Jul 20, 2010

quest(ion)s


I'm seeing a spiritual director now. Sister Barbara Austin is a Benedictine Nun from the St. Joseph Monastery here in Tulsa. I spent one hour with her last week. I'm sad I waited years to see a spiritual director. In that one hour I started seeking God better than all of the time I've spent studying theology.

I told her I was taking theology classes towards a bachelor's degree, and that I struggle with my studies and with theology - not just intellectually but emotionally and, yes - spiritually. Most of the time, I am like the RAF officer who approached Lewis at one of his theological lectures:
I've no use for all [this] stuff. But, mind you, I'm a religious man too. I know there's a God. I've felt Him: out alone in the desert at night: the tremendous mystery. And that's just why I don't believe all your neat little dogmas and formulas about Him. To anyone who's met the real thing they all seem so petty and pedantic and unreal.
I've blogged about Lewis's theology map metaphor. I want to explore this metaphor more and more.

Sister Barbara gave me a copy of Spiritual Direction: Wisdom for the Long Walk of Faith. I read it quickly in a day, and I'm now re-reading it slowly and doing the spiritual exercises. (Writing is part of it, so blog posts may pick up here for a while.) The first chapter is titled, "Who will answer my questions?" and it is even more quotable than Lewis!
  • ... we need to live the questions of our lives ...
  • Most of the time we respond to questions from below with answer from below. The result is often more confusion.
  • Once pain or confusion is framed or articulated by a question, it must be lived rather than answered. The first task of seeking guidance then is to touch your own struggles, doubts, and insecurities - in short, to affirm your life as a quest. Your life, my life, is given graciously by God. Our lives are not problems to be solved but journeys to be taken with Jesus as our friend and finest guide.
  • Painful questions must be raised, faced, and then lived. This means that we must constantly avoid the temptation of offering or accepting simple answers, to be easy defenders of God, the Church, the tradition, or whatever we feel called to defend. Experience suggests that such glib apologetics animate hostility and anger, and finally a growing alienation from whom or what we are trying to defend.
  • Without a question, an answer is experienced as manipulation or control. Without a struggle, the help offered is considered interference. And without the desire to learn, direction is easily felt as oppression.
  • Living the questions runs counter to the mainstream of Christian ministry that wants to impart knowledge and understand, skills to control, and power to conquer. In spiritual listening, we encounter a God who cannot be fully understood, discover realities that cannot be controlled, and we realize that our hope is hidden no in the possession of power but in the confession of weakness.
  • When God enters into the center of our lives to unmask our illusion of possessing final solutions and to disarm us with always deeper questions, we will not necessarily have an easier or simpler life, but certainly a life that is honest, courageous, and marked with the ongoing search for truth. Sometimes, in living the questions, answers are found. More often, as our questions and issues are tested and mature in solitude, the questions simply dissolve.
One powerful aspect of religion-as-map is, "... if you want to get anywhere, the map is absolutely necessary. As long as you are content with walks on the beach, your own glimpses are far more fun than looking at a map. But the map is going to be more use than walks on the beach if you want to get to America." This may be the first time I try to augment Lewis, but this metaphor doesn't capture that the "anywhere" we're trying to reach is God - an infinite destination. In that sense, no theology - no matter how accurate - can really represent the reality of the destination. Theology can only represent the journeys - the quests - of others who have lived the questions.

So, when I study theology, I must not make it solve problems. Studying theology moves me closer to Truth not when I cling to answers, but when I uncover the map of deeper questions pointing to God. I'm hoping and praying that spiritual direction and discipline will provide me with the compass I need on my journey of living the questions.

8 comments:

Mark said...

A really good book by the sounds of things. This was what hit me on going to / getting through / coming back from Haiti. There is no answer to something like that - but there is an appreciation of the things you mentioned: especially the idea that our hope is in confession of weakness.
Something else that has been really important to me in the last year or so has been the idea that we do not have to get audible, irrefutable messages from God to be obedient to him (or believe He is there). Especially evangelicals, we like to think that God speaks by giving us mountain-top experiences and sends shivers down our spine, but the same God went generations without speaking in the Old Testament. It didn't mean He wasn't there or wasn't worth knowing - it just means He wasn't speaking the way that He did during the times of the prophets and judges. He's done enough in the past to merit our respect, appreciation and even love even if He did nothing else for us. But He does more for us anyway. Definitely liberating to know that our personal experience of God doesn't change who He is.

luke said...

I hear that - or rather, I *don't* hear that. I read a good internetmonk article about Elijah and the "still small voice": http://www.internetmonk.com/archive/rethinking-the-still-small-voice

Here's a quoted summary:

"... when the Lord passed by Elijah, he said NOTHING. He didn’t communicate a thing.
And then, there was a silence. This is a better translation than “a still, small voice.” Absolute silence. Not God speaking to Elijah in “a gentle whisper,” but no sound whatsoever.
...
This phrase is not describing some secret, tender, quiet communication between God and Elijah. It’s describing “the calm after the storm,” the intense silence that came after the bombastic display of God’s glorious power.
...
Only at that point did God speak to him again. God repeats the same question; Elijah repeats the same answer. 'I need another one of those “mountaintop experiences,” like you gave Moses.'
...
God gives further instructions to Elijah and reassures him. Instead of granting some kind of supernatural new start to Elijah and Israel, the Lord simply gives Elijah some things to do. God told the prophet to return to his work, the work he’d been called to, like anointing kings and taking care to make sure the prophetic ministry would continue in the next generation.
...
This narrative is not so much about how God speaks to us, as it is about why God DID NOT speak to Elijah, and what he told him to DO instead. ... It is a call to simply go back to work, doing what God has called us to do, relying on his promises; trusting that the work is his and not ours to define and achieve."

caedmon said...

It's wonderful how different spiritual direction can be for different people. I meet with a director ever 3 weeks. Probably 45 minutes out of the hour is me answering theological questions. The conversations often begin from whatever I have been reading or studying, but go based on the questions the director has as he listens.

For me, this sort of deep thinking leads directly to the arms of God. It is in plunging the deep wells of theological thought that I am awakened to what God has done and is doing. The growth comes not in achieving answers but in the act of talking through them. I am fortunate that in the seminary I attend, the professors don't see theology as data to learn but as a prophetic voice.

Saint said...

I still dig how applicable that map metaphor is.

luke said...

Yeah. Without trying to butcher it, I think spiritual direction can serve the role of the compass. "Where have I been, and where am I going?" is one of the chapters in Spiritual Direction by Nouwen. Theology as a map is fine, and you do need the map if you want to get somewhere, but it's not the only thing you need. You need direction and orientation RIGHT NOW. And the journey isn't a sprint or even a marathon - it's a long walk. I change this blog's tag-line to reflect that.

caedmon said...

You were asking somewhere what disciplines I've been following. One might not sound like a traditional discipline. I receive a daily email from Fr Richard Rohr at the Center for Action and Contemplation. It's usually no more than a couple paragraphs, but they build on each other through the days. Read slowly, they've helped me keep focus in everything else I'm doing.

http://www.cacradicalgrace.org/getconnected/subscribe.php

luke said...

Thanks man. I'll sign up for that. I've admired CAC for a while now. Have you ever been to any of their events?

caedmon said...

Nope. No events in my area and no ability to travel at the moment. Maybe someday? I might have to pay them a visit when school is complete.