What I Mean by “Faith”

“Are you religious?” is a question I am often asked, and one that I ask others, too.

It would seem that this question has always contained significant signalling power. It is in a sense a way of ask “are you like me? do we have common ground to discuss certain topics, or would a discussion be more or less a waste of time?”

In my case, however, I don’t ask it for this reason because with rare exception, I know that regardless of the answer, there is unlikely to be much pre-existing common ground. I ask the question rather to get an understanding of what a person thinks religious faith is rather than to determine of we share a religious faith. The nature of the answer is more telling in most cases than the substance.

Back in Arkansas, where I was born and spent the first 22 years of my life, the question would often meet with incredulity–as in “how dare you assume I might not be religious!” and those who were not religious tended to be more stridently so than they might have been had they been living in say a New York intellectual circle. In Chile, the answer is often “well obviously I’m Catholic, but I’m not very religious.” That’s one of my favorite responses, and is a stinging critique of a century of stagnation of thought at the Vatican and in Roman Catholicism.

In the intellectual and entrepreneurial world, however, the most common response is agnosticism followed by “spiritual but not religious” with a vocal minority of unreserved atheists. The more I move in increasingly diverse circles, I am encountering more answers, but the foregoing nevertheless still represent the majority view.

In a certain sense, though, there are really only two religious/spiritual views and everything else is just a matter of detail. Those two views are humility and arrogance.

The Flying Spaghetti Monster crowd and the Flame-Throwing Southern Baptists are essentially the same people, arrested in their need for certainty where none exists, and inventing one instead. At least the atheists are honest about their lack of faith–the hyper-conservative evangelical Christians are in denial about it. Faith is simply unnecessary if you are certain. Indeed, there can be no faith without doubt, and no strong faith without strong doubt. If you walk into the average Southern Baptist Church in America, though, you will be told that you need to “know that you know that you know that you are saved,” whatever that means. But it pretty decidedly means that you are supposed to know something for sure.

The doubting crowds, however, from all walks of life, are in a sense full of faith. Agnostics are in a sort of via negativa way the most faithful of all. The implicit view of agnosticism is “I don’t know if there’s a God or not, but if there is, I assume he’s not out to zap me and wouldn’t damn me to hell for eternity for not believing in him.” This is a rather potent form of faith.

Faith, then, in my estimation, is a form of trust rather than about holding “beliefs” about the validity of truth propositions. Christian faith is not about believing, in a rationalistic sense, the truth proposition of the Virgin Birth or the Resurrection, but about trusting that the world is organized in such a way that doing unto others as you would have them do unto you works out in the end. Christian faith is about trusting that if you submit yourself completely to the Law of Love, that you are going to be better off, even when at the margin there are strong incentives to do otherwise. Christian faith is about trusting that if you take up your cross and follow the path of Jesus, laying down your life in sacrifice for others, that YOU will, in the final judgment of your life, in that moment before your death, say “I have no regrets.”

This sort of faith is precisely what is characterized by St Paul’s definition of it being “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” It has nothing to do with beliefs in truth propositions at all, but hopes for that which has not yet transpired, contingent upon a certain way of living.

But I would go even further, at least in my own personal case. I would say that for me, the Christian faith is about a vocation, a calling to become Christian. A calling that cannot be answered with words, but with actions, and one that is never actually answered entirely, for it is a calling that I am ultimately incapable of answering perfectly, and therefore requires of me daily humble submission to that which is greater, that all-encompassing God of Love, against whose backdrop I am a small and selfish finite being. The Christian vocation for me is a calling to transcend my finitude and my biology, and attempt to live not just marginally differently, but radically differently.

St Paul writes that each person must work out their faith “with fear and trembling.” There would be no need to do this if there were demonstrable certainties. Indeed, the right use of religious institutions ought to be to provide a framework for each individual to do this difficult work, a place to share the struggle, and a few basic shared principles by which that shared struggle may be continued unceasingly, even in the face of dire hardship.

It is for this reason that St Augustine gave his famous admonition “in essentials, unity. in non-essentials, liberty. in all things, charity.” Yet contemporary religion and atheism alike have turned all things into essentials. There is little room for liberty of thought without the shrieks of judgment. There is no room in most intellectual and scientific circles to ponder the concept of YHWH and the compatibility of this transcendent everything-ness with mathematics and physics. There is no room in most intellectual circles in the West today to question whether the Tinder hook-up culture is really good for the spirit or not.

There is no room in most conservative Christian circles to question whether the institution of marriage as it is currently defined has out-lived its practical usefulness and is instead damning millions of people to misery and lack of fulfillment in their lives. There is no room in most such circles to say “you know, it seems that anthropology, psychology, philosophy, and science have a lot to say about our religion–maybe we should start questioning everything in light of 2,000 years of discoveries in these fields and update our maps of reality accordingly, while preserving the essential tenets of our faith: love and mercy.”

Christians are obsessed with the little miracles like Jesus healing the blind or turning water into wine and they miss the tremendous miracle that when faced with death he could have called his followers to arms and started a revolution, but instead chose to die painfully and ignominiously as the Prince of Peace.

Most people who identify themselves as Christians are just Greek Pagans who believe in Zeus and think of Jesus as being born from Zeus’s forehead like Athena, rather than grasping the actual message of Christ that God isn’t some guy up in the sky meddling in the lives of humans for his own amusement, but is rather this overwhelming force of Love and Good who moves and works inside of the heart of each person, and whose power can be manifested by all people, even though very few will do the work to see it happen in their own lives.

–that we are all adopted as Sons and Daughters of God, all of us, equally brothers and sisters to Christ himself. It is odd how this clear and powerful teaching of Paul is shoved to the side while sanctimonious moral legalists condemn gays and lesbians for a biological reality they themselves cannot even possibly imagine living.

No, no, the Christianity we see today is just a Paganism that has adopted the names and trappings of Christianity, and has made idols out of customs and two-dimensional characters. It is a sad cult of nationalism which bears no resemblance to that blessed and historic religion whose highest ideal was the brotherhood of all men, the service of each other in love and humility, the sacrifice of the self for others, peace to everyone, and a spiritual mode of living rather than a materialistic one. For the evangelical American churches, their only God is their belly, and their hatred of their fellow human–immigrant, refugee, and Muslim–is a shame to the faith of the martyrs.

