Joseph Ratzinger on Suffering

“Pain and disease can paralyze one as a human being. They can shatter one to pieces, not only physically, but also psychologically and spiritually. However, they can also smash down complacency and spiritual lethargy and lead one to find oneself for the first time. The struggle with suffering is the place of human decision-making par excellence. Here the human project becomes flesh and blood. Here man is forced to face the fact that existence is not at his disposal, nor is his life his own property. Man may snap back defiantly that he will nevertheless try to acquire the power that will make it so. But in so doing, he makes a desperate anger his basic attitude to life. There is a second possibility: man can respond by seeking to trust this strange power to whom he is subject. He can allow himself to be led, unafraid, by the hand, without Angst-ridden concern for his situation. And in this second case, the human attitude towards pain, towards the presence of death within living, merges with the attitude we call love.”

Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology, 95-96.

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Henri Nouwen on Loneliness

“Boredom, resentment, and depression are all sentiments of disconnectedness. They pre sent life to us as a broken connection. They give us a sense of not-belonging. In interpersonal relations, this disconnectedness is experienced as loneliness. When we are lonely we perceive ourselves as isolated individuals surrounded, perhaps, by many people, but not really part of any supporting or nurturing community. Loneliness is without doubt one of the most widespread diseases of our time. It affects not only retired life but also family life, neighborhood life, school life, and business life. It causes suffering not only in elderly people but also in children, teenagers, and adults. It enters not only prisons but also private homes, office buildings, and hospitals. It is even visible in the diminishing interaction between people on the streets of our cities. Out of all this pervading loneliness many cry, ‘Is there anyone who really cares? Is there anyone who can take away my inner sense of isolation? Is there anyone with whom I can feel at home?’

“It is this paralyzing sense of separation that constitutes the core of much human suffer ing. We can take a lot of physical and even mental pain when we know that it truly makes us a part of the life we live together in this world. But when we feel cut off from the human family, we quickly lose heart. As long as we believe that our pains and struggles connect us with our fellow men and women and thus make us part of the common human struggle for a better future, we are quite willing to accept a demanding task. But when we think of ourselves as passive bystanders who have no contribution to make to the story of life, our pains are no longer growing pains and our struggles no longer offer new life, because then we have a sense that our lives die out behind us and do not lead us any where. Sometimes, indeed, we have to say that the only thing we remember of our re cent past is that we were very busy, that everything seemed very urgent, and that we could hardly get it all done. What we were doing we have forgotten. This shows how isolated we have become. The past no longer carries us to the future; it simply leaves us worried, without any promise that things will be different.

“Our urge to be set free from this isolation can become so strong that it bursts forth in violence. Then our need for an intimate relationship—for a friend, a lover, or an appreciative community—turns into a desperate grabbing for anyone who offers some immediate satisfaction, some release of tension, or some temporary feeling of at-oneness. Then our need for each other degenerates into a dangerous aggression that causes much harm and only intensifies our feelings of loneliness.”

– Henri Nouwen, Making All Things New, pp. 32-35.

“Husbands, love your wives”

It’s relatively easy to entertain and please a woman over a cup of coffee on a relaxing Friday afternoon. It’s much more difficult to do it consistently for fifteen years. The former takes a sacrifice of $2.05 and your best stories in exchange for a beautiful smile. The latter takes the willingness to encounter your worst self—the part of your way-of-being that causes her pain—and to expose it regularly to examination. For the latter we get not just beautiful smiles but also her must painful sacrifices, perhaps, her body for children, friends, family, vocation, dreams.
 
In my experience, women are much more inclined to self-giving sacrifice than men. But this is not an inexhaustible resource; women must be loved. The greatest mistakes men regularly make are taking this devotion for granted as ego-building (she loves me vs. she loves me) and failing to cultivate the glory of the the woman’s self-giving love by committed loving in return. My worst self is a loveless, self-consumed egoist.

“Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her”
– Ephesians 5:25

A Lament of Online Falsity

There are some problems that are as apparent as daylight, but as hard to describe as utter darkness. That there is something off is obvious. Just what are the contours and complexities is less evident. In the absence of pure clarity, I wish to register a lament about online life.

I hate that it makes personal correspondence public.
I hate its inability to foster trust, which is the glue of society.
I hate its ability to inspire fear and rage.
I hate its false pretenses about local, regional, and global problems.
I hate its cheap moralizing without personal consequences (only political).
I hate that it fosters posing and posturing.
I hate that it makes us cowards.
I hate that it makes us brands.
I hate that it inspires very little love.
I hate that it cannot communicate what an embrace does.
I hate its false problems, its merely online problems.
I hate its false promises for dialogue.
I hate its speed, its generalizing, its inability to linger for three hours.
I hate that it gives us only other people’s best and worst moments.
I hate its loneliness.

