Promises: Made, Kept, and Broken

(This is the text of a sermon which I delivered this past Sunday at Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren. My text was John 1:10-18, yet you’ll notice that i referenced the nativity stories of Matthew and Luke, as well as the covenant stories of the Hebrew Bible.

For those new to my blog, I’m a theologian whose faith informs everything that I do, especially my radical anarchist, anti-racist, and queer politics. I’ll be posting on those things again soon, I swear!)

In today’s gospel reading, we are presented with a contradictory vision of God. First, there is the Word, the second of the Trinity, the very God who has been ever since the beginning of time through whom all of creation came into being and upon whom lays the foundation of our reality. This vision of Jesus is very prominent in the Gospel of John: the God in human form who is completely certain of his mission, who never doubts his role and purpose. Yet, inherent in that vision is its contradiction, for this is still a human who, as verse 14 claims, ‘became flesh and lived among us’. No matter how much John wants to stress the glory, the grace, and the truth of the Incarnate Word, that Word is still Incarnate, and is thus bound, and shaped, by the limitations and unique beauty of human creaturehood.

In Quaker theology, this is called ‘that of God within’, or the ‘Light of Christ within’ the human person: all of creation is marked by God’s presence as a product of their creation. We are capable of being in relationship with God not only because God made us, but also because God desires it to be so. We all share our lives with a constant companion: the spark of the divine within us. This spark calls upon us to live into our divine selves, to become, both through faith AND works, the kind of people who are can live into the promise of this intense relationship with God. This is not unique to Quakers, though. The early church spoke about the Incarnation bridging the gap between human and divine, bringing humans more fully into the divine life. The Eastern Orthodox church has long termed this process theosis, while the Roman Catholic church calls us divinisation. There are even connections with Anabaptist and Wesleyan theology. The Christian tradition teaches us that we discover who God is by looking towards the human Jesus, and that we discover who humans are by looking towards God and God’s actions in the world. And when we do, we discover something unsettling and surprising: humans are NOT meant to be powerful.

The Christmas season reminds us of this inescapable truth: God entered the world in the most vulnerable way possible, completely powerless. We can sometimes forget the harsh reality of God’s birth in the sepia tones of our domesticated vision of the quiet stable. Yet, the ever-existing Incarnate Word of John’s Gospel was born to an teenage mother hiding under the crippling social shame of having become pregnant while not being married. This woman came from an oppressed and completely powerless class and race, and was forced to make an incredibly dangerous journey in the midst of an exercise designed to demonstrate the complete dominance and power of her colonial overlords. She was subjected to discrimination based upon her class and poverty, and was forced to birth her child in a filthy parking garage without any privacy or medical help of any kind.

As soon as her child was born, she was visited by the filthiest and lowest class of people. Shepherds did the most physically demanding, most unappealing, and most dangerous work of the day, and as a result were forced to live on the margins of society, suffering significant prejudice and discrimination as a result. Therefore, the very first people to visit God, to recognise that God was living amongst us, were day labourers and sanitation workers. Within days, this oppressed family was forced to flee for their lives to a foreign land due to the fear of impending government-sanctioned violence. Yes: the Holy Family were Middle-Eastern political refugees. We should bear that in mind in our contemporary situation.

God therefore entered the world in the most vulnerable way possible. God took the most profound risks to fulfill the promise of the Messiah. This is NOT a God of power and glory, as we understand it. Is this really what God promised us, so long ago? Is this the savior, the Messiah, who would break us free from sin, death, and oppression? Is this really the model for how God desires us to fulfill our promises? If God was made one of us, and we are thus reciprocably brought into the divine nature, then we are irrevocably shaped by God’s nature and must then take very careful notice of what that nature is…if we are then to live truly human lives. This is the key question, then: how are we to make and keep promises in light of the absolute vulnerability of God’s promise?

This is the season for making promises, isn’t it? How many of y’all made a New Year’s Resolution a few days ago? How many of y’all have kept your promise? Now, here’s the really interesting question: how many of y’all have already broken that promise? I’m sure that there are a few! We make these promises in the flush of a new year, a time that seems pregnant with opportunity for birth, and rebirth. Every year, so many of us tell ourselves, and our communities, that we will exercise more, eat better, serve our community more (or less, as the case may be), yell at our kids less, and the most elusive of all: find contentment with the bountiful blessings which have been so graciously given by God. Yet, how many years have we found ourselves in mid-January quietly laying down the promises which we took on with such sound, fury, and fanfare…yet which, in the end, seemed to signify nothing? We see the hard evidence of our inability to keep our promises, for years, and then proceed to ignore all of it. Why?

Because we actually ARE capable of keeping promises! Thankfully, New Year’s Eve is not the final word in human commitment. All of us have made truly significant promises in our lives, such as marriage, parenthood, or baptism, promises which through the daily challenge of their maintenance define our lives, and give meaning and structure to our identities. We make sacrifices, both significant and seemingly insignificant, in order to keep our word, and through the continual, daily, boring choice to sacrifice we are transformed into the kinds of people who can maintain a promise.

In this way, keeping a promise is a discipline which requires continuous effort, often quite strenuous, which is rarely ever rewarded in the short term…and sometimes not even in the long-term, at least in a way which we can understand as ‘reward’. Keeping a promise is something which must be seen as having value in and of itself, done for its own sake and because we refuse to accept that we will ever be the kinds of people who cannot keep promises.

This applies even more in the cases where the promise is small, for our inability to keep the small promises undermines our ability to keep the big promises. Now, this doesn’t mean that if we can’t keep our promise to hit snooze ‘just one more time’ that we will never be able to hold to our marriage vows. If that were the case, then I’m certain that a good number of us should just take our wedding rings off! Yet, the principle applies when we accept that the big decisions are just a long succession of small decisions made over, and over, and over again. Our commitments to each other are actually these multi-faceted collections of daily, tiny, boring promises made, kept, and hopefully not broken very often. The promises made that really matter are kept in the quiet moments when it would be far easier to break them, those thoroughly banal and boring times when it seems like a small deal to let up our commitment to being the kind of person who the commitment is making us into.

Yet, it is in these quiet, boring, seemingly invisible moments that we demonstrate the mark which God’s creation has made upon our souls. God continually makes promises to the creation. They flow out from God’s very essence, and are the foundation of our reality. They are the covenants which give the world structure, and through their gradual flowering, the hope needed to sustain us through the pain and sacrifice of waiting: the rainbow, the stars in the sky, the land of milk and honey, the Messiah. It is one truth about God which we can be absolutely certain of, and depend upon: God will always make promises to the creation, which God will always keep, no matter the sacrifices required. Jesus was tempted, in very human ways, in both the desert and the garden (interesting contradiction, no? maybe shows that Jesus can be faithful in all circumstances?), and kept his promise. The lesson here is that if we share in the divine nature of God through the Incarnation, we also have the capacity to keep our promises, in times lean AND fat, chaotic AND boring, in the significant AND the banal.