And yet I cannot claim to be a Christian. I am not one. I want to become one. On my best days, I am trying to become one. But most days I am sliding right back toward my nature and away from that goal. My faith is that this attempt of becoming will not be in vain, and that even though I will likely never reach the goal, my path toward it will yield for me a better life than any other path would have. It is a faith that cannot be proven or disproven until after the fact, in hindsight. Only looking back will I be able to determine if it was a faith well-placed or not. And that is the risk of taking what Kierkegaard described as the “leap of faith.” It is gravely risky. It might not pay off. But I’m trusting that it will, and I’m trying to organize my life on the assumption that it will.

I want to close by sharing a prayer that I think could only have been prayed by somebody with such a view of faith as this one–the prayer is entitled “For Order a Life Wisely,” by St Thomas Aquinas.

O merciful God, grant that I may
desire ardently,
search prudently,
recognize truly,
and bring to perfect completion
whatever is pleasing to You
for the praise and glory of Your name.

Put my life in good order, O my God.

Grant that I may know what You require me to do.

Bestow upon me the power to accomplish Your will,
as is necessary and fitting for the salvation of my soul.

Grant to me, O Lord my God,
that I may not falter in times of prosperity or adversity,
so that I may not be exalted in the former, nor dejected in the latter.

May I not rejoice in anything unless it leads me to You;
may I not be saddened by anything unless it turns me from You.

May I desire to please no one, nor fear to displease anyone, but You.

May all transitory things, O Lord, be worthless to me
and may all things eternal be ever cherished by me.

May any joy without You be burdensome for me
and may I not desire anything else besides You.

May all work, O Lord, delight me when done for Your sake
and may all repose not centered in You be ever wearisome for me.

Grant unto me, my God,
that I may direct my heart to You
and that in my failures I may ever feel remorse for my sins
and never lose the resolve to change.

O Lord my God, make me
submissive without protest,
poor without discouragement,
chaste without regret,
patient without complaint,
humble without posturing,
cheerful without frivolity,
mature without gloom,
and quick-witted without flippancy.

O Lord my God, let me fear You without losing hope,
be truthful without guile,
do good works without presumption,
rebuke my neighbor without haughtiness,
and–without hypocrisy–
strengthen him by word and example.

Give to me, O Lord God, a watchful heart, which no capricious thought can lure away from You.
Give to me a noble heart, which no unworthy desire can debase.
Give to me a resolute heart, which no evil intention can divert.
Give to me a stalwart heart, which no tribulation can overcome.
Give to me a temperate heart, which no violent passion can enslave.

Give to me O Lord my God,
understanding of You,
diligence in seeking You,
wisdom in finding You,
discourse ever pleasing to You,
perseverance in waiting for You,
and confidence in finally embracing You.

Grant that with Your hardships I may be burdened in reparation here,
that Your benefits I may use in gratitude upon the way,
that in Your joys I may delight by glorifying You in the Kingdom of Heaven.

You Who live and reign, God, world without end.

Amen.

And the Word Became Flesh

“In the beginning there was the WORD, and the WORD was with GOD, and the WORD was GOD, and then the WORD became flesh, and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.”

Words are pure information. They are abstract representations of concepts which signify something meaningful to us that permit us to communicate, not only with others, but also with ourselves. Without words, consciousness as we know it would not be possible. When we develop new words to describe previously indescribable concepts, we become more conscious, and therefore more in control. By having a word for “anger,” I can understand feelings of anger when they arise, I can bracket them, I can channel them, I can calm them. Where we have words, we are empowered to be better, to become more. Where we have no language, we wallow in ignorance.

It is significant, therefore, that St John describes the Incarnation as a process of WORD becoming flesh. The Greek word he uses here is LOGOS, which comes from a root that means “to say, to speak, a telling.” The Christ was an embodied telling of the Love of GOD, that ineffable mystery for which we not only do not have language, but cannot have language. The only adequate words for GOD are those that confess openly our inadequacy, our own ignorance, our own finitude. The only proper words for GOD are actually words for ourselves which communicate the fact that when we speak of the Infinite, we actually don’t know what it is we are talking about.

This great Divine Mystery, this YHWH, this “All that Is,” the great “I AM THAT I AM,” which contains all of physics, all of mathematics, all of the information that is or ever was, out of which all things were made, this LOGOS…to think that its core information is manifestable in human formation is the greatest mystery of the Incarnation, and therefore of the Christian faith. All of the supposed miracles of the Christian faith pale in comparison to the miracle of the Incarnation itself.

And yet there is perhaps a greater mystery. The greater mystery is that this Incarnation is archetypal–it is exemplary.

Irenaeus, the 2nd Century Church Father, writes “Do we cast blame on him [God] because we were not made gods from the beginning, but were at first created merely as men, and then later as gods? Although God has adopted this course out of his pure benevolence, that no one may charge him with discrimination or stinginess, he declares, ‘I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are sons of the Most High.’ …For it was necessary at first that nature be exhibited, then after that what was mortal would be conquered and swallowed up in immortality.”

Echoing Irenaeus, Athanasius of Alexandria declares more forcefully “For the Son of God became man so that we might become God.”

Though any one man should die in his fleshly formation, so God should live eternally through the selflessness of his sons and daughters. So long as this information is passed on, the death of any formation is of no report. Hence, it is the sacrifice of the Lamb upon the Cross toward which any person with a Christian vocation is called. It is only in the embrace of “the last will be first, and the first will be last,” that the Christian may embrace her LORD.

The question of the season, then, is not fundamentally about a person who lived 2,000 years ago, but about where that LOGOS lives today? Does it live in me? Am I the WORD made flesh? Shall I bring healing to all people, or do I reside in my lower nature sowing divisions and discords? For the WORD is dead which does not manifest in action, to paraphrase the observations of St James.

