Since a coupla reg’lars asked, here it is. A thread on that key intangible.
Jose expressed interest in my own conversion(s) in light of this question — what speaks to us about right and wrong, in thought and action? Catlady was at the Oregon ferals gathering (and Kim sent me some pictures, but I can’t seem to open them); and she specifically asked for this thread.
No way for me to pin this down. Rather, it is something that appears “without integers,” I think, something we infer — like chaoticians infer “strange attractors.”
Privilege, even temporary privilege, is simultaneously liberatory and amnesiac. So many of the people who have the freedom to think through and write about these things have been unbound — by whatever confluence of circumstance. They are to whatever extent no longer experiencing the same world that most of the rest of humanity experiences. And as we are wont to do with much trauma, we bury the bad experiences and avoid kicking the dirt off of them. In that process, we can “forget” where we came from. That’s the danger, and I’ll come back to that.
But many many people — including the so-called middle-class, whose privilege is dependent on conformity, obedience, and anesthesia (entertainment being the most common form) — experience their lives as moving from one form of confinement to another, day in and day out. Work is a place of confinement. Home and family are different forms of confinement, when this is the place we go to isolate ourselves, when this is where we sit out our dread of the future, when this is where we are abused or taken for granted, or when we rankle against responsibility (mostly a man’s thing, this last one).
I am personally confined to my automobile now for around an hour each day, five days a week, to go to and from my job. I listen to the radio sometimes to get through it; and some of the things I hear are pleasurable and useful. But I’d rather be walking (though not 17 miles), or fooling around in the garden.
Our state of confinement more generally is a state of poverty, or debt, or illness, or combinatons of those, and — most of all — the separation from and suppression of our own creativity and right fellowship with others. When hope is lost of release from confinement, then we come to look forward to what’s left — anesthesia. And, of course, for many — around 2 million here in the US — confinement means state confinement in human holding pens called prisons.
Much of our brokenness can be described in one way or another as captivity.
Christianity has provided me with an expanded vocabulary. Brokenness is a very interesting word. Annie Dillard, a Christian evolutionary biologist and writer, who seldom asserts her Christianity directly in her writing, described brokenness thus:
“I am a frayed and nibbled survivor in a fallen world, and I am getting along. I am aging and eaten and have done my share of eating too. I am not washed and beautiful, in control of a shining world in which everything fits, but instead am wondering awed about on a splintered wreck I’ve come to care for, whose gnawed trees breathe a delicate air, whose bloodied and scarred creatures are my dearest companions, and whose beauty bats and shines not in its imperfections but overwhelmingly in spite of them…”
I highly recommend her book from some decades ago, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. As a companion piece, I’d recommend Harriet Arnow’s novel, The Dollmaker (not the awful movie adaptation of it). The contrast between these two books — both written by women with powerful attachments to the natural world — can walk us in a broad revealtory circle around the simultaneity of brokenness and love.
Revelation is another one of those vocabulary words. That which reveals. Stories reveal things; and I’m coming back to that.
One word that came up in an kind of assessment at church of our “spiritual gifts” was discernment. The word itself, like the word “concupiscience” (used here a couple of times) has a platonic quality — something that has a non-specific and generalizable essence like “ideal forms.”
The intent of this kind of language is not, however, to establish linguistic neo-Platonism, but to associate creativity with the idea of gifts. This is anachronistic to us because modern, liberal society takes the individual, and thereby the “self” as its point of departure in all things. Any time I claim the ability to “discern” — that is, to achieve a deeper level of clarity about something — if I claim that ability for myself, I am somehow claiming to have (1) created myself or (2) to have created the circumstances of my own personal development.
Both propositions, of course, are self-serving foolishness on their face. When Paul warns the early church against “boasting,” this is precisely the self-delusion he is warning against. What you are and who you are, he says, is not of your doing. These are gifts (that is, something given from another).
If I have any ability to discern, then, it is not “mine.” It was given.
What was given?
There’s no self in that exchange.
In fact, the self that becomes conscious of the self has the habit of getting in the way… quite a bit. Another form of captivity, and one that is linked directly to the addictive quality we see in many of our behaviors. Once the measure of everything becomes the state of my interiority, everything else becomes means to insatiable ends. This is concupiscience. Concupiscience becomes a form of confinement, captivity in that very interiority.