Here’s to real life, and theology that is content with local presence as it’s platform.
Here’s to caring for people who are in front of you and signing off.
All of the best conversations I have ever had have been face to face, and some of them with people I might not have “followed” if they weren’t near me.

“I will diminish, and go into the West and remain Galadriel.”

Web-log, March 27, 2017

Last Week

I mentioned that I sent off my paper last week. I am in process of writing the next chapter, but stalled a bit on some questions that I have about immortality. I have roughly ten pdfs open at the moment to be read and document. Add to this an extra trip to TEDS to hear Michael Allen speak, an eye exam, and taking a half day for my family, and last week wasn’t great for productivity.

I did send myself about twenty emails by text last week. I do this usually from the bathroom or from the church pew. For whatever reason the shower and the morning song time are fertile ground for ideas. I take in so many details that putting it together takes the mental tranquility required for creative leaps. Anyway, I have one pictured on the right. Here’s a rough idea of what I’m trying to say.

unnamedIf someone wants to argue that Calvin has a Platonic view of the soul they will run into a few difficulties. First, he explicitly says that Aristotle is the shrewdest when it comes to the powers of the soul. He seems to accord a great deal of respect to Aristotle while rejecting him. Second, he does not hold Plato’s tripartite view of the soul and explicitly rejects Augustine’s. He holds a simple two faculty view. His soul seems to be somewhat Platonic (immortality and dualist with regard to body/soul)  but mediated by a debate within a largely Aristotelian tradition that refined the faculties of intellect and will. Calvin is a humanist and biblical scholar who wants to avoid being pressed into more detail than he is comfortable with. 

The other very productive thing I did last week was writing my ETS paper. I meant to write the proposal, but I hit “flow,” so I went with it. Three hours and 3,500 words later, I had something I can work with. I’ll submit the proposal this week.

Set Up

I’m hunkered down at Starbucks on 50th Street today (pictured: due for an upgrade). There are better atmospheres for work, but this is a regular stomping grounds because it is about a 3 minute drive. It’s one of those mornings where the weight of what I have to accomplish pushes away traveling very far.

unnamed (1)The guy who looks like Bill Murray is here again today. He’s here about 75% of the mornings that I come here. He’s outside smoking at the moment, hence the two empty chairs pictured. I have formulated various theories to explain what he does here. He almost seems to be a well-to-do homeless man. He certainly is a recluse, preferring not to be spoken to. He sits, drinks his coffee, plays video games on his tablet, and sometimes scribbles notes on blank lined paper. Last week he dropped some, and when they came to rest by my feet tried to stoop to help him pick them up. He obviously did not want my help picking up his papers, scrambling to get them before I could. He remains a mystery.

The Plan

  1. Work on job stuff; try to find a job
  2. Clean up email
  3. Clear away PDFs
  4. Try to avoid thinking about getting my car inspected, selling my other van, filing taxes, etc.

Web-log, March 21, 2017

The Week

Well, I finished the chapter and sent it off. In the chapter, I was attempting to weave medieval background into a description of Calvin’s psychology as described in The Institutes I.15.1-8. I had run into so many difficulties trying to figure out how to arrange the background and my analysis of Calvin that, in the end, it was easiest just to cut Calvin out of the chapter. Once I had made this decision, the chapter seemed to write itself. I was done in less than a day. It came to 41 pages (roughly 14,000 words without footnotes–it would have been over 20,000 together). Part of the conclusion is below:

“In sum, there are very clear and broad historical reasons that Calvin’s psychology does not reflect the five distinctives of Aquinas’s psychology. Since we need to read him as he is situated, we can avoid blaming him for not answering questions that were not being asked and ascribing too much consequence to his way of organizing his psychology. The theological disputes that occurred between Aquinas and Calvin produced a general psychological inheritance for him, a core of four tendencies according to which, as we will see, his psychology generally conforms: (1) a tendency to hold a more dualistic approach to the body soul relation, which attributes the lower faculties to the body—owing both to the arguments over the identity of the soul and its powers and over the immortality of the soul (body/soul dualism), (2) a tendency to see the will and its passions as the morally relevant faculty, along with a corresponding tendency to see the passions of sense appetite as mere bodily passions, natural and irrational (ascendency of the will in action and affective theory), (3) a tendency to curtail the importance of virtue for the ethical life in action theory (mitigating the telos of divine command, flourishing; (curtailing of virtue in action theory), and (4) a tendency to see continence, rather than virtue as the maximal ethical state for persons (continence as highest ethical state). I have already remarked that the additional contribution of the Reformers is a tendency to overlay God’s volitional determinism on human psychological determinism as a way of minimizing the importance of human virtue. In the next chapter, I will lay out Calvin’s psychology in light of these four tendencies.