Oh how inadequate I am in the face of that Archetype. Oh how far I must yet travel. But how thankful am I that I at least know who to try to imitate. At least my example is worthy of being exemplary!

“Greater love hath no man than he who would lay down his life for his friends.”

Merry Christmas to all–peace and good will toward all people, toward all creation!

 

The True Friend

The time I spend explaining
Struggling to justify myself
To win approval from friends
Who want to display me on their shelf,

What waste, what squander
Of precious health and time
On shallow acquaintances who
Would deny me at mere rumor of crime.

‘Tis sweet the rare encounter
Of soul with soul when
“All is well, all will be well”
Assures without, assures within.

Keep Slogging–Then More

You want to do a start-up?

You want to write a novel?

You want to be a social revolutionary?

You want to do anything meaningful with your life?

Imagine your goal–what does it look like? Who is with you?

Now, imagine your path to that goal as if it were a movie. Tell yourself the story, scene by scene. Envision yourself in the middle of the action–dealing with the problems, rushing in to meet the needs of the crisis, and then reaping the rewards of your success.

I’ve had these sorts of daydreams ever since I was a child. I would go through in my head the way I wanted my life to go. Unlike many daydreamers, I imagine, I always built in crises and difficulties into my daydreams. I never liked when I got to the end of the story, in fact. Reaching my goal was the worst part of my daydream. I always imagined the thrill of the process. I did, however like moving from step to step. I like the process, but only when it was progressing.

slogging

Let’s go back to your daydream, though. Play it through in your mind again. But this time imagine it playing, but with somebody hitting the Pause button on and off and on and off over and over and over. Think of the frustration of living out your daydream that way.

Well, that’s reality. If you want to do anything of merit in life, it’ll be just like that. It’s a lot of slogging. Inevitably you will have a great day–triumphing over some near-disaster. Rarely will you even have time to enjoy it for a minute. Then some other facet of reality sets in, or a new problem arises.

Scott Peck writes in The Road Less Traveled that “life is a series of problems.” Nothing truer has ever been written. It is a hard truth to confront–and an even harder one to accept.

In order to accept it and continue pursuing your calling in spite of it, you must learn to love what you are working toward more than what you are working on. Invariably, what you are working toward will require you to work on many things that you find tedious, boring, or downright miserable. There’s no outsourcing this misery. You can hire employees to do the work you don’t like, but then there will be new things you don’t like.

Every solution creates new problems. Progress more describes a process than a result. Progress is simply the willingness to solve an ever-more difficult set of problems in succession. It is harder to solve the devastation of the world’s fish stocks than it was to solve the problem of catching fish more efficiently. And yet, those solutions made the world a better place in spite of creating a new set of problems to solve.

Acceptance of this succession of problems should not lead to resignation, even though it will always be tempting. It’s easy to say “well if we do this, then we’ll have to deal with that, and that, and that.” Undoubtedly, but that can’t be a reason not to act.

You must learn to solve today’s problems today–and tomorrow’s problems tomorrow.

As the ancient wisdom reminds us, “sufficient for the day is its own trouble.”

Two more thoughts in this same realm of lessons learned:

Worry more about what will debilitate you than what will kill you. If you are dead, you won’t care. Much worse to be alive and helpless.

and

Get some Italians in your life–especially if they are from the South. They’ll make you smile and laugh even when you don’t want to. And that might be just the levity you need to pick yourself up and go back to the slog.

 

Toward Co-Production in the Latin American Firm

Having lived in Latin America for nearly four years now, it is evident to me that one of the most significant barriers to economic growth in this region is embedded in the cultural aspects of the Firm and the relationship it has with its employees. The combination of perverse legal employment “protections” and the mutual distrust of employers and employees lies at the heart of the wage growth and income disparity dilemmas that policymakers are finding unsolvable. Ultimately, the problem can be characterized by an unwillingness, both on the part of employers and employees to take a longer-term view of their own self-interest as it manifests itself in the work environment.

The root issue at-hand is that employers believe their employees are going to steal from them, and employees believe their employers are taking active advantage of them and not rewarding their efforts. These beliefs turn out to be self-fulfilling prophecies, and this cancerous relationship’s first casualty is production quality, and the second casualty is innovation.

The Chilean government become obsessed with “innovation,” though from its policies, it is quite evident that it knows very little about what that really means. They have adopted programs to subsidize foreign entrepreneurs, to promote the transfer of new technology to Chile, and while all of these are well and good, they do not even address the fundamental problem: that the structure of the Firm is driven by culture and tradition rather than by rational self-interest. Just as the greatest enemy of truth is certainty, the greatest enemy of innovation is tradition. Doing something the way it has always been done is the diametric opposite of innovation.

In the face of slowing global demand, economic growth becomes more difficult, but not impossible. Recently, Chilean president Sebastian Piñera declared that Chile would become the region’s first developed economy, but that there were many circumstances that would have to persist in order for that to happen by 2020, which was his stated goal. One such prerequisite is that GDP growth would have to be sustained at 6% or higher, while in the same interview he admitted that 2012 GDP growth in the country will be unlikely to exceed 4.5% due to the deteriorating situations in the US and Europe and the slower levels of growth in Chine.

This does not have to be. Economic growth does not simply happen or not happen based on external factors, but is rather driven by a single factor: the increase in the division of labour, which is driven by population growth, and productivity, the latter can be enhanced by new business practices, new technology, or changes in incentives. In order for Chile and other Latin American countries to continue growing economically during a global slowdown, they must look critically at the cultural assumptions driving their businesses and be willing to change them–even at great discomfort to both worker and Firm at first.

For the Firm, management must begin to trust and delegate. It must stop expecting the worst out of its employees, and must both engage them and give them proper incentive to become co-producers, co-innovators toward the Firm’s ultimate business objectives. Consequently, management must also decentralize itself, with managers shedding their stuffy blue suit / red tie and become familiar with their employees and their pain points, and then empower them to find their own solutions. This is of course anathema to executives in Chile who see themselves as having risen to the top of the pyramid and have earned the perks of not having to fraternize with the “little people.”