God shows humility by shedding power, safety, and economic security, and commitment by continuously shedding the same. God shows determination by continually holding to God’s promise to Noah to never again destroy the earth, even when we seem hell-bent on doing it ourselves. God shows courage by being naive and vulnerable in the face of what seems like certain danger. God shows a willingness to take risks by engaging in the extremely vulnerable work of embracing humans, both despite and because of the risk involved.

Finally, God shows a willingness to have hope. God knows how often humans fail to uphold their promises by either breaking them or by failing to even make them in the first place. In the terms of the market, humans are very risky investments. Yet, by making such risky promises, God demonstrates a profound willingness to have hope in humanity.

How can we respond to this unbelieveable, and seemingly foolish, hope which God continually shows in us? We must reflect our divine nature, and have hope as well. We must accept that to be truly human is to live into the promise which God made to us at creation, when God created us in the divine image. If God hopes, we MUST hope, and never lose hope. I admit, this sounds both impossible, and impossibly naive. The world is not lacking plenty of good reasons to lose hope. Yet, hope must be our last reserve of strength, our final defence in the face of impending defeat. We must show an intense stubbornness, and absolutely refuse to concede hope, no matter the circumstances. We must consider hope to be our most precious possession.

All of this strong talk is not hyperbole. Every day, before I even rise out of bed, I make a promise to retain my hope: in the day, in God, in my marriage, in my career, and in the potential for love and beauty to win the argument against hate and cruelty. I firmly believe that this decision, this continual commitment to hope, is one of the most important spiritual practices that I have ever encountered. It’s really the only practice that has been able to sustain me through every challenge in my life. My vision of hope is not a greeting-card platitude; it’s absolute, mad courage, staring despair in the face and, with a smile, saying ‘try and get a piece of me’.

Please do not mistake me, however: none of us will ever be blessed with superhuman powers of hope. I have found myself clinging to hope as if my life depended on it. There have been days when my hope has been the only reason dragging me out of bed in the morning. I don’t view hope as a special ability reserved for those with greater spiritual and mental strength. Hope is often the only option left for kids trying to make sense of a world where a parent can treat them as if they are subhuman. Hope is the last reserve for parents who, when looking at their sleeping children, have no clue how they will make it to the next paycheque. Hope is the last line of defence for families dealing with chronic illness. Hope is the reserve of the dispossessed, the poor, and the marginalised.

Hope isn’t a luxury when you are faced with the struggle to retain your dignity and all that makes you human. This is a robust, stubborn hope that can overcome all of the voices telling you that you will fail. This is the only hope that will ever sustain us in the face of the profound forces of disillusionment and despair which demand our fear, especially durnig this past year. Our hope must be the hope of a completely vulnerable God, entirely dependent upon us for care and love. The infant made a promise to us, and renews that promise every second. Will we reach out in complete, naked vulnerability and take the risk to keep the prom

Call me…Christy?

a common experience, or more accurately ritual, amongst gender non-conforming people is the adoption of a chosen name which reflects their own experience of their gender. sometimes people devise an ‘androgynous’ name from their birth name (kris from kristin, for example), and sometimes they choose something entirely new. this is not to reject their past so much as to find ways of reclaiming their identity from the gendered assumptions which are laid upon names.

i know that when people see my name, the tumblers fall in their heads and the assumptions about my identity are already established before they even meet me. i recognise that this happens constantly, as humans must catalogue each other in order to make sense of the world. i am very aware of this process, and yet i STILL find myself doing it as well. it’s unavoidable.

as i’ve been reflecting on whether i would ever have a similar ritual, especially after 35 years of the entire planet knowing me by the shortest version of my first name possible – ‘dan’ – i’ve been afraid that i’ve arrived at this party too late, and that maybe tweaking one’s name is a teenager’s game. i can hear all of the voices in my head yelling loudly that it’s the height of silliness and foolishness for a person my age to toy around with that, and why can’t i just be serious.

and then…i get angry. i become incensed. these voices are the same ones which told me this morning that as i was going to be working in the library of a roman catholic seminary, i should not force people there to deal with the (slightly) feminine presentation which i was feeling drawn to today. these voices are the same ones which have left me staring at my jeans, experiencing a weird fashion/presentation dysphoria, distracting me from doing ANYTHING more productive than hating myself for acceding to the voices…and for being the kind of person for whom this is even an issue in the first place.

i say that toxic masculinity is the need to conform ourselves to established norms of ‘professionalism’ and ‘seriousness’ in order to maintain the illusion of invisibility that people like me are supposed to cloak ourselves in. we are told to not make a scene at family gatherings, at work, even on the street, for we make people uncomfortable by the presentation of our very existence. we are told that any difficulties which we encounter when we present ourselves on the outside as we feel on the inside are our fault for DARING to be honest in a place where, god forbid, other humans might actually SEE us and be forced to question their limited visions of what gender is supposed to mean.

EVERY SINGLE GNC PERSON HAS FACED THIS: the look of horror on a family member’s face at the very suggestion that you would wear something ‘controversial’ to a family event, the sly joke at work about dressing ‘appropriately’, the street harassment from people staring at you and calling you ‘fag’ from the safety of their cars…finally, the victim-blaming where we are told that if we simply dressed ‘normally’ then we would make our lives easier.

i am not willing to play that game anymore.

i don’t WANT to be ‘serious’ anymore. i CAN’T be, it simply hurts too much.

so, i want to do something completely ‘silly’. i want to be ‘frivolous’: something which i have been advised against, and even banned from, for my entire life. i want to have a nickname which I choose, which reflects MY personality, which makes ME happy and is MINE.

in that vein, i’ve been toying with ‘christy’ for a while. my middle name is christopher. while i’ve always loved it, i’ve also not played with it b/c i was honestly trying to take up less room: let’s be honest, i’m already weird enough. yet, i love how it calls to my christianity, as well how it’s an aspect of me that’s both public, yet somehow hidden. i’ve never put it on any of my correspondence with anyone, and no-one has ever called me ‘christopher randazzo’. in fact, should someone do so, i would have no idea who they were talking about. yet, i’ve always held a special place in my heart for the name, as if it had something special to give me, and only me.

finally, it reflects my childhood love of baseball, and of christy mathewson. not only was he one of the best pitchers of ALL TIME (still, even a century later, no one can hold a candle to his achievements), he was also one of the best people to ever play the game. read up on his life: it reads like a saint’s life, only a saint with an astounding fastball. in an age of doping, strikes, and disrespecting fans, i felt as if i could look up to christy mathewson with pride.

so, i think that i’ll be trying out the nickname ‘christy’ for a while, and see how i feel about it. i’ll keep y’all posted.

with love,
christy

The Power of the ‘Small Gesture’

On Monday, April 27th, my city, Baltimore, experienced an event which those of us who live in the city are still trying to come to grips with, and discern the meaning of. We can’t even agree on a definition of the event! Was in unrest, a riot, or an uprising? What was the message? Generational poverty? Police brutality? Mass incarceration? Simple youthful indiscretion? This debate immediately consumed the national consciousness, and the gaze of the world was suddenly, and intensely, on Baltimore. We’re used to having people pay attention to us because of our reputation, and because of those tv shows that the rest of the world seems to love so much.

