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spiritual disciplines and spiritually disordered faithfulness

April 6th, 2006 by isaac · 4 Comments

Last summer I rambled on and on about spiritual disciplines (look here, here, and here). I still think about this a bit, and I thought I’d put it back on the table (especially since Jason’s taking a course on spiritual disciplines). I think all my problems begin with Karl Barth—all this talk of the “freedom of God” still unsettles my grasp on all my attempts to give a form to the Christian life. Barth’s point: God does what God does no matter how hard we try to manipulate the flow of the Spirit. I think Jacob Taubes, a Jewish philosopher, makes Barth strikingly clear on this stuff in his The Political Theology of Paul (p. 76):

The drawbridge comes from the other side. And whether you get fetched or not, as Kafka describes it, is not up to you. One can take the elevators up to the high-rises of spirituality—it won’t help. Hence the clear break. You can’t get anything out of it. You have to be told from the other side that you’re liberated…. We can strive until the day after tomorrow; if there’s no drawbridge, what’s the point? That’s Karl Barth, isn’t it, this total disillusionment, and I don’t see that you can get past that… If God is God, then he can’t be coaxed out of our soul. There is a prium there, an a priori. Something has to happen from the other side; then we see, when our eyes are pierced open. Otherwise we see nothing.

That total disillusionment with the elevators up to the high-rises of spirituality is hard to cure. Barth’s clear break seems to shatter our disciplinary attempts to shape a holiness that echoes the character of God. So, Barth leaves me with some troubles when it comes to making sense of spiritual disciplines: I wonder about the relationship between (1) our ability to prepare ourselves through spiritual formation, to make ourselves more apt to receive God’s sanctifying grace, and (2) how God’s gracious work of transformation shatters all our imagined forms—how God constantly transgresses the walls we erect, the patterns we expect God to follow.

The story of Saul/Paul comes to mind as displaying exactly the Barthian point about spiritual disciplines and formation in the virtues. It seems that since Saul excelled in righteousness and knew the Law inside and out, he should have been in the best possible position to receive Jesus, his Jewish Messiah. But the reverse was true: his habituation in virtue set his ship on a violent course toward the Messiah, a direction that worked against grace, against the work of the Spirit—”Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 4:9). Saul’s faithfulness, his robust spirituality, led him down the wrong path. Jesus had to shatter his images of faithfulness, his confident grasp on virtues and disciplines. How do we know we aren’t traveling with Saul as we celebrate our disciplines?

A related thing I worry about is the way we Christians love to use our morality, our disciplined life, as a way to secure our meaningfulness—e.g., “We are different from the world so of course we are faithful.” So, we have to construct a sense of strangeness from our neighbors in order to feel like we’re getting this whole Christian thing right. But that just sounds so parasitic, so uncreative. And I worry that it speaks more about our need for significance, for confirmation, than anything about what faithfulness looks like. The trouble is, it seems, that our achieved morality—our well ordered, disciplined life—easily turns into towers that secure our meaningfulness, make us feel like we are important in God’s eyes. But the question I constantly ask myself is whether or not my conceptions of the moral universe allow enough permeability for God’s Spirit to sneak through and turn the whole thing upside-down—to save me from myself. How can spiritual disciplines help us be more receptive to the disorder of grace, the disruptions of the Spirit—a Spirit that moves like the wind?

In one of my previous posts, I offered some ways to think about spiritual disciplines that don’t fall into the danger zones that Barth announces. I wondered if instead of turning to disciplines and virtues in an anxious attempt to secure spirituality—to possess piety, to grasp at a Pharisaistic dream of holiness, to manufacture differences from others that make us feel meaningful—I wonder if it’s more helpful to think of them as a chance to enter into a relationship with a living history, a fellowship with those among the great cloud of witnesses. Is this a good way forward?

Tags: theology

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Jason // Apr 7, 2006 at 1:32 pm

    Isaac, so glad you posted on this. Ever since I started the class I’ve had this little voice in my head that keeps asking “what would Isaac think about this?” Well, now I know. :) Your explanation of how Barth has informed your past posts about this subject makes a lot of sense.

    So, a couple thoughts. First, I don’t think “elevators up to the high-rise of spirituality” is a good description of the spiritual disciplines. The desert fathers and mothers didn’t develop these disciplines in order to form some sort of elitist club. Rather, the purpose of the spiritual disciplines was to open themselves wide-open so that God’s grace could transform them. You mention that, but it seems the “elevator” concept dominates the image.

    Also, while any spiritual discipline could be used as a way to try and manipulate God, their intent was not to do so. Silence, fasting, contemplation, solitude—their purpose is to clear out the cotton in our ears and the scales on our eyes that hinders us from hearing or seeing God. If we do them does it ensure we’ll see God? No way. John of the Cross’s “Dark Night of the Soul” is about the absence of God even when our life is permeated by a desire for God. But why not just wait for God to “let the drawbridge down”? Well, the motivation for engaging in these disciplines is to follow Jesus’ command that we love others and God completely, perfectly.

    But your question still stands, and it’s a good one, “how do we know their actually doing anything, or even making us worse?” Your question underscores the importance of doing these disciplines in community. I need you, and the rest of my community, to tell me if they are opening me to God’s grace or just making me into an uptight jerk. Perhaps this could be added to doing these “in relationship with a living history.” We do them both in relationship Maximus the Confessor and the friend sitting next to me in the pew.

    I’ll haveto think a bit more about the possiblity of spiritual disciplines being used to give us meaning. Again, a very real possiblity. But, perhaps when practiced in community and when disciplines like examen are done the possibility is reduced?