However, this elitism is not in management’s own self-interest, as there are numerous and diverse problems that they will never know about, and that their employees currently have no incentive to even discuss, perpetuating efficiency losses, and failing to adapt in real-time to changes in customer preferences. Moreover, the consumer in Latin America tends not to be a fan of the “local brands,” but rather views them as necessary evils that happen to provide the things they need. One does not frequently encounter brand loyalists for, say a cell phone company or a retailer. Nobody ever says “I absolutely love shopping at X store” or “I would never switch my cell phone service because Y is the best!” Instead, it is more common to hear “Well, I would change my cell phone provider, but they are all equally bad,” or “There’s not much point in shopping around, because all the retail chains carry the same stuff.”

When management is ignorant of the periphery of its organization (and in most industries, except perhaps mining, energy, and investment banking, the periphery is the main driver of revenue), it fails to innovate in the most lucrative areas of its core business. The same critique Hayek made of central planners in socialist economies applies equally to highly centralized firms in the private sector, namely that information is diffuse, and where decision making is centralized, the decision-makers (or planners) will fail to have sufficient information to make the correct decisions about production. These short-comings, then, are only enhanced by the increase of scale. As we witness a series of cross-border mega mergers in Latin America, it is concerning that the region could be heading in the opposite direction.

Management, though, is not the only problem. Employees bear responsibility in their plight as well. Failing to take initiative to make improvements is not only the result of a lack of proper incentive, but also out of laziness and a failure to find intrinsic reward in their work. This leads them to view work only as something that distracts them from their leisure, rather than a worthy end to be pursued for its own value, independent of financial remuneration. Such behavior results in a self-reinforcing mentality that is averse to work itself, and due to their already low salaries, they view themselves as pawns of a corporate machinery from which they get no benefit other than from a simple quid pro quo of money for time served. It is no wonder, then, that customer service is so appallingly inadequate in Chile and Latin America in general.

Ultimately, the Latin American Firm must move toward a model of co-production. It is unlikely that such a movement will be initiated by the workforce, and so it rests on the shoulders of management (hopefully at the behest of their shareholders) to be willing to take a risk and make a change. If it chooses to do so en masse, Latin America could very well become the economic powerhouse and cultural hegemon in 21st Century that the United States was in the 20th.

Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus

The message of John the Baptizer pierces the tender heart, “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” The imminence of the Kingdom of God is as true now as it was for John. We stand ever at its gate, but we enter it not.

As we observe Advent this year, we find Christendom in its twilight, secularism having eviscerated religion in the public sphere and reactionary Evangelicals and Catholics attempting desperately to put the Nietzschean genie back in the bottle. The dogma of Christendom has been rejected by the masses and the Church, fractured by centuries of schism, cannot quite seem to get back to its First Century mission. Too preoccupied with naming and shaming heretics, trying to influence the political systems of the West from one side or the other, or burying its collective head in the sand in the face of the real problems of the day, Christendom and its various institutions are not only declining, they are at their nadir.

Two millennia after the death of Christ, we are nevertheless wont to cry out “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus! Come and set thy people free!” Humanity has made a mess of the Church, and while eulogizing it, we are called to rebuild it from the Cornerstone. In the first Advent, God sent John the Baptizer to prepare the way for the Christ, and after more than 2,000 Advents, the way is still being prepared, and humanity still seems unready. Fortunate are we that the work of redemption has already been complete, but woe to us that our sanctification is in mere infancy.

It is difficult to be a “conservative” in the true sense of the term–one that wants to preserve the status quo and keep things basically the way they are. When we observe our world, its institutions, and the way we interact with one another individually and corporately, there is certainly little that is defensible from a Christian perspective. Our governments are still killing and torturing, yet we feel ourselves to be more civilized than our predecessors. We have made but meager progress in the alleviation of poverty in the world, in spite of sufficient resources already dedicated to the problem. Our businesses have become corrupt, and our economies are broken, but these are all self-inflicted wounds. We have done it to ourselves. Massive earthquakes in Chile and Japan in the past two years caused minuscule damage to the world economy, but the decisions of politicians in Europe and America, the poor judgment of bankers, and the consumerism of the average American have wreaked havoc on us all.

The problems we have created for ourselves are not easily solved, and they require of ourselves discipline, restraint, and self-sacrifice that is unnatural to the human species, but is precisely what we are called by Jesus to do. We may wring our hands and become infuriated that politicians continue to fail in solving our problems, but it is not their fault. They caused many of the problems to begin with. The solutions must come from all of us, each in our daily lives, determining not to repeat the mistakes of the past years, and to embrace a radically different lifestyle than the one we in the West have come to feel entitled to. This is not to say that we must all adopt monastic lives, eschewing all material things, or that we should make yet another failed attempt at baptizing the socialist dream and calling it “justice” only to watch it starve and slaughter millions more.

It does, however, mean that we must alter our behavior. We must reform our churches and our businesses. We must abandon our base consumerism for a more conscious form of capitalism. We must stop relying on violence and the threat of force (that is, the State) to solve our problems, since it has proven itself incapable of solving them year after year. We must learn to live in community with each other rather than in conflict. We must indeed cry out “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus!”

The Kingdom of God is at hand–let us boldly enter.

Risk-Taking and Love

Love is not a feeling. Love is an action, an activity. Genuine love implies commitment and the exercise of wisdom. Love is the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth. True love is an act of will that often transcends the ephemeral feelings of love or cathexis, it is correct to say ‘Love is as love does.’

M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled

These words confront us with a rather harsh truth: there is not much love in our society or in our own lives. We do not often truly extend ourselves for other people, even those who we most cherish. Most of the time, instead, we are looking for, or at least subtly expecting a quid pro quo. Even then we are rarely giving of ourselves with the object of another person’s growth at the fore. We want to feel appreciated, we want the gratification of another person’s gratitude, but when it comes to extending ourselves beyond our own levels of comfort into the realm of risk-taking, where we indeed have something to lose, this sort of action is of virtual non-existence in our world.