Yet, we’ve never had the world pay such close attention to our problems before! Y’all were suddenly debating our issues on national news shows, and suddenly every person became an expert on what was ailing Baltimore. Those of us who live in the city now had a HUGE megaphone with which to educate the world about Baltimore. Marches! Community events! Volunteering! Interviews! It’s as if the world suddenly figured out that Baltimore existed, and as if we all finally figured out how to bridge some of the massive gulfs in our city. Oddly enough, it was a truly exciting time to be from Baltimore.

That week, I had finished teaching courses for the semester, and I wanted to jump right in and get INVOLVED. Yet, as luck would have it, I found myself coming down with an illness that night that would leave me in bed for the next week. Just as things were all happening, I was left feeling helpless, unable to DO something. I can’t describe to you the feelings of frustration, and of shame, for somehow letting my city down in its hour of need.

I’d made a significant mistake. I had somehow taken an event of true significance, and had made it all about me. Now, I had all of the best intentions, of course. Still, I’d succumbed to pride, and had conflated the needs of the city with my need to ‘be important’ and ‘do important’, what Martin Luther King, Jr. famously termed ‘the drum major instinct’. I call it ‘striving for the big gesture’: the situation which arises when our pride mixes with our gifts and talents, and then gets filtered through our layers of privilege, and our sense of self-importance, so that we eventually feel as if we absolutely need to do something HUGE in order to feel as if we’ve achieved something meaningful.

So, we seek to solve the BIG problems in BIG ways, while ignoring the numerous small, and oftentimes far more effective, ways that we can actually make a significant difference in our world that will not gain us an ounce of public notice, recognition, or status.

Are we slaves to the big gesture, and the rush of importance that it gives us? I bet that you know what I mean. Have you ever met someone who LOVES talking about how amazing they are because they are off ‘saving the world’? I used to live in Washington, DC. I met these people ALL. THE. TIME. Saving the world becomes just another tickmark on their life resumes. College? Check. Marriage? Check. First job? Check. Feeding flood victims in Africa? Check Check! Whether it was working for a member of Congress, or for any of the innumerable non-profits in the city, they would brag about how important their work was while actively ignoring, and then mistreating, the single mother of two serving them their coffee.

How about the flip side? Have any of you been on the other side of the counter? Have you ever had the feeling that you aren’t doing anything to solve world hunger because you are too focused on the daily round of needing to get a job, any job, in order just to meet the basic needs of you and your family? Do you now hold a position in society without worldly status or importance? Have you ever felt as if you were just living your life and going through the motions, yet not making a big impact?

I can say with absolute certainty that these past few years, when I’ve been the stay-at-home dad while I worked on my dissertation and tried to crack into academia, has been an eye-opening experience. I’ve realised how much societal value I, especially as someone socialised as a man, received from my salaried, full-time job…and how much my self-worth depended upon that societal value.

Now, I was so unbelievably happy when I saw the beam of pride on my spouse’s face when she realised that she was supporting the entire family on her salary alone. Yet, that didn’t make it any easier when I had to explain our situation to people, and when I saw that look of surprise? disdain? when someone realised that I was actually the at-home parent. It has been a lesson in humility, one that I recommend every man experience at least once in their life.

Yet, our society as a whole values the ‘big gesture’, and the daily round of pick-ups, play-dates, and snacks simply isn’t big enough. But, why?! Is it not in these moments when we shape our children to be the people who will go off, and change the world?

Maybe we all need to ask ourselves this question: do we need to do something monumental for God’s sake…or for our own?

Today’s reading from Mark (Mark 12:41-44) points us in the right direction. Let’s set the scene.

Jesus and his disciples are in the temple, and witness a group of people give money into the temple treasury. This money was intended to enable the temple to perform any of its numerous functions and services, from feeding the priests, to maintenance, to caring for the poor. Many rich people gave huge amounts, amounts that the temple relied on to remain afloat. Yet, in the midst of that crowd, one woman, a widow, gave two coins, the equivalent of about an hour’s worth of laborer’s wage.

In effect, this was a truly insignificant gift from a seemingly insignificant woman. As a widow, she not only had a precarious social standing, she was also without the protection that her husband’s earnings would have normally provided. She might have been able to make some money here and there, but it would have likely been spotty and unreliable at best. In effect, these coins, seemingly insignificant in the grand scheme, especially in comparison to the huge sums from the rich folk, may have been the sum total of what she had.

Now, Jesus doesn’t denigrate or dismiss the value of the big gifts. He acknowledges them, but notes that they were given far more easily, because they were given out of a place of plenty. Instead, he elevates the gift of the widow, dismissing the worldly standards, and replacing them with God’s standards, which place the highest value on gifts given out of poverty, insignificance, and humility.

The widow didn’t have time to worry about her effectiveness, or about whether her gift was too small or insignificant to make a difference. She wasn’t focused on the scales of effectiveness that control our perception of the usefulness of our work, especially those of us raised to be ‘men’ in our Western, capitalist society. The widow demonstrated two key elements for effectiveness in the world that God desires that we help build: 1) a humble willingness to give everything that she could, even when it seemed insignificant and unimportant, and 2) an irrational and nonsensical hope in the future.

Regarding the first, God calls upon us to give everything that we can give, at that moment. God’s not concerned about us giving now what we could have given in the past, or what we will be able to give in the future. God calls upon us to give freely and completely from where we are, at every moment. This has two consequences: it means that we needn’t feel guilty for not being able to meet standards from a past incarnation of ourselves, but it also means that we can’t give a little less now, in order to save for the future.

This leads to the second element: God continually gives us the gifts that we need in order to help those around us; we need to thus have faith that each day will take care of itself in God’s economy. This doesn’t make any rational sense, of course: why would we not save for the future? Doesn’t it make sense to invest in the possibility of doing more with our marshalled resources? God is calling upon us to have the faith that by investing our resources in the world now, we are ensuring that we even HAVE a future. Thus, even though it seems to make no sense, this is the path that has the MOST likelihood of actually achieving the world that we are hoping so longingly for.

The widow also reminds us why striving for the ‘big gesture’ is so dangerous: it sets us up with expectations designed around the contexts of other people, which can either play on our sense of pride and self-importance, or harshly remind us of our limitations, thus rendering us too ashamed to use our gifts to achieve what we can. Either way, we might find ourselves facing the helpnessness that comes from never achieving what we set out to achieve, and the terrible but inevitable result: burnout.

