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.”