In our process of becoming, we are either growing or decaying, and there are few other conditions in our lives that drive us to growth than true love: both for ourselves and for others.  Indeed, love is a necessary precondition for growth even when it is not the primary driver. But this has been discussed already, and we shall leave it at that for the time being. Instead, our present discussion will revolve around the nature and pragmatics of love, as Peck defines it, and especially the need to take risks for the sake of others (we have covered risk-taking for the self in Discernment and Risk-Taking).

We shall begin be looking at love for others in the context of risk-taking by examining the archetype of love, the Christ. Vladimir Lossky, the Orthodox theologian, writes “The perfection of the person consists in self-abandonment: the person expresses itself most truly in that it renounces to exist for itself. It is the self-emptying of the Person of the Son, the Divine.” Continuing, Lossky quotes St Cyril of Alexandria, “The entire mystery of economy {that is, the divine economy} consists in the self-emptying and abasement of the Son of God.”

With the image of Christ as our aspiration, we must then consider how void we are of the will to abase and empty ourselves. Being created in the image of God, we do not lack the capacity to act in such a manner, but separated from the Divine by sin, that is by the aversion of our will toward the Divine, we do not practice the activity of love by nature, habit, or instinct. Self-emptying requires us to overcome the Ego (here we use this term in the true psychological sense and not the colloquial sense). But we cannot conquer the Ego, which means that each act of love, each act of self-abasement for the sake of another requires us to overcome the Ego anew.

Hence, Peck insists that love implies commitment. The Ego is resilient, and in fact it exists for our own survival. A healthy Ego is necessary for a healthy, functional adult human being. Yet even the healthy Ego must be overcome in order to love. In many ways, this causes human love to mirror divine love. God must, in a sense, continually overcome his nature of perfection in order to love the imperfect creation. We must continually overcome our nature, putting aside our survival instinct (the primary purpose of the Ego) in order to love another person who is in some way competing with us for survival. This means that if we do love somebody, we are committed to continually engaging in this process of extending ourselves for them, in spite of the risks, and that we will not just disappear when it becomes difficult.

Consequently, all love requires taking this chronic risk. As Christ took the chronic risk of separation from the other Persons of the Godhead, with whom he had been in perpetual communion from all of Eternity, so we must take the chronic risk against our survival instinct.

In each particular act of love, though, we must also take acute risks, the ramifications of which might involve extraordinary and lasting pain to ourselves. But Christ also faced numerous acute risks in the extension of himself on behalf of all humanity. Certainly the pain of his torture, the betrayal of his friends, the agony of his mother, the mockery and scorn, the uncertainty of being passed back and forth between the Romans and Herod, the humiliation of hanging naked on the Cross were not at all insignificant parts of Christ’s experience of human suffering, which he endured for the sake of others.

Here we must pause and consider a rather vital distinction, lest we become dangerously confused. Not all suffering is an act of love. Not all sacrifice is an act of self-emptying for another’s spiritual growth. Indeed, society is filled with masochists who derive bizarre gratification of the Ego out of the pretense of martyrdom. This sick selfishness is a wholly unhealthy form of behavior that parades itself as the paragon of piety, unleashing emotional and spiritual destruction on many a well-meaning person and often also enabling (through codependency) sociopaths and narcissists the world over. Thus, it is imperative that we look at self-abasement from a teleological perspective, that is, to what end is our self-emptying set? It must, unequivocally, be toward the spiritual/psychological growth of another person, not merely the fulfillment of his wants and desires. This distinction shall serve as the starting point for a future discussion, but is sufficient for our present purposes.

Returning to our legitimate self-emptying, we most consider the particulars of each circumstance in which we have opportunity to extend ourselves for the growth of another person. The risks we face can include:

  1. Being perceived as disappointing somebody
  2. Causing immediate pain to another person that they need in order to grow (perhaps by pointing out a painful fact about them, by giving ‘tough love’ that they perceive to be abandonment or betrayal, etc)
  3. The loss to ourselves of cathexis or friendship with the person we are trying to help grow, either because their reaction to our act of extension is deeply negative or because we are perhaps trying to break off an unhealthy form of codependency
  4. The loss of social standing
  5. Exposure of our own weaknesses, shortcomings, and misdoings
  6. Financial/material loss
  7. Alienation from family and friends who may not even be directly involved in the particular situation
  8. The non-realization of our own wants and desires, the shattering of our own dreams

The last risk is perhaps the most frightening for us because it is difficult to quantify. Most mature adults are able to bear losses of known impact, such as financial loss or the loss of a relationship. Though we may not relish such losses, we are equipped to deal with them, to cope, adjust, and recover. But when we consider our wants and desires, those emotions that motivate us in our core, to think risking that they may not come to fruition due to our intentional actions, this can become a risk we consider to great to take on another’s behalf, and yet these are the risks most rewarding to take, that will propel the other person to the most growth, and undoubtedly, cause ourselves to grow too. Most importantly, though, this risk-taking love is central to our vocation and to our imitation of Christ.

Peck also notes the importance of wisdom in our love. Sometimes it may be easy to perceive something we are doing (or refraining from doing) as loving, even if it is not. We must devote a significant amount of our energies to discerning whether our actions are genuinely to help the other person to grow or if we are merely doing it for our own selfish reasons. Since life is full of “win win” scenarios, it can be difficult to ascertain our own motives in many cases. It is vital, then, that we parse out the details of our proposed actions, carefully discerning our motives, the possible outcomes, and the risks involved. This act of careful consideration is itself an act of love, because we are devoting our precious time to prepare our actions.

Shakespeare perhaps does this subject the greatest service in his Sonnet 116,

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

Becoming Hospitable in Society

Social responsibility has become one of the buzzwords in business and political discourse in recent years and as such, its meaning has become convoluted by ideology and posturing. Those on the Left tend to deploy this term when they want to confiscate an increased amount of money from the people who earned it, usually to fund ever-expanding bureaucracies and enhance the power of the State. Those in business tend to use the term to assuage the guilt heaped on them by those same ideologues by showing how generous they can be in giving away their profits so that perhaps they will be passed over when the class warfare rhetoric comes. Unfortunately this all misses the point of social responsibility, neglecting the reality of our vast interconnections and interdependence on each other.