Thing is, we don’t have the time to waste with feeling helpless. Suffering in our world is REAL. Racism is REAL. Endemic, generational poverty is REAL. In many neighbourhoods in Baltimore, the poverty, health outcomes, and job opportunities for people rival those of many of the poorest countries. This is REAL life for many people in both Baltimore AND Greensboro, despite our desire to hide our faces from these realities. This world doesn’t have time for any of us here to feel helpless, especially when we have such incredible resources! We feel helpless sometimes because ‘striving for the big gesture’ limits our creativity by limiting the scope of what we think we can achieve.

That week, after I had spent some time in prayer, I took a lesson from the widow and offered what I could. I was stuck at home, in front of my computer and the television, with plenty of time to comb news reports. I could therefore write blog posts about the situation, and link to useful articles on Facebook, for those outside of Baltimore who wanted to understand the situation. I spoke with any who wanted to gain context into the situation, including friends, and friends of friends. My spouse and I contacted our networks, and offered up our home for any in the city who needed a quiet and safe place to stay, away from the busy-ness and danger of other parts of the city. We hosted someone from out of town who needed to participate in the protests. I cooked food, and served it to tired friends late at night, offering a listening ear to harrowing tales of protest lines.

I offered that often overlooked, yet essential, ministry of hospitality. I didn’t solve Baltimore’s problems. I didn’t land on national television. I didn’t make a name for myself. Yet, I gave what I could, all that I could, when I could. I did a collection of small gestures, and for that week at least, it was enough.

There is a time for small gestures, and for big ones. We need to listen to God’s voice for direction, because God will tell us which gesture we are called to do at that moment. A true call is likely to ask us to stretch in uncomfortable ways, and will absolutely cure us of our pride. God’s call might ask over-educated able-bodied white men to take the back seat and take on the role of follower, and homemaker.

God might then elevate women, and especially women of colour, to the roles of leader and prophet, building movements and speaking truth to power. No matter what, God’s call will definitely ask us to open ourselves up to incredible new realities. Those of us currently in positions of worldly power might discover that God’s power can sometimes only be accessed by harnessing the power of the ‘small gesture’.

 

Quaker ‘Nations’ and Third-Culture Kids

I’m obsessed with history, especially my own. Ever since I was young, I’ve been driven by the need to locate my roots, and to make sense of where I have come from. I truly believe that we can only understand who we are when we understand our own story. This series is a attempt to locate my story in the tangled web of boundaries that I’ve crossed in my life. This also explains why I re-visit old poems, research, and reflections, including my post yesterday on Liberal Quaker boundaries.

I’ve had a few people critique the conclusions that I made in the post as being far too simplistic, and not reflecting the wider variety of Quaker thought. I agree. That research WAS simplistic, and was my first stab, three years ago, at coming to some understanding of where I might fit in the broad Quaker world. That’s the challenge of using old research: it’s interesting to see where you’ve come from, but it’s also based on potentially outmoded and immature assumptions.

I wanted to re-visit the conclusions that I made then, in an effort to see if the broader thesis still held: that one could locate Christo-centrism in Liberal Quaker thought (even if it was a historic root, and needed to be revived), and if one could build a theology around it. I think that there IS a place for Christo-centrism in the complexity of Liberal theology, even if that place is, for some, now outside of the boundaries of FGC-affiliated meetings, or in the ‘convergent Friends’ gatherings and FWCC conversations. I do not presume to say whether these extra-denominational trends are ‘good things’ or not: they just ARE.

In today’s post, I explain how I consider myself ‘ontologically homeless’, in a perpetual state of living in a ‘third-culture’, without any obvious cultural rooting. I then apply this ‘third-culture’ dynamic to my experience as a convinced Friend. I put forward the theory that the multiple strands that have come together to influence Liberal Quakerism (including yes, Unitarianism, Progressivism, and Non-theism) have created a ‘third-culture’ environment which is very attractive for people who feel as if they don’t belong anywhere else, due to their sense of being ‘boundary-crossers’ in their own lives. I think that Liberal Quakerism is in for a period of re-evaluation as the multiple ‘third-cultures’ of individual convinced Friends continue to dynamically interact with each other.

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Image

This picture was taken from my back garden, when I was living in Belfast, Northern Ireland. It reminds me of the staggering beauty of the Irish sky, especially in winter. That low rise is called Black Mountain, and it glowers imposingly over South Belfast as one in a series of ridges that ring Belfast’s south, west and northeast sides. It is a rather beautiful ‘mountain’, in the same gentle, ancient way that many find the Appalachian Mountains beautiful. As opposed to the young, dynamic and dizzying heights of the Rockies, Sierras, or Himalayas, these low, long-eroded mountains in the eastern United States and in Britain/Ireland FEEL ancient, rooted in the depths of the earth. I feel at home in these mountains, ‘my mountains’, more than any other chain because they just seem to breathe AGE.

(I wasn’t very surprised to discover that they were all made in the same period, as they have rather similar ‘feels’. This similarity was one of the things that appealed to the settlers from lowland Scotland and the Province of Ulster when they arrived in the American colonies and moved to the mountains as fast as they could.)

I think that these old places speak to me because I feel so rootless, so ‘ontologically homeless’. In some sense, I guess that I’ve always felt as if I don’t really belong anywhere, exclusively. I thought that I was alone in this feeling until I came across a term called the ‘third-culture kid‘. The term was initially created to make sense of the phenomenon of kids who are raised in countries foreign to that of their birth, such as the children of missionaries, diplomatic staff, people in military service, and people in any form of international business. These kids create a ‘third-culture’ between the culture of their parents and home country, and the culture of the host country.

The term itself is a bit controversial (‘kid’ doesn’t really apply when you’re deep into adulthood), while others question if military life is a cultural stew of its own. I didn’t move overseas until i was in my late 20’s, yet I found much in common with the experience of ‘true’ TCK’s. I think that it’s rather easy to forget how significant the differences are amongst the various ‘American cultures’. Yet, I only needed to visit the two vastly different sides of my family to see American multi-culturalism in action.

My father’s family are rooted in the Sicilian immigrant experience. Their values were blue-collar, Southern European, deeply influenced by the Roman Catholic Church, with a healthy dose of a beautifully irrational view of the natural world. My mother’s family, on the other hand, was rooted in the Anglo-American values of hard work, rationality, family ‘duty’ and the social virtues of Methodism. Everyone on both sides of my family were raised in New York, yet they never seemed to be speaking the same language.

When we were with either family, my brother and I became quite adept at ‘code-switching‘. Our accents shifted, depending on who we were speaking with. To this day, whenever I speak about New York, or Long Island, and especially when I cross the bridge into any part of New York City, my accent shifts abruptly. I sound very ‘Long Guy-land’. I become very loud and expressive, and my use of foul language increases exponentially. Whenever I am anywhere else, however, I am much quieter, with a broadly ‘Mid-Atlantic’ accent. My personality shifts dramatically. I am, at once, two people.