    Ok, here’s my worry about spiritual disciplines. They seem to have a tendency to get folks thinking wholly about their “spiritual relationship” with God, and social justice, caring for our neighbor gets lost in the desire for union with God. Obviously this isn’t the case for everyone (witness the Quakers), but I worry that the heavy emphasis on trying to get myself connected with God can overshadow the equal emphasis of loving others.

  • 2 isaac // Apr 13, 2006 at 5:42 am

    Jason, when I’m talking about spiritual disciplines I not talking about the desert monastics. Not at all. I’m talking about contemporary practices of spirituality, the quest for holiness, the desire to achieve faithfulness. So, when you say spiritual disciplines you are talking about the desert monastics and the John of the Cross. But when I say spiritual disciplines I’m talking about contemporary life—I have in mind the shelves of stuff I paged through the last time I was at Borders, or the stuff I hear about from a church that’s all jazzed about Lenten practices. And, I’m afraid, contemporary spirituality and the techniques (i.e., spiritual disciplines) that advance our level of holiness sounds a whole lot like “taking the elevators up to the high-rises of spirituality.”

    What would the desert monastics say to our commodification of spirituality, our quest to love God through our exciting techniques? Well, probably something like, “Go mow the lawn,” or “Make dinner and take it to your neighbor.” In a recent book on the desert monastics (Where God Happens), Rowan Williams tells the story of a young fella who goes into the deserts to learn the spirituality of the desert fathers and mothers. One of the fathers comes to the young man in the morning to invite him to the day’s manual labor. But the new, young guy wants to impress the father and get busy on his spiritual disciplines, so he tells the father that he is going to stay in his shack all day reading the Holy Scriptures and pray. The father leaves him in peace. Then evening comes and the young novitiate ventures out of his shack and joins the rest of the fathers around the fire where everyone is eating dinner. He asks for some food. Then the father replies (this is all a rough paraphrase… I don’t have the book with me), “Oh, I thought that since you were so spiritual you didn’t need to eat… I mean, you didn’t need to work. Why don’t you return to your shack and feast on the Word of God? Surely that will satisfy your hunger.” That’s the difference between monastic spirituality and our contemporary return to spiritual disciplines.

    I have no problem with this tradition of spiritual disciplines that seeks to open ourselves to God. Rowan Williams talks about it in terms of “de-centering exercises.” We need to be shaken out of the familiar, out from our ordering of reality, so we can see the fresh movements of the Spirit. So, Williams thinks about spiritual disciplines as ways of being present to the world—a stillnes that rejects the desire for something other than the present, other than the piece of earth beneath our chair. But that seems like a different world from what I hear from all these people today who are celebrating the disciplines. Spirituality is not a techinique to get ourselves somewhere else—further along our journeys of faithfulness, or toward union with God, or to show God we love him. It’s a way of being present to the details of the world around us, the way God comes to us in every part of life, if we are still enough to see it, if we are de-centered enough to see how what we thought was so familiar is actually strange, mysterious, sparkling with God’s gracious goodness.

  • 3 Jason // Apr 13, 2006 at 9:00 am

    That story from the desert fathers and mothers is great! Especially when paraphrased into an everyday narrative that sounds as relevant for today as it did hundreds of years ago. And Rowan William’s description of the practices as de-centering seems akin to what my professor, Richard Peace, keeps saying: that at the heart of many of these disciplines is “attention” or “awareness.”

    One thing, however, that I’m not so sure about is your statement that Spirituality is not a technique to get ourselves somewhere else—further along on our journeys of faithfulness, toward union with God….. I agree in part, spirituality should never be a technique, something that gives guaranteed results in helping us achieve something. But one thing we’ve been learning about is the via triple set out by Dionysius the Areopagite: the spiritual life begins with purgation (turning from vice, learning to love neighbor), then to illumination (contemplation of God, love of God but using images), then to unitive (loving God without images, mystical union with God, apophatic theology). This path isn’t necessarily linear (more likely circular in practice), but Dionysius and the other mystics did emphasize the Spiritual life as a journey, where you are trying to get somewhere (union), and the spiritual disciplines as means of allowing God to bring you along that path. What do you think?

  • 4 isaac // Apr 13, 2006 at 10:00 am

    Intersting bit on Pseudo-Dionysius. That read of his via negativa sounds a little different than the one I learned. Dionysius’s three phases of mystical theology is a journey, sure. But it is a path that seeks a non-path, a disorienting wilderness. One begins by making a positive claim about God. Then one contemplates the negation of that claim because our language, our tools, to get to God always lack. But then the negation of the claim is negated because even our method of negation isn’t an assured technique to get to God, to map God’s identity. So, one is left at the moment of complete disorientation, not even confident about the path taken to get to this place.

    But I think Williams’ version of spiritual disciplines might have some Dionysian resonances in another way as well (and this might stand if you don’t think the above reading of Dionysius’ via negativa is correct). Dionysius also talks about how it is only the multiplicity of creation that helps us see the unity of God. So, this means two things at once, it seems. First, no one image we can conjure up with the tools of creation exhausts the reality of God’s triune being. But it also means that every moment and every piece of creation is a time and space for divine illumination. It’s a call to the disorienting work of stillness where we let down our confident grasp of reality and see how our present moment explodes into multipliticy—where a creaking wooden chair explodes into the wonder of proliferating networks of fibers and grain. It’s a journey into the depth of creation at the ends of our fingertips. But every step into those forests is further away from the familiar and into unceasing strangeness of the multiplicity of God’s unified goodness.