Naturally, this brings us to the Big Question: given by What or Whom? I think the standard modern answer to that — one I myself entertained — is arrogant. There is a perennial assumption by the Keepers of Cultural Knowledge, in every era, that they are on the cusp of knowing all there is to know, even when history shows the perenniality of this self-delusion. Control being the greatest delusion of our own epoch in this regard, we can now look at the world situation — with the global financial collapse, the wars, and the destabilization of nuclear states — as yet another example of the wage of arrogance.
For my own part, I came to a point — via first Marxism then feminism, actually — where I started to peer seriously into this whole question of God, specifically this unitary, single, omnipresent God that began to appear to people most formatively and directly out of an experience of literal captivity. There was philosophical monism there, even if the word had not yet been invented to reduce it… intuited and announced, Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One. Even more specifically, in that same winding geneology, I started to peer into this icon of a culture that largely claims Christianity (Catholics and Seventh Day Adventists figure prominently among my immediate ancestors): Jesus. Rather, Christ. The latter is a title, The Annointed One — messiah.
I suspended my disbelief — as we all do to read any story — and when I started pushing aside the layer of superficial muck, I found an unfathomable well of water. I looked closer and closer to see into the water… then I fell in. It wasn’t a well after all; it was a womb; it was a river dividing captivity from freedom.
The association of baptism with birth is well-known. There’s no end of people — often people who understand baptism as a form of sorcery — who will tell you they have been “born again.” That’s no reason to trivialize it, or make the idea into a caricature.
Anyone who’s seen a live birth knows how we enter into history on a small, explosive flood. What is less remarked is that Jesus was baptized by a wildman apocalypticist named John (who lived in “the bush” and ate locusts). The place of that baptism was the Jordan River… the same place that marked the end of the journey of the Hebrews out of captivity. And both of them would soon enough be executed by the political establishment. At any rate, baptism is also about release from captivity.
I leave it to each reader to masticate on this as you will. Yoder disputes the eventual separation of the cosmic Christ — the spiritual icon — from the inevitability of politics in life… the idea that “there are issues to which Jesus does not speak… We must therefore supplement and in effect correct what we learn from him, by adding informatioin on the nature and the goodness of the specifically ‘political’ which we gain from other sources.”
If Jesus is confessed as Messiah, this disjunction is illegitimate. To say that any position is “apolitical” is to deny the powerful impact on society of the creatino of an alternative social group. It is to overrate both the power and manageablility of those particular social structures identified as “political.” To assume that “being politically relevent” is itself a univocal option so that in saying “yes” to it one knows where one is going, is to overestimate the capacity of “the nature of politics” to dictate its own direction.
Because Jesus’ particular way of rejecting the sword and at the same time condemning those who wielded it was politically relevant, both the Sanhedrin and the Procurator had to deny him the right to live, in the name of both of their forms of political responsibility. His alternative was so relevant, so much a threat, that Pilate could afford to free, in exchange for Jesus, the ordinary Guevara-type insurrectionist Barabbas. Jesus’ way is not less but more relevant to the question of how society moves than is the struggle for possession of the levers of command; to this Pilate and Caiaphas testify by their judgment on him. (from The Politics of Jesus, pp. 106-7, italics in the original)
At any rate, I seem to be straying from “what pulls the heart,” but I can’t simply state it. The question is a history question… personal and cultural and ultimately also ecological. That Hornborg interactive triad: personhood, culture, ecology.
The act of grasping in the process of discernment is a step toward something. It is teleological. The objective of discernment is clarity. If you know someone who is constantly seeking after greater levels of clarity, then you are dealing with discerner. And whether or not they state it so, the intense desire to understand — if it is not about concupiscience — is grounded in love.
That my personal history in this regard included the formative influence of the Army led me to seek clarity about what it was I was doing. Marxism provided a form of clarity that was very important. It clarified that there are suprapersonal social systems. It clarified that politics in inescapable. It clarified that “capital” is a social relation, and not a very nice one. It clarified something about the “captivity” of work.
Clarity carries with it a new confidence. This is not in itself a bad thing. Good leadership — and leadership is also an inescapable feature of human social being — requires the confidence of clarity. It is only when the display of confidence overrides the desire for actual clarity that confidence becomes performative and is corrupted into hubris. This is not an unimportant consideration in a culture where our whole lives have been turned into serial performances witin our serial confinements. We need constant vigilance against hubris — the bathwater surrounding the baby that is the confidence of clarity. So we need to be able to catch ourselves before we let “the work,” whatever it may be, become simply a performance.