This shifting became much more pronounced when I moved from Long Island to appalachian Alabama. I was, for all intents and purposes, in a COMPLETELY foreign land. I hadn’t left my political country, yet I felt profound culture shock. I didn’t fit in, and didn’t know anyone who was like me. My ‘default’ personality was still my Long Island personality. I quickly discovered, however, that Long Island was simply not going to fly in tiny Scottsboro, Alabama. I adopted my quiet Methodist/Anglo personality, if for no other reason, to survive. (Alabama is still one of those states where it’s usual practice for Roman Catholic churches to be located at the town line, as they were often unable to secure the permits to build within city limits.)

I was negotiating four cultures all at once: my mother’s, my father’s, the surrounding Appalachian culture, and my own rapidly developing hybrid of all four. I took on a Southern accent in order to ‘hide’, and often find myself code-switching when speaking about Southern topics, or when I’ve lived in Southern states. (It’s a party trick of mine to switch amongst all three accents-it’s always a kick!)

Little did I know that I wasn’t alone in my sense that I was living in a different ‘country’. The idea of multiple ‘American Nations’ has been written about extensively, most recently in the book of the same name by Colin Woodard. His basic thesis, and that of Joel GarreauDavid Hackett Fisher, and others, is that North America IS split into many different cultures, or ‘nations’. The specific boundaries of, and number of, ‘nations’ differs amongst all of these theorists. However, they all share the common thesis that the United States has been profoundly impacted by the variety of different cultural ‘nations’ that first established colonies on this continent.

‘Nation’ in this context would mean a group of people who share common values, culture, and identity. A nation is thus different from a state, in that a state is solely a political/governmental entity, whilst a ‘nation’ is a cultural entity. There might be ‘nation-states’ where the borders of the governmental entity directly overlap the borders of the national identity, such as Luxembourg. Small countries are not exclusively nation-states, however: Belgium is comprised of two very different nations, and is experiencing profound political struggles overcoming the sharp divide between the two nations.

The American ‘nations’ were established along the three main coasts of European colonisation (Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf…the Arctic Coast was, and still is, dominated by First Nations peoples). The colonies reflected the various cultural preoccupations of the colonists. These cultural norms became deeply rooted in any area where these nations moved, and became the dominant cultural norms into which all immigrant populations were expected to assimilate. Broadly speaking, this helps to explain why the highland South still feels very different to Tidewater and the Deep South, even though they might all be in the same state. (Virginia is the perfect example of this: West Virginia is the result of highland Southerners finding more in common with the Union than the patriarchal society of the Tidewater and Deep South planters along the Chesapeake and the Piedmont.)

So, when I moved to Appalachian Alabama when I was thirteen, I really WAS living in a vastly different culture. I was a ‘third-culture kid’, in the boundaries of my own country. After two years learning to adapt to this incredibly different place, we moved to yet another ‘nation’: Houston, Texas. Dear Lord. Catholicism was different there. The food was different. The cultural values were VERY different. At this point in my life, I feel as if I experienced a permanent break in my personality. I was far removed from everything that felt comfortable, was light-years away from my family, and was even beginning to doubt whether I felt comfortable in this new Catholicism.

I can date my ‘existential homelessness’ from this moment. I’ve since lived in the liberal enclave of Austin, the low country grace of North Carolina, the colonial rootedness of Annapolis, the cultural schizophrenia of DC, the perpetual cultural conflict of Northern Ireland, and the post-industrial mish-mash of Birmingham, England. I’ve been Episcopalian, Anglican, Methodist, and now, Quaker, in three different countries and innumerable ‘nations’. At this point in my life, I can honestly say that I live in Baltimore because it truly feels as much a ‘home’ as anywhere, and I can at least understand the cultural ‘nations’ that overlap here.

I think that many people wind up in Liberal Quakerism, as I did: as refugees from other faith backgrounds (or even lack of religious ‘faith’), and see in Liberal Quakerism a place where many cultural ‘nations’ are present. Liberal Quakerism makes a point of maintaining an ethic of radical, and open, welcome to any and all seekers. Quakers have a strong tradition of welcoming seekers, as many of the first Quakers came from the ‘seeker movements’ of the seventeenth century in the Midlands and Yorkshire. We appeal to people who feel comfortable living in the spaces between religious certainties, the ‘third-cultures’ between Evangelicalism, Atheism, Catholicism, and Progressivism. This ‘third-culture’ of Quaker uncertainty feels like home to people who may be ‘homeless’ in some other aspect of their lives. This is not to say that there aren’t certainties in Quaker life; there are simply far fewer absolute certainties in matters of belief,’doctrine’, and faith than there are in the majority of other ‘religious’ groups.

I’d even go out on a limb and say that if you crack open a convinced Liberal Friend, you’re going to find someone who feels at least somewhat alienated from the culture and ‘nation’ in which they are living and working. Convinced Friends, the ‘third-culture kids’ of religion, walk into a Quaker meeting, and breathe a sigh of relief, feeling as if they’ve finally found their home, and are amongst ‘their people’. It’s truly a beautiful thing, and it’s why I still have a warm place in my heart for Liberal Quakerism.

Yet, I think that it’s exactly this cultural dynamism that is feeding the growth of extra-, trans-, and non-denominational experiments in Quakerism, including Liberal Quakerism. The most foundational truth of the ‘third-culture’ experience is that you don’t truly ever feel at home for long. You’re always seeking, always looking over the next hill, looking to explore more of life. You’re always searching for the most elusive of feelings: ‘belonging’. Belonging isn’t simply being welcomed somewhere, it’s also feeling as if every aspect of your identity is welcome in a place and amongst a people. It’s an exhausting search, in part because it’s a fool’s errand. You aren’t ever completely welcome anywhere because NOWHERE has that unique amalgamation of cultures that encompasses all of you. So, ‘third-culture’ people often decide to create their own ‘home’. Just like refugees in a foreign land, ‘third-culture’ people find themselves creating a cultural ghetto in which they can feel completely free to be themselves.

I’m certain that some may disagree with my read of the situation. Some may also say that I’m not giving the large tent of Liberal Quakerism enough credit. All that I can say in reply to that critique is that I don’t feel as if it is the fault of Liberal Quakerism, so much as the end result of the rootlessness of the ‘third-culture’ experience. This echoes my experience in Quakerism…and I’m not alone.

The Delicate Boundaries of Christo-Centric Liberal Quakerism

Image(photo courtesy of Sara Wagner: Thanks, Sara!)

This week I’m going to be running a series on the issue of boundaries. I’ll be examining issues of identity, property, separation, the interplay between the ‘self’ and the ‘other’, as well as examining the role that people who cross multiple boundaries can play in a critique of rigid identity categories.