Margaret Thatcher famously declared that there is no such thing as society, only individuals. To the extent that “society” exists as a stand-alone entity with its own personality, she was perhaps technically correct, but Society is an institution–a highly decentralized institution lacking rigid structure (at least in the West)–but it is an institution, comprised of individuals, who act in and through it to accomplish certain goals. Society is a sort of meta-institution, in that it is a system that contains all of our other institutions, including other meta-institutions like Culture and (in the West) Capitalism. The State is one of the institutions of Society, so is the Church, the family, and the country club. Our participation in all of these institutions forms, in aggregate, our participation in Society.

As I discussed in Becoming and Belonging, our individual process of growth is dependent on others. But in order to free ourselves from internal hindrances, we must reform our external participation in Society. This is pre-requisite for the reform of the institutions of Society themselves, since institutions are not autonomous beings with their own thoughts and actions but are merely the manifestation of the collective wills and actions of their participants. Hence, if we say “Society is sick,” we must first say “I am sick.”

Social responsibility, then, is manifested in the declaration “I am sick, but I am going to get well,” which means making our behavior more healthy, inputting fewer unhealthy influences into our minds, and by determining to take the first step toward reforming Society into a place that is hospitable for all people. Social responsibility also means refraining from pointing to somebody else and saying “he is the problem; he’s the sick one.” Unfortunately, this is the way that the political system has come to operate, and the more vitriolic the rhetoric becomes, the more alienated people feel from each other, which turns into a self-reinforcing cycle that makes reformation improbable at best.

The concept of social responsibility is even more difficult to deal with because we do not, as individuals, participate directly in the institution of Society, but rather through various intermediate institutions like the ones mentioned above. This is perhaps why we are all too often surprised when we look out at Society and think that somebody has made a mess of it. When our actions in the Church, in Capitalism (through our particular place of work), or in the Body Politic are focused on our own narrow view of the world and our own short-term self-interest, they become detached from the reality of this interconnecting system in which we live. This is how the world seems to be in such a shambles and yet we don’t think of ourselves as bad people, having contributed to the creation and perpetuation of the mess.

The trouble is that the awareness of this reality and how to combat it requires a level of deep consciousness about the world around us and the people in it. It requires us to truly get to know other people, which necessitates our creating open spaces for others in our lives. This is the definition of hospitality that Henri Nouwen provides in his book Reaching Out. It is the beginning of a difficult personal process for each of us, but it is required for us to understand our place in the world: how much can we give? how much can we take? are we treating our fellow man with humility or hostility?

This is essential to our survival as a species; it is essential to achieving our spiritual callings; it is essential to leaving the world a better place than we found it.

 

Becoming and Belonging

No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as a manor of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

-John Donne

There can be no vulnerability without risk; there can be no community without vulnerability; there can be no peace, and ultimately no life, without community.

M. Scott Peck 

Our individual processes of becoming do not take place in isolation, but in the midst of other people who are also in their own process of becoming. Whether we like to admit it or not, our lives are inextricably linked to not only the people with whom we interact each day, but also to people who we will never meet. Globalization and international trade have made us interdependent on vast populations of strangers, all of us acting in our own self-interest through markets that produce more goods & services at lower prices than any other form of economic organization.

Far from being an atomized system of disjointed selfish interests (to be distinguished from benign and healthy self-interest), capitalism and markets are predicated on complex interconnections between people, the removal of which would inaugurate mass world poverty, famine, disease, and war. Indeed, the Second World War was in many ways catalyzed by the destruction of these vital interconnections.

The Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, in the Order for Compline, puts it this way, “O God, your unfailing providence sustains the world we live in and the life we live: Watch over those, both night and day, who work while others sleep, and grant that we may never forget that our common life depends upon each other’s toil; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

If anything should give us pause in our age of hyper-individualism, it ought to be the contemplation of how our lives would be different if we were cut off from even the most geographically distant people in the world. Contrary to Ayn Rand and her misguided followers’ chiding, capitalism is a communitarian (that is not to say communist) economic system. This is not at all to diminish the importance of the individuals involved in the system–quite the opposite–it enhances the value of each participant.

Community requires healthy, self-reliant individuals who are mutually interdependent on each other.

If this seems like a paradox, that is because it is. Community requires resilient men, but not Super Men (Übermensch)†. With the exception of the disabled, the infirm, the very young, and the very aged, we ought to be able to take care of ourselves and our own basic needs through the deployment of our own labor. Modern technology has empowered us occupationally in ways that would have been inconceivable to past generations. Few people legitimately lack the faculties to sell their labor in the marketplace for sufficient sums of monetary value to support themselves in meeting their basic needs. Yet in the midst of this, we are still deeply dependent on other people–not for their charity–but for their contribution to the same interconnected system.

The problem is not that we fail to have communitarian connections to the rest of the people in the world, but rather that we fail to recognize the connections that already exist. We fail to see ourselves as integrally connected, and hence we have misperceptions about what constitutes and benefits our own self-interest. Stock market sell-offs, for example, are not the result of atomized self-interest, but of a failure to recognize the multi-tiered effects of panic.  Recessions and systemic failures of our economy are most often caused by a malfunction in our discernment process.

While all of this is rather important to our lives, it does not do much to satisfy our inner longing to belong. We may be part of a globally interconnected economy system, but that hardly makes us feel accepted, loved, and valued. Some people advocate a retreat from globalization into regionalist or localist economic structures so that we better value the other people around us. This would have the effect of cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face.

What we need instead are reformed institutions for the cultivation, propagation, and sustainment of community within our tangible spheres of existence. We need places to gather, share, connect, and become vulnerable to one another in such ways as will engender collective support of each other’s families and children so that we might grow together. That is to say that our intentionality of becoming must be both an individual and a community process.

Becoming and Belonging are deeply intertwined. They cannot exist in isolation of one another.

In order for us to become more than what we are, we need interaction with and the feedback of other people. In order for us to belong, we must be growing, shedding ourselves of our infantile and selfish tendencies, and stretching our souls to make room for other people. Belonging and creating a place for others to Belong is as much a part of our vocation as Becoming.