The other danger in the grasping for clarity is the fallacy of the single thread — the idea that there is one key thread we can grasp that will unravel the whole fabric of being. I discovered this fallacy with an awful force after my own exercise of this fallacy with regard to Marxism. As De has noted more than once, if all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. It was feminism’s critique of Marxism that brought this fallacy home to me; and below the real and valuable clarity that is available from Marxism, there was a new layer of clarity on the overwhelming power of gender… and that the most pernicious manifestations of that power gained their force from their intellectual invisibility…
But there is more, somehow. It isn’t just invisibility. It’s our way of knowing the world and ourselves. After all, if invisibility is the impediment to clarity, then we can simply describe that which is invisible and it will be known — like radio waves or dust mites. Obviously, it doesn’t work that way.
As persons, formed by a culture, interdeterminate with our various ecologies, how do we know who we are and how we are to be? One answer, it turns out, is that we are formed by stories. That’s why storytellers have such immense cultural power, whether the storyteller is an ancient oral formulaic, an Elizabethan playwright, a pop singer, a bodice-ripper writer, a television ad crafter, Warner Brothers, Michael Moore, or Harriet Arnow.
Now I’m inching closer to the question, what pulls the heart?
We — the reader, watcher, listener… the audience — participate in stories; then the stories participate in our lives.
I can’t explain this very well, because language is a symbolic medium with the pretension of objectivity. Despite these limitations, language is also the way we transmit culture across generations…. ergo, the importance of The Story. But what I can’t explain is exactly where, when, and how I started to see God. The mere phrasing here is enough to jolt and even raise barriers, but bear with me… we were talking about pullings on the heart and, for my own part, about discernment as gift (which I will now claim as gift from the Holy Spirit). In for a penny, in for a pound.
When I implied above that modernism’s aggressive underlying atheism is arrogance, it wasn’t meant to suggest simple impertinence before some cosmic caricature. We see the arrogance of modernism all the time; this site is obsessed with the reckless arrogance of the belief that “we” (a collective self, by the way) can, for example, control nature. The same arrogance is apparent in any claim (overt or suggestive) that science is the single thread that can unravel all the mysteries of the universe. It is a claim to mastery by an animal that occupies but an infinitesimally small nook in that same universe.
Not that I am against science, or I should say against the study of the physical universe. I honestly believe it s a sacred undertaking when it is done for good purpose and with humility. But it doesn’t answer any question, and the arrogant presumption — in the face of all we know that is beyond the grasp of words — is that if science and-or observation can’t answer a question, then the question itself is worthy only of ridicule.
The science of Bacon, of the Green Revolution, of the Bomb… this is rape-science — objectifying, instrumental science.
Once upon a time, not long ago, I was looking at a riverbank. By our standards, we would say that this was a quiet scene. In fact, it was anything but quiet. The topsoil broke over the edge of the bank in such a way that you could see the ground erupt, even if that eruption was hundreds of thousands of years in the making. You could see the motion and the instant at once. Trees were swaying, animals were chirping and barking, leaves were rustling, the stream was was trickling and splashing, and the light was fastened to the entire scene like a great tractor beam… and I knew for an instant that this was watching me. I just knew it. The minute I started to try and break that all down, I started losing that knowledge in the minutiae. That wasn’t the first time, I don’t think — once several years ago in Colombia of all places, this sense overwhelmed me.
It hits me more and more frequently, and sometimes I get the feeling that I’m catching glimpses of God in everything, even the most scarred and stinking things. I just have to get out of the way. Other times I’m just too tangled up, and I’m this thrashing self-centered thing.
Personhood, culture, and ecology.
The best in my culture is carried on a four thousand year old story — even with its brokenness and contradiction and flaws. It’s the story of a God who pierces the world — not the standoffish God of the Enlightenment deists — an Abrahamic God, a Jewish God, a Christian God, who above all else takes sides, and takes sides with those who are oppressed. That we bitten and scarred and confused primates are still catching up with the implications of this, one segment of humanity at a time, does not change the essential story. Somewhere in our evolution as a society, we began to project our deepest questions — those of ultimate concern — out into the universe, and even with the brutality and sorrow, we started to get answers back… from the rhythms of nature that became songs to the discovery that the love we learn when mothers feed babies can mature and expand to include everyone, can be the basis of shalom. God was making herself known (even as Abba the Provider, “Father,” Love, “the ground of Being”). When you catch glimpses, you risk projecting what you know onto what you don’t.