Today, I’m returning to a short introduction to the boundaries of Christo-centric Liberal Quakerism. This was written a few years ago, when I was trying to figure out if my interest in Quakerism was both academic and personal. For at least fifteen years I’ve struggled with the sense that I don’t really fit into any obvious denominational category, save ‘broadly Christian’. This struggle may explain my journey from the Roman Catholicism of my childhood through Episcopalianism, a lay Franciscan Order, Methodism, Liberal Quakerism, and finally to the Friends of Jesus Fellowship, a network of people and communities who are seeking to explore the intersections of Jesus in community, and the Quaker tradition. I still feel deeply connected to Liberal Friends, and have always been intrigued by that tradition’s interest in theological openness. Yet, as I was seeking to root myself in a definitive theological ‘place’, the same openness that refreshed me would often challenge me as well. I began the project that I’m currently working on – developing a Christ and Spirit-centred theology of reconciliation for the Liberal tradition – in an effort to sketch out where I might find theological boundaries that could add definition to such a ‘place’. I’ve found that this search has placed me outside of the established paradigms of the Quaker world…yet I’ve also found am not alone out here. There seem to be quite a few of us who are straddling a few different theological and Quaker ‘worlds’. Anyway, on to a short bit of research: 

————-

The Light Within may thus be called, under one aspect, a human faculty, if we remember that there is no such thing in our nature as a separable faculty, but that always our personality acts as a whole, though in many ways. It is a faculty identical with that whose working we call faith.

Edward Grubb1

 

Modern Quakerism is a complex patchwork quilt of denominations with a significant variety of worship forms and theological perspectives. All Modern Friends look to the earliest Quakers for inspiration and affirmation of their unique version of Quakerism.2 One of the most confusing aspects of Quakerism is the dizzying variety of opinions on just what constitutes “Quakerism,” and what makes one a “Friend.” In the United States alone, there are five different groupings that all consider themselves Friends, with each differing from each other in significant ways, from their manner of worship to the centrality of Christ.3 There is a more obvious correlation between the Evangelical Friends and other Evangelical denominations than with many Liberal Friends.

Yet, there is still a very strong thread that continues to bind the disparate network of Quaker groups together. All Quakers believe that there is “that of God in each person,” an element of the divine, variously called “the Light of Christ,” the “Light Within,” “the Inward Light,” “the Seed”, or more generally, simply “the Light.” The existence of the divine in each person leads to a necessary corollary: as all persons possess the Light, Quakers must respond accordingly. In the words of George Fox, all Quakers must “answer to that of God in each person.” It is the core of all Quaker witness, and the reason for all Quaker activity in the world.4

 

It is so central to Quakerism that Scully has posited that it could actually be the single defining theological statement of Liberal Quakerism-a significant claim for a tradition that is notably averse to making definitive theological statements.5

The Liberal Quaker tradition has its roots in the early twentieth century, as Quakers grappled with the influential works of Rufus Jones, Edward Grubb and others who sought to universalize and modernize Quaker truths. They eventually settled on four main points: moving the theological emphasis from Scripture to experience; making faith relevant to the age; maintaining an openness to new Light; and finally, expressing a belief in “progressive revelation,” where recent revelations had more weight than older ones.6

Universalist themes began to influence Liberal Quaker theology to the point where it became less overtly Christo-centric than the other Quaker traditions. Liberal Quakerism places a greater emphasis on God as divine being, and less as a Trinitarian divinity. This has led to the language of the Light in Liberal Quakerism taking on a more universalist flavor. Abbott notes,

Anecdotally, the use of the language relating to ‘the Light’ rather than specifically Christian language and the firm belief that this divine Light is in every human being are the two elements of Quaker belief most often heard among Liberal Friends. This ‘optimism about the world’ inherent in the belief that there is that of God present in each human being is integral to Quaker theology.7

 

Modern Christo-centric Liberal Quakerism (CLQ) is universalist in its understanding of the Light Within as a divine spirit, animating all of creation; depending on the depth of Christo-centrism in the belief system of the individual believer, CLQ understands that spirit to take the form of either the Spirit of Christ or the Holy Spirit. Hugh Doncaster expresses this tension well:

The heart of the Quaker message does not lie in a doctrine expressed in abstract terms, but in an experience of power and grace, known in our hearts and also related to the structure of the universe; also known individually and recognised as belonging to all. At the same time this universal spirit is focused and made personal in Jesus in a way which makes it appropriate to speak of the Universal Light as the Light of Christ. It is from this double emphasis on universal and Christ-like that the Quaker message starts. It is these two elements, held firmly together, which provide the coherence and unity of Quakerism.8

 

The lack of a definitive doctrinal statement has led to a diverse set of approaches to this union between the universal and the particular.9 This dynamic, the delicate balance between Christo-centrism and Universalism, has often proven to be so challenging for Liberal Quaker unity that the words “that of God” can become “that of God, Spirit, or goodness” in some meetings, in an effort to include the various perspectives on divinity present in a Meeting.10

 

Substituting Spirit for Christ would change the focus of this dynamic theologically, but would not dramatically alter the meaning for Liberal Quaker thought. A focus on Spirit is not only already extant in the tradition, it also includes the universalist emphasis of many non Christo-centric Friends. Liberal Quakerism could thus be said to base its ontology of the human person on the presence of the Divine in the human person, a mystical union where God exists in each person. “Mystical” in this context follows the definition offered by Happold, as informed by the development of mysticism from the sacred mysteries of gnosticism to a more comprehensive, contemporary understanding:

To speak generally, mysticism has its fount in what is the raw material of all religion and is also the inspiration of much of philosophy, poetry, art, and music, a consciousness of a beyond, of something which, though it is interwoven with it, is not of the external world of material phenomena, of an unseen over and above the seen. [italics original]11

 

Quakerism is mystical in its experience of an unseen Light Within that guides, comforts and instructs humanity, and unites humanity with the divine.

 

CLQ has the resources to build an ontology of the human person where “that of God” is the Holy Spirit which not only brings God and humans into union, but through the omnipresence of the Spirit, brings each human into union through the Spirit that inhabits all of creation. This involves two distinct elements: mystical unity with God, and the movement of the Spirit through creation.

1Edward Grubb, Authority and the Light Within (London: James Clark & Company, 1909), 92.

2Many branches of the movement use the term “Religious Society of Friends” as a descriptor, and name, of their particular branch. This was the official name of the movement from its earliest days, when it arose in the second half of the seventeenth century in England. The term “Quakers” was originally added as a term of derision by the movement’s detractors, due to the habit of adherents to move and “quake” from the power of their experiences in Friends’ worship services. Quaker quickly became a generally accepted term for the movement, and lost its derisive nature. Modern Friends use the terms “Friend” and “Quaker” interchangeably when speaking of members of the movement. I will follow that practice in this essay, as the terms are used interchangeably in the scholarly literature on Quakerism.