Indeed, it is in the creation of and participation in true community that we are able to imitate with the human race the internal economy of the Divine Trinity. United by a single essence, humanity has only been divided by sin, through our free will, creating amongst us the appearance of atomization and the painful feelings of alienation. While the perpetual presence of sin in the world makes it impossible for us to fully realize the Divine Economy of the Godhead in our relations with our fellow man, we are nevertheless called to pursue it as our noble and holy calling.

This requires risk and vulnerability, as Peck observes, and our evolutionary bias is against these things in favor of self-preservation. But the future of humanity depends on our willingness to embrace our divine vocation to become and belong, and the perils associated with its passionate pursuit.

 

The author apologizes for the overly gendered language in this sentence, but it was necessary for stylistic effect.

Discernment and Risk-Taking

Genius: to know without having learned; to draw just conclusions from unknown premises; to discern the soul of things.

Ambrose Bierce

Most people go through life with varying degrees of flippancy, though flippancy does tend to recede as part of the aging process, through experience. But even as people agonize over the choices in their life, rarely do they do the necessary “work of depression” (to borrow a phrase from M. Scott Peck) that is required in order to discern between their options. Indeed the problem is not that we make the wrong judgments because we have failed to adequately weigh the perceived costs and benefits of a particular trade-off, but rather that we have failed to discern the characteristics of our options. To put it more simply, we do not question our own assumptions rigorously enough.

Because the decisions we make define our intentionality of becomingit behooves us to deeply examine the pathology of our spiritual laziness and its consequences in order that we might improve our discipline. There are four distinct malfunctions in our discernment process that frequently cause us to decline healthy risk-taking that would lead to our spiritual growth:

1. Taking Circumstances at Face Value

The deficiency in our intentionality easiest to recognize is one of the simplest and most basic forms of spiritual laziness: we simply look at how things are on the surface and assume that such observation is a good enough basis on which to form our conclusions. Yet as effortless as it is to recognize that we do this, we nevertheless do it with frequency. Whether we realize it or not, we go through our everyday lives putting labels to the people and things we encounter. Sets of labels are put into categories, and the sets of categories are then arranged in their temporal and ordinal relationships to each other and to ourselves. Once we have applied a label to something, we rarely, if ever, go back to it and reconsider the accuracy of the label.

This most commonly occurs with the people in our lives. The people with whom we surround ourselves, with whom we spend our time, define and shape us more than any other part of our human experience. Even the most obdurate person will be affected by the people around him. Our labeling system for people, then, must not only be meticulously construed, but the process in the case of each individual person we encounter must be exacting. Mislabeling a person as trustworthy who is not, simply because they have a positive affect, or mislabeling a malcontent as an enemy can have truly detrimental implications for our lives.

Consider how one would judge a situation where two business associates with whom one has only recently been conducting business have become at odds with each other. Initial impressions, which have already been translated into labels and categories, indicated that Bill is a smart guy, but maybe a bit eccentric, while Bob is a charming fellow, but perhaps not brilliant. We might be apt to side with Bob in a dispute because in spite of his lack of relative intelligence, he at least seemed to be level-headed, and his charm could cause us to at least think he is trustworthy. As circumstances unfold, our labels firmly in place, we ignore subtle hints that our initial impressions were potentially incorrect. Bob may turn out to have been a sociopath, his charm a weapon, and yet we would be blind to it until too late because we fail to challenge and re-challenge the presuppositions that are the foundation for our labels and categories and the process we utilize to apply them and organize them.

Nearly every decision we make involves and affects other people. A person may believe he is choosing one job offer or another, but in fact he is actually choosing with what people he will be spending the majority of his waking hours. These people will leave a durable, though not indelible imprint on him, and yet he is naively under the impression that he is picking between Salary & Benefits X and Salary & Benefits Y. Rarely does a job candidate consider which group of people will positively influence his spiritual and psychological growth so that he will become better equipped to advance, create, and produce during the rest of his active life. Failing to do so is another of the many instances of our willingness to take circumstances at face value and hinder our growth as a result.

2. Failing to Step Outside Our Cultural Milieu

Culture embeds itself in our psychological, spiritual, and emotional DNA. Throughout childhood, when we have yet to achieve a state of consciousness sufficient to develop our own intentionality in becoming (or where such faculties are still relatively weak and embryonic), our behavior, desires, perceptions of need, vision for our future, and expectations from others are almost rigidly defined by the cultural milieu into which we were born. Culture is a complex system developed over time and constantly evolving in most parts of the world, and every culture is filled with sub-cultures and peculiarities unique to its certain constituent sects and geographies the mere presence of which alters the other sub-cultures and the macro-culture as a whole. This deeply interconnected system that in the aggregate we call culture includes religion, philosophy, language, commerce, custom, food & drink, art & music, literature, fashion, sport, government & politics, education, race, and geography. Within each of these components there is an almost infinite subset of varieties and kinds. The complexity of culture indeed is the chief cause of our nearly continual failure to step outside of it, because to a certain extent it is an impossible task. The moment we have unmasked a belief and seen it to have been formed by our culture and not by actual reality, we will have founded that conclusion on other assumptions that are also a product of our culture.

While we cannot become cyborgs (and certainly we would not want to if we could) or even Vulcans who may by pure reason discern all of life unemotionally, almost clinically, our process of becoming requires us to be able to gain some level of objectivity and distance from our cultural context in order to decide what risks in life are worth taking. Our rich cultural heritage (no matter where we are from) is a valuable guide, but it is only one of many valuable guides, and when left to its own devices, it will almost universally tell us not to take risks that would separate us from the norms and expectations of our culture. In spite of its evolutionary traits, culture is above all else self-reinforcing.† In this sense, the sins of the father are revisited on generation after generation.