IMG_4994I’ve already emailed the chapter to Matthew Levering and received a quick email back with a promise to take a look. I’m hoping to interact with him about it, since it is very much in his wheelhouse. Most of the books consulted for this chapter were requested from the gorgeous Feehan Memorial Library at the University of St. Mary of the Lake where Levering teaches.

The uptake here is that the next chapter is also coming along nicely, since I removed the Calvin stuff and dumped it all into a file. It already has 7,500 words, and yesterday was a very productive day writing, sharpening some ideas I had already put on paper. I hope to be done with a draft of this chapter within two weeks.

The Set Up

I am back at TEDS today, scanning books and doing some tasks for the Trinity Journal. I’m currently about 91% done with Dombey and Sons by Charles Dickens; this is the last of the Dickens novels for me. So, I will have to be careful not to get drawn into it and stay on task. I had broken my headphones last week, and so, since headphones are indispensable to this work, I am rocking a new set of Klipsch S4i earbuds. I am a big fan.

The Plan

  1. Scan two library books by Levering, which need to be returned to Feehan
  2. Complete Trinity Journal Tasks
  3. Catch up with a couple of friends if possible
  4. Read and take notes on “The Soul” in Paul Helm’s John Calvin’s Ideas

Trauma, Suffering, and the Community

On the Mere Orthodoxy blog Patrick Stefan has written an appreciative critique of an article recently written on trauma and Reformed evangelicalism by Paul Maxwell. I want to weigh in with a question for Patrick. But before I get to this, I need to give a quick fly over of the discussion.

First, Paul’s piece was a reflection on his experience within evangelicalism and particularly at Westminster (Philadelphia). Paul was connecting a general observation about the culture of Reformed evangelicalism—its divisiveness and in-group vs. out-group dynamics—with the tendency of the traumatized to re-create trauma. He writes, “abused boys can be attracted to militant contexts that recreate their own emotional abuse.”

Not only is this re-creation a recipe for perpetuating abuse, but it is also a pretty terrible context for working through trauma. He writes, “But currently, and I say this in spite of all the books that have been written for ‘survivors’ and ‘healing’ by evangelicals, there is no place for corporate or public healing of trauma in evangelicalism . . . I simply don’t believe there is space for a traumatized person to be their full selves in this community.”

Patrick Stefan builds on Paul’s article by telling his own very moving story of trauma. He suggests his narrative has two stories: “there’s the well-rehearsed one that demonstrates my theological acumen and ability to find truth, then there’s the back-story of a boy in an unsteady world looking for some semblance of certainty.” He gives his own account of Reformed evangelicalism highlighting the doctrine of the fall, the nature of trauma within this doctrine, and biblical examples of coming to terms with suffering.

While generally building on Paul’s article, he thinks “Maxwell has painted Reformed Evangelicalism with too broad a brush.” I wish Patrick had said more about this. Frankly, I am not sure he’s even talked about Paul’s most significant complaint, not about Reformed theology (Paul’s dissertation is on this), but the culture of the community.

It strikes me that Patrick has actually unwittingly contributed to Paul’s point by talking about the two narratives of his life. This leads to my question for Patrick: What kept you from telling your story to your church community? He says, “Behind the closed doors of my home I struggled with anger, hyper-vigilance, and sleeplessness, though I put on a good face in public.” This is precisely the point the Paul was making.

What struck me most about this piece—knowing Paul pretty well—is that it signaled a break with a sort of protective pretense. The fact is, this is remarkably courageous for a person in Paul’s position (Who wants to hire “damaged goods”?). The fact is our church communities do have informal in-groups and out-groups, those who are qualified for “leadership” and those who are not. There are the sufferers and the helpers. Emotional stability is a sign of spiritual maturity, and vice versa–circumstances notwithstanding.

I want to suggest that the reason that the community does so poor a job of supporting sufferers and the reason why Patrick was hesitant to show his suffering is precisely because we still tend to assume that negative emotion is a direct and simple manifestation of sin. Negative emotion, especially statements of anger, regularly disqualify people from being “in.” This creates a devastating catch-22 where people want to communicate strongly and risk rejection for doing so.

Many thanks to both Patrick and Paul for their vulnerability. I applaud them both for their courage. But perhaps, we could bring about a community where courage isn’t necessary for sharing suffering?