3The broad groupings are called: Friends General Committee (FGC-Liberal Unprogrammed), Conservative (Christo-centric Unprogrammed), Friends United Meeting (FUM-Christo-centric Programmed), Evangelical Friends International (EFI-Evangelical Programmed), and the unaffiliated Meetings. “Programmed” and “unprogrammed” relates to worship style-programmed has a minister who leads a programmed church service, while unprogrammed is silent, where the focus is on waiting for the Spirit to inspire a person to give “ministry” in the form of a witness, relating a story, a reading from the Bible or other book, or a reflection. Semi-programmed is a designation often ascribed to meetings that couple significant periods of unprogrammed ‘waiting worship’ with programmed elements.

4Douglas Gwyn, The Covenant Crucified: Quakers and the Rise of Capitalism. (London: Quaker Books, 2006), 21.

5Jackie Leach Scully, “The Secular Ethics of Liberal Quakerism,” in Good and Evil: Quaker Perspectives, eds. Jackie Leach Scully and Pink Dandelion. (Hampshire, UK: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2007), 221.

6 Pink Dandelion, The Liturgies of Quakerism (Hampshire, UK: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2005), 66.

7 Margery Post Abbott, “Mental Illness, Ignorance or Sin? Perceptions of Modern Liberal Friends,” in Good and Evil: Quaker Perspectives, eds. Jackie Leach Scully and Pink Dandelion. 83-96. (Hampshire, UK: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2007), 85.

8 Britain Yearly Meeting, Quaker Faith and Practice: The Book of Christian Discipline of the Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain (Hertford, UK: Stephen Austin & Sons, Ltd., 2009), 26.43.

9 To read statements on the Light Within by EFI, Conservative Friends, FGC, and FUM, see, respectively, pages 184-5, 202-3, 203-4, 239-40 in Pink Dandelion, An Introduction to Quakerism (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

10 Su Penn, “Still Thinking About My Quaker Meeting and Me,” http://tapeflags.blogspot.com/2010/06/still-thinking-about-my-quaker-meeting.html. (Accessed July 20, 2010)

11 F. C. Happold, Mysticism: A Study and an Anthropology (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books, 1970), 18-19.

 

Do Good Fences Make Good Neighbours?

Aside

After my intense reading of radical theology last week, and in light of my work with reconciliation theology, I’m going to be running a series this week on the issue of boundaries. I’ll be examining issues of identity, property, separation, the interplay between the ‘self’ and the ‘other’, as well as examining the role that people who cross multiple boundaries can play in a critique of rigid identity categories.

 

Full disclosure: this is rather personal question for me, as I often feel as if I never fully ‘fit’ into any exclusive category, without lopping off other, essential aspects of my identity. For example, what role does bisexuality play in the heterosexual/homosexual conversation? What can I claim as ‘home’ when I’ve lived in eleven cities across three countries, and do not ‘belong’ in any of them? What does Quakerism look like to me, when I study Liberal Quakerism, worship in a semi-programmed broadly ‘Conservative’ worship group, and find myself in parts of every separate ‘denomination’ (for lack of a better word) of Quakerism? I am neither fully Christian Anarchist nor fully Christian Progressive, and find value in Socialism as well as Capitalism…do I need to choose a ‘side’? Am I simply confused, or is there a place for those of us who straddle ‘boundary lines’?

We’ll begin the exploration today by examining the necessity of strong physical boundaries between people.

 

 

(photo from Wikipedia)Image

Robert Frost is often quoted as saying ‘Good fences make good neighbours’ in his poem ‘Mending Wall’. In fact, according to Wikipedia, the stone wall in the picture above is the wall on his farm in New Hampshire that inspired his poem. The phrase, a 17th-century proverb, is often quoted in defense of strong walls and barriers between people. The argument works on two tracks: the ontological/existential (who a person ‘is’, their identity, and individuality), and the material (what a person possesses or creates). We’ll return to the ontological/existential in a future post.

The argument for a definite separation between mine/yours is, basically, the debate between ‘socialism’ and ‘capitalism’. (I recognise that this is FAR more complicated than this…I’m simply attempting to touch on the issue of exclusive ownership of ‘stuff’ before moving on to the much more pertinent question of boundaries between ‘self” and ‘other’. Please bear with me.) The argument for private ownership of ‘stuff’ can be boiled down to this: removing all barriers between what’s ‘mine’ versus ‘yours’ would cause people to lose any ambition to strive and achieve, as people won’t actually be able to lay exclusive claim over any fruits of their labour. Also, according to proponents of individual property rights, humans have a need to claim control over at least some aspect of their environment, including material objects. This leads to the delineation of a fundamental human right to property.

Proponents of ‘socialism’ would disagree, stating that there is a big difference between the human need to claim control over one particularly beloved stuffed animal or pair of shoes and the capitalist extrapolation to individual ownership of the means, and fruits, of production. These means and fruits would actually be the ‘property’ of the community, as the entire community is affected by these means and fruits. Also, certain goods simply cannot be owned privately, such as common land, airwaves, and water. I tend to agree with the ‘socialist’ position towards property, yet certainly have sympathy towards the need to be able to point to some ‘thing’ that I have a hand in creating, with a sense of accomplishment.

On the surface, Frost’s poem, and the famous phrase, deals with the issue of property rights and boundary lines. In the poem, the farmer is dealing with his neighbour’s firm conviction that there need be a strong wall between their two farms, as the wall would ensure that each person’s property would be secure from the other’s encroachment. For the neighbour, justice looks like exclusive control over the fruits of his labour. The ‘fence’ is the tool that ensures justice, and is thus the best foundation for the relationship with the farmer.

This is a view of relationship which is entirely rooted in the perspective of the individual, where all relationships with others are ranked according to how beneficial or detrimental they are to the desires and needs of the individual. The fence is ‘good’ according to the neighbour because it ensures that the neighbour has exclusive and absolute sovereignty over his ‘stuff’. This is the language of contracts, and legal ‘rights’. This is also the foundational ‘Western’ view of the relationship between the ‘self’ and ‘other’. The contract is rooted in the Enlightenment view of the person as sovereign, absolutely rational individual.

 

Surprisingly (at least to me, until I actually READ the poem in question), linking Frost to this quote is actually doing him a disservice. The context of the phrase is actually one of critique. Frost (in the voice of the farmer) disagrees with the neighbour, saying that the wall really serves little purpose beyond giving each of them a reason to play the silly outdoor game of handling rough rocks, resulting in little more than wearing their fingers down. The crops aren’t going to be moving across the line, while the farmer’s cows aren’t going to stealing anything from the neighbour. The farmer is thus unsure if the wall achieves anything beyond the creation of a wall to both keep each person confined, and distrustful of the other.

 

The wall is an outgrowth of the neighbour’s distrust of the farmer, which only serves to cement that distrust further into a tangible, physical barrier. The fence stands as a reminder of the fundamentally broken relationship between the two men, which will continue to leak suspicion of the ‘other’ into the relationship between the two families as long as the fence stands. Also, as long as the fence is maintained, it will stand as a symbol to the community that distrust and suspicion are values to be maintained and prized as well. The fence can be ‘read’ by the surrounding community as a rejection of trust, and the difficult to define sense of ‘communality’, or solidarity between people.