Each culture tells its participants that there are certain acceptable ways of organizing one’s life and in conducting one’s interactions with other people. Stepping outside of those norms necessarily, then, involves varying degrees of risk depending on how far outside of the norms one is stepping and the usual consequences for doing so in that particular culture. Certainly there are some cultural contexts in which that risk-taking could result in prison or even death, and unless one is setting out to be a martyr, the risk is not worth taking. This is why so many people feel the need to emigrate in order to become who they want to become. Unfortunately many people fail to acknowledge their truest inner desires precisely because of cultural oppression. They do not know what they want to become because their thought processes are so entrenched in their cultural trappings.

One of the most interesting evolutionary aspects of Culture’s self-reinforcing nature is the interplay between religion and cultural expectations. Certain cultural prejudices are often attributed to religion, and religion is used to effect sanctions against people who would stray from the culturally expected pathways. Religion’s most efficacious sanction is guilt, deployed forcefully against the heterodox to draw them back into line. Usually these tactics are perversions of the fundamental teachings of the religion (here the author admits his limited first-hand experience with religions other than Christianity, and so the present commentary will primarily limit itself to the various mainstream versions of Christianity in the West, namely Catholicism, Anglicanism, and Evangelical Protestantism, which which he has the most knowledge). Yet feelings of guilt and the fear of evoking those feelings can be an overwhelmingly powerful motivator and lead to untold quantities of illegitimate suffering. It requires strength of will and the intentional desire to grow in order for one to put aside such sanctions and categorize them for what they are: a culture’s attempt to enforce orthodoxy rather than a spiritual reality.

Indeed, within the context of Christianity, we find that Christ himself called his followers to a distinctly counter-cultural way of thinking and living. The orthopraxy of  Christ-imitation is at constant odds with the accepted orthodoxy in the Cultural Christendom of the post-Constantine West. It can be difficult to be a consistent Christian in Christendom. It can be all the more problematic to live consistently with one’s desire to grow with intentionality with the cultural pressures that disguise themselves as religious motivations ever present and ever enforced by family, friends, and co-workers.

Consequently, it is not merely the difficulty of going against the cultural grain that prevents us from taking risks that would be positive for our own growth, but it is rather that we might not even consider them as options–we might not even be aware of them–because of our cultural constraints, so embedded are its assumptions in our psyche.

3. Denying Reality

If we have persisted in our intentionality, having properly discerned the veracity or falsity of our assumptions, and having gained sufficient objectivity from our cultural milieu, we must then pass to our next hurdle in dispelling the misinformation that prevents us from taking risks that position us to grow and to become: our own recalcitrance in confronting things about ourselves that we know to be true but which are easier to ignore. Sometimes these are our character flaws or personality weaknesses that are holding us back that we do not want to admit because the work of getting rid of them is too great. Or perhaps it is that we see such traits as being similar to those possessed by somebody who we desperately want to avoid resembling, and so accepting them as being true of ourselves is too painful, too damaging to our self-esteem.

In other circumstances it may be that we refuse to accept the reality of our wants & needs. We may ignore the fact that we want something, even deeply (indeed, the deeper the desire, the more important it is for us to ignore it) but that the acquisition of which would require a great effort or tremendous risk (possibly a risk that would endanger our being accepted in our cultural milieu).  In cases where we are intentionally ignoring realities, we find ways to medicate or distract ourselves. Some people choose drugs & alcohol, others bury themselves in their work and hobbies to exhaust their waking faculties in order to effectively avoid confronting reality. We are rather remarkable creatures in our ability to lie to ourselves. But eventually, we will be confronted with our self-deception, sometimes in a painful and negative way, but often with an experience that brings us indescribable joy, but for our insistence that it is something other than it is.

Reality will always pry us away from our illusions, but it can take years–years that could have been spent growing rather than running away from it. We deny ourselves so many extraordinary experiences, both external and intrinsic, when we deny truth and avoid confronting difficult realities about ourselves and what we want, closing ourselves off from positive risks to extend ourselves and grow.

4. Inertia

If we have succeeded in overcoming the first three barriers to healthfully evaluating the benefits we might derive from taking reasonable risks toward our spiritual development, growth as a person, and overall happiness, then we will invariably be confronted by our most potent adversary, inertia. Where culture may be the preserver of the status quo in macro, inertia is its preserver in micro. Even deciding that we are going to take a risk toward positioning ourselves for growth is insufficient, because must also decide when to take that risk. Indeed, there might be particular timing that is more or less appropriate for taking perfectly healthy and positive risks, and knowing the difference between the two is an important part of the discernment process.

But inertia will always tell us “now is not the time, wait for better circumstances.” Perhaps it will convince us that we need more money, or that if we do it now we might cause somebody else some discomfort, or that we need to be more secure in some other sense before taking a risk. Sometimes it might try to tell us that our current situation is good enough and we need to wait until it deteriorates to warrant taking a new risk that might otherwise jeopardize it. Indeed, inertia is the only better deceiver than ourselves.

———

Our intentionality in becoming, in growing, is driven by our ability to cut through the main causes of its malfunction in order that we might succeed in our vocation. Discernment is essential at every stage of this process, but the process itself is also highly valuable, for in stripping away our assumptions and restraints, we learn more about ourselves, about others, and how to productively and positively exist in this world. It is something well worth the effort, the pain, and the “work of depression.”

 

† The one place in the world where this might not be the case is the United States of America, where the historical combination of Protestantism and the pioneering of new frontiers has created a culture unique in all the world, in all of human history, that despite its ills (and the present author is well aware of its many ills), calls its people to challenge and change it, to remake it anew each generation. The advent of global media, the internet, and international trade have effected a spread of the American culture, but it nevertheless remains foreign to most. Nevertheless, within the United States there are many sub-cultures that have the same characteristics as most other cultures. As a product of the American South, the present author can attest to the pervasive influence of religious and traditional expectations concerning many subjects. America’s diversity means that there are a number of sub-cultures (Mormonism, for example) with strong influences on its participants. The difference, however, between the sub-cultures in the United States and the national cultures in other countries is that American sub-cultures have the constant pressure of the external macro-culture that does indeed call people to individuate themselves and be their own person. This is what makes America such a fascinating case, since it is defined by a culture of competition, even within the context of culture itself. While this could be fodder for volumes, we will leave the subject as it is for the time being.

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