ahem, Orthodoxy as I experienced it and ahem, "communal" groups around Nashville... But I digress.)

This is also what limits us, often cripples us, from connecting with others on the deepest level and giving them the freedom to be who and where they are, and to grow.

A really interesting thing happened when the New York Times article came out: I had atheists, agnostics, Christians, and spiritual people all writing me thinking I was exactly like them and was part of their group. Which DELIGHTED me, because a) it's true, I want to be connected to all of them and b) that means my honesty captured enough of the disparity of life that it resonated with people beyond what tribe they are currently in. (When half of the Christians wrote, I did fear that there was condescension, judgment, and "pity" coming my way, because they/my former self tend/ed to be most worried when people are on the outside of the boundaries of what they've been taught gets you close to God.)

We all think the groups are fixed. We think if we are "Christian" we will be that, in that exact same way, for life (and some people are, but that is not often how wholeness is found). We think if we are "atheist," it will be the same. The way we define our soul or lack thereof group seems to be one of the deepest tribes we identify with.

But this is limiting. Hold your label lightly. It's only half of you, whatever it is. You need it, and at the same time it is still probably getting in the way of You being here. And you never know when you're going to shed that skin.

DON'T TRY TO GET PEOPLE TO JOIN YOUR TRIBE. Okay, you can debate for the fun of it (I'm certainly doing that here) and it's good to be where you're at and say what you think. But don't worry that the other person is doing worse off than you if they aren't in your tribe. If you've been told that, it's a lie. They are where they are for a reason and they probably need to be there (unless they are about to drink some Kool-Aid).

I'm trying to stick in the "outsiders" tribe right now, with one foot in all the others. Yes, all of them. I want everything that is good from everywhere to make itself comfy inside me. "Not possible!" everyone yells, because we all want to think our group is the best or that truth is mutually exclusive (I admit I'm partial to the Outsiders right now, but that's only because it's the best place for me, currently). A lot of this blog has been me claiming the "Christians Drive Me Crazy" tribe. And ironically, half the Christians I know would consider themselves a part of that club along with me. See how the labels are self-limiting even as I'm trying to use them all to convey something? :-)

The labels aren't the deeper truth, and the way to get to that truth is for us to love and listen to whoever is in front of us (focus on their name, because Names transcend groups and convey the individual as a world unto themself). We always can be stretched with our categorizing. A practical way of doing this is to play with symbols. Yesterday I wore a sweatshirt with the name of an Evangelical Wisconsin family camp I went to this summer on it. I would not place myself with the belief system espoused by that camp - it's not one of my core tribes - but it felt good for me to claim the name anyway and stretch myself by putting it on my chest. It is a place where I had a good time with my children and extended family. I love those people.

I've also taken to wearing my True Love Waits ring again. It was a gift from my family, it was a symbol of clarity and purity, and I am reclaiming it for myself because I am as valuable and whole now as I ever was. I'm wearing it because my 30-year-old self knows my value and purity have very little to do with my sexuality. And I am wearing it to break the negative powers of that movement, which has so much fear and shame in its shadow.

Play. Play with your groups, your labels, your tribes, your symbols. (I just put a clear Buddha on my dresser table - a symbol of the purity that can be found there - with a fancy gold cross in its arms that has shining mermaid-green stones embedded in it; a merging of the best of the East, the alchemy of suffering and perhaps the love of God, and the glory of femininity and myth, the three parts of my soul right now.)

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

10 years

Today is Gideon's birthday, and we have come full circle. I brought him a big cupcake at school and ate lunch with him. I baked oreo marshmallow brownies for all of them after school in celebration. We had a good night doing homey things all night. I went through old photos all day - photos I haven't looked at in over 5 years, that have sat in the basement, that made it through the Great Nashville Flood untouched. I put it off because I was too worried about the rush of feelings it would inspire - but after crying a little this morning for reasons I couldn't really explain to myself (sadness? just, overwhelmed by the bigness of this transition? integrating what becoming a mom before I knew who I was really entailed?), I dove in, and it was surprisingly healing and positive. We had some good years starting off. I wasn't depressed after Gid and Ril. I was young and fresh and pretty, heading into the great unknown and feeling like it was a terrific adventure. And it was, complete with the part of the adventure that S U C K S and H U R T S. But not all of it was like that, and it's good to look back and re-member, put some arms and legs back on moments of light that were there all along.

I like being a mom, and I can do this pretty well. Gideon Allen Torode was one of the best things that ever happened to me and I am lucky to belong with him.