 

Frost is saying, I think, that good fences only makes ‘good neighbours’ if that term is defined as ‘an individual who does not impose upon the absolute sovereignty of any other individual in society’. Good fences would therefore make a society composed entirely of individuals, without any ties to any other person save economic ones.

 

Somehow, I’m just not convinced that we actually really WANT that kind of society. I’m ENTIRELY convinced, however, that this society DOESN’T exist, and CAN’T exist. The neighbour would never be able to build a wall tall enough to ensure that the farmer’s trees would never drop seeds onto the neighbour’s land. The neighbour and the farmer are most likely drawing from the same water source. Runoff from the neighbour’s cows will inevitably impact the farmer’s trees. On a scientific level, the sovereign individual simply doesn’t exist. Similar arguments can be made on the economic and political levels. If boundaries exist between people, they cannot be rigid and impenetrable. This would apply both in the political realm (the ‘peace walls’ in Belfast, the security wall in Israel/Palestine, and the goofy and dangerous wall along the border between the US and Mexico), as well as in the societal realm (the red/blue state nonsense, the Evangelical/Progressive Christian divide, and even debates amongst Quakers). What other boundaries bear further examination, and potential critique?

anxiety, self-censorship, and the ‘perfect’

i’ve been away from this blog for quite a long time, i admit. i’m sorry about that. i’d like to be able to say that it was because life became far too complicated for me to focus on writing here…but that would be a convenient excuse. truthfully, i found that i had fulfilled my promise to post regularly for two weeks, and i wanted to step away for a time, and see if i wanted to continue this work. i’ve been deeply unsure about the impact that i could actually make with my words, in general, which bled into a particular doubt about the impact that this blog could make. this is a common problem amongst writers, which can sometimes manifest itself in a powerful self-censorship. this is the exact opposite of writer’s block: here, you have plenty to say, almost too much, yet find yourself unable to say it due to a lack of any confidence in the quality or necessity of your words/thoughts. 

for me, i have found that academic training has increased the power of my self-censorship. as an academic, especially in the british model, you must be certain that every word, every argument is corroborated by someone else. you MUST think at least five intellectual moves ahead, anticipating every counter-argument that could be brought to bear against your thesis. you must bolster the defenses of your thesis against the potential of the unanticipated deadly counter-argument. you must be able to destroy your own argument just to discover its weaknesses…whilst also continuing to develop this same thesis. it’s a very delicate dance that requires an almost impossible level of confidence in one’s intellectual abilities, creativity, and capacity for rational thought. all the while, you’re working on ideas that few people could even care about, or even be willing to devote any attention to understanding in their entirety. you must be willing to spend days contorting your mind in an attempt to comprehend ideas that may, in the end, wind up being utterly useless for your dissertation…and in the case of that weird intersection of philosophy and theology, may actually prove to be absolute nonsense. your partner/friends/family tell you about their interesting, productive days, whilst you are forced to quietly admit that you spent eight hours fruitlessly reading forty pages of non-sensical jargon, and you have absolutely NAUGHT to show for your efforts besides a headache and soul-numbing sense of ennui. and then the most devastating thing happens: 

you realise that these forty pages were written by a philosopher/theologian who is hailed as a leader in the field, whose work has been reviewed by many people who seem to fully comprehend their work, and you are simply not in their intellectual league, and may never be. you realise, basically, that you have just wasted several years of your life, and have accrued an insurmountable mountain of debt, have postponed life, and may never be able to save enough money to send your child to college.

at that moment you cry, put down your work, turn on a movie in the middle of the afternoon, and start to drink, heavily.

i have been in graduate study, continuously, for 6 years now. i have written two master’s theses, have read something on the order of 300+ entire books, nearly as many articles, have amassed a library of research material, and have spent at least some time every day thinking about my research, for every day of the last 6 years. yet, i can’t point to an obvious ‘marketable skill’ that i have gained from all of this effort, besides my ability to make sense of academic categories and jargon, the ability to write in clear and cogent sentences, and a humiliating sense of my own lack of importance in the world.

this transformation has occurred in stages over the last six years. i used to have a much more confident sense of my abilities and importance in the world. admittedly, i’ve never been blessed with copious quantities of self-confidence or esteem. yet, i have always been exceedingly stubborn. i would make a point of challenging myself on a continuous basis, to seek out challenges that frightened me, or might result in absolute failure, simply to prove the bullies (including my parents) wrong. daily life has always been a struggle with the voices of doubt and uncertainty, with a decision that i made every single day upon waking: today, i will do everything that i can to silence those bastards. i would commit myself to a day of struggle before i even took a leak, or even moved my head off of the pillow. i still make this promise to myself…yet find it so much harder now than it ever was before, even during some of the darkest moments of my life! 

i also used to be able to push through the periods of crippling self-doubt and anxiety that are the result of my years fighting in the trenches of childhood bullying and abuse. i used to be sidelined for only a few hours, or a day a time. over the last two years, i’ve lost several weeks to the struggle to continue to work, to cling to the hope that this academic work was worth all of the effort.

please do not confuse my struggles with depression: i still have meaning in life, and need only walk into my kitchen, my sanctuary, to find my smile. you see, i LOVE food. food is easy. food makes people happy. food gives me an immediate sense of achievement. i can improve my cooking abilities, and can point to actual success in a relatively short amount of time. i can be challenged by food, and can rise to the challenge. my kitchen is the hospital of my soul.

no, i am not depressed. i am anxious, i am a perfectionist, and i am battered by the combined efforts of my own long-resident inner voices of doubt and the soul-crushing power of the academic process. 

however, occasionally i can find that the process can so utterly destroy me that i find myself reborn. this past week i participated in the great pete rollins/micah bales imbroglio by spending four days immersing myself in the murky waters of radical theology in an effort to not only understand it for myself, but to attempt to explain it to micah and others. after feeling as if i wasted an entire week coming to grips with this impenetrable morass of intellectual masturbation, i discovered something profoundly fulfilling: i was in a unique place to explain it to someone else, and to critique it. i was the ‘expert’ in something, and i could make an impact on the world by giving people resources of thought. i may not be feeding the homeless anymore, nor teaching kids about god…bit i WAS making an impact on the way that people viewed god. that’s helpful, isn’t it? that may not feed the body, nor the soul, but it may feed the mind, and shape the conversation around the meaning of god. i can’t make 1 Corinthians 12 the core text of my hermeneutic and reject the worth of my gifts. if god has a plan for the world that requires that every single person live into the absolute uniqueness of their giftedness, then god has a purpose for my journey through the hell of academic life. god might also have a purpose for this blog. who am i to reject that? i may not be able to see the obvious impact, but i must trust that i am just as essential a leaf in this tree of creation as peter rollins, shane claiborne, mother teresa, or any other far more visible and ‘important’ christian.

i must return to this realisation. please help me in this effort…because it’s a real war out here on the battlefields of theology.