To see God would kill us; so we (as persons) are allowed glimpses of this very wild God (Hauerwas speaks of “the wildness of the Christian God”) through one another (in common culture) and in nature (our physical and social ecology).
There’s a lot of talk of the human condition, by humanists naturally, and even in the liberal churches that want to have their cake and eat it too. They want to amend the story of the cross, calling it metaphorical or symbolic, so they can acknowledge the validity of rape-science (else they be considered not with it, not modern, not “progressive”) and ask that we temper it with a metaphor that demands sweeping a few crumbs to the poor and learning “tolerance.”
Nietzsche, the will-to-power neopagan, of all people — the guy who proudly called himself anti-Christ — understood better than today’s liberals the implications of Christianity’s essential taking of sides (with rejects, losers, outcasts, criminals, the poor, the possessed). Jesus appears in a real time and a real place, eating and shitting and walking and talking and working and sleeping in this contingent human process we call history… an inescapably political process. What he blows up is the basis of Power in a pagan world where the exercise of strength and the accumulation of power were synonymous with Virtue: the leverage of the fear of suffering and death. That’s the leverage that still holds us all in check. Google search “hauerwas nietzsche” if you want several hits on this interesting philosophical riff.
And I’ve gone on too long on my neophyte theological rambling.
I guess I’ll say that — for lack of a better term — the thing which pulls the heart, that tells us about what ought, is the Holy Spirit… that aspect of God-as-good-fellowship, of seeing a bit of God in every other (a doctrine of spiritual equality in a world where there is no such thing as equality), is the telos of the heart. What this spirit told me, even when I wasn’t paying attention, is not to raise my hand against anyone.
Even when I saw justice as the telos of my secular leftism, I still held fast to professing ruthlessness. That’s a male-world, but it’s also a me-world. It is, in a word, demonic.
Yes, I’ve also found Satan very useful as a way of knowing. Prince of the World (the system based on ruthlessness and revenge).
Even as the church was seized with centuries of demonic anti-Semitism, the essential Jewish Palestinian Christ with his message of revolutionary subordination and the abandonment of fear still broke through with the command to unmake The Enemy and take sides with the poor and despised. That spirit has proven impossible to stamp out.
There is a story about it that is a cultural knowing about ourselves. We have what I call “concealed Christianity” in this culture. That we root for the underdog in any story is a distinctly Judeo-Christian way of seeing the world — the decisive break of Christiainity from the paganism that surrounded it. The irony? Very loud self-professed Christians have taken to rooting against the underdog, and never hesitate to say the name of Jesus in every other breath; while the secular proponents of the meek and poor are most often agnostics who display care and compassion, but never recognize (much less acknowledge) that this is an essential influence of Christ and Christianity on our own culture. If they had been born in Rome in 1 BC, this notion would never have occurred to them… even if they were the underdog. Might makes right was the way of knowing the world.
Our story (for Christians) is an apocalyptic one. The telos is the peaceable kingdom, but the kingdom has to break through again and again between the appearance of the annointed One and the eschaton wherein that kingdom shall be finally established. It struggles with the Prince of the World; it’s “mighty” leader was led to execution for sedition, and that was called a victory. (He rejected the opportunity to sieze power three times before he was hooted and spat upon during the final walk to Golgotha.)
In this time when we are humans, have been humans, will continue to make and be humans, the Kingdom breaks through in levelings. Sabbath is a leveling. Jubilee is a leveling. Catastrophe and civilizatonal collapse are levelings. The wild God punctures reality. Kairos interrupts chronos.
I want to participate in that story. I participated in the world’s story, in modernism’s story, in the story of enemies and revenge, in the story of reduction to the literal. Now I want to participate in the story of the Christians. I want to love my neighbor.
I want to take on the discipline of unmaking enemies, of searching for the God coming through every person I encounter, every passing cloud, every blade of grass. Because without God, I can do anything even as can never do everything. Then I am a captive, an island, an addict.
I’ve gone on way long now; it’s late, and Sherry wants to take a walk. Sorry for my disjointedness, but you all can fill in the spaces of “what pulls the heart” with your own reflections and observations.
Again, thanks for the push.