Between the Lines presents conversations that we have shared with our authors about their book, its inspiration, and its reception.

Between the Lines: A Conversation with David F. Ford – Part 2

We recently had the chance to talk with David F. Ford about his book The Drama of Living: Becoming Wise in the Spirit.

David F. Ford (PhD, University of Cambridge) is Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge, where he has taught for more than twenty years, and director of the Cambridge Inter-Faith Program. He is also a Fellow of Selwyn College and the author or editor of more than fifteen books, including The Shape of Living. Ford is one of the founders of Scriptural Reasoning and has been extensively involved in generating new modes of engagement for inter-faith relations in the post-9/11 world.

Part 1 of this interview is available here.

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What is “Scriptural Reasoning,” and what is its potential impact on religion and society?

Scriptural Reasoning is a practice in which Jews, Christians, and Muslims (and now sometimes those from other traditions too) come together in study and conversation around their scriptures. It has been one of the best surprises of my life since I got involved in its beginnings about twenty years ago.

I had spent fifteen years living in multireligious Birmingham, Britain’s second city, but was never gripped by what I found there in interfaith relations, worthy though much of it was. It was only through Scriptural Reasoning that I realized what was missing: a practice that enables people from very different faiths to engage with each other long term in a way that lets them be fully people of faith in their own traditions. These scriptures are wonderfully rich and deep, have been interpreted for centuries, and now continue to be important around the world. You never come to the end of their meaning and implications. In The Drama of Living I tell the story of Scriptural Reasoning and some of the exciting developments that have been happening around the world in Europe, America, China, and elsewhere. I describe it as a wisdom-seeking practice that at its best (especially when done year after year) leads to a multiple deepening. It can draw us deeper into our own faith, deeper into understanding the faiths of others, deeper into commitment together to the common good of our world, deeper into community—and often friendship—with those of other faiths, and deeper into the disagreements as well as the agreements between us.

That last point is important: it is not likely that, for example, Jews or Muslims will be able to agree with the message of the Gospel of John on Jesus as the full self-expression and self-giving of God, but it is good to be able to explore what is meant by that and other disputed teachings. We speak in Scriptural Reasoning of “improving the quality of our disagreements”—which, when you think about it, is desirable in many other relationships too, including engagements with fellow Christians and with our spouses, children, friends, enemies, and colleagues.

As regards the potential impact of Scriptural Reasoning on religion and society, I think it is immense. Professor Peter Ochs, the Jewish professor of philosophy at the University of Virginia who has been central to Scriptural Reasoning since it began, speaks of “hearth-to-hearth” engagement. Scriptures are at the center of each of our communities, they are places of warmth (and dangerous fire!) where we gather to understand what is most important to us. In Scriptural Reasoning something of this warmth can be shared across traditions, while yet respecting the differences. Peter has been working to find ways of applying this in situations of tension and conflict, as have the Cambridge Inter-faith Programme and the new center of reconciliation near Carlyle in the North of England, Rose Castle. The director of Rose Castle, Sarah Snyder, has been at the forefront of introducing Scriptural Reasoning to the USA, the Middle East, and local communities around the UK. I have had fascinating times doing it not only in the UK but also in China, the USA, Canada, Switzerland, Germany, Ireland, Jordan, Israel, and Oman, and have just received an invitation to do it in the leading Muslim University of Al Azhar in Egypt.

The most recent major initiative that partly owes its inspiration to Scriptural Reasoning is the Global Covenant of Religions, which seeks to bring together the religions at the international, regional, and local levels in order to resist religion-related violence and encourage peacemaking, better quality education, and respect for religious minorities. It is only a beginning, but watch this space!

 

What is the importance of “face-to-face” engagement, and how does it change how we interact with others? What does it mean for how we interpret texts?

The Drama of Living holds that the primary perspective on human life is the face-to-face. It is important to have broad frameworks, big concepts, and attempted overviews, and also to pay attention to each person’s interior life, but in the drama of living the central dynamics are face-to-face. This is, I think, common sense—you just have to note how the most popular television programs and films make this central. Likewise most of the Bible is stories about people engaging face-to-face. Even in apparently big impersonal organizations, corporations, and governments you usually find face-to-face relationships are vital at every level from the board or cabinet at the top to the local teams and offices. And of course it is the primary perspective of love.

I think there are two main implications for interpreting texts.

First, it is important to realize that most of them had their origins in face-to-face dramas of living, with conflicts, debates, special interests, and complex issues. Their context matters, even when we do not know much about it. So there can be no simple application today of, for instance, the Gospel of John, and John is very good at recognizing this—it is why he uses that important little word “as” so much, as discussed already. For example, when the risen Jesus says to the disciples as he breathes the Holy Spirit into them, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (20:21), that encourages not only reflection on the drama of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus in order to understand his mission from the Father, but also reflection on the ongoing drama in the past and today in order to improvise appropriately in the ongoing drama of the twenty-first century.

Second, the priority of the face-to-face applies to our process of interpretation. Central to our efforts to go deeper into the meaning of the Gospel should be intensive conversation with others about the text. One of the formative things for me in reading John was six months during which two New Testament scholars, Richard Hays and Richard Bauckham, met with me for twenty-one three-hour sessions, one on each chapter of John. I am also deeply grateful to other groups, in many academic settings, in various churches, and in Scriptural Reasoning, for fruitful explorations of this inexhaustibly rich text.

One conclusion that is constantly reinforced through such conversation and argument is that the text is endlessly generative of fresh meaning. A key text in John is the promise that the Holy Spirit “will guide you into all the truth” (16:13), and I think that happens most reliably through the discipline of conversation with others and through attending to the wisdom gathered over many centuries in communities of worship, study, and practice. We need to remember that, through writings and traditions, we are always in the presence of the unseen faces of those in previous generations who have been part of this conversation.

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Next week Dr. Ford will discuss L’Arche communities, as well as why rereading is so fundamental for learning.

For more information on Dr. Ford’s new book, The Drama of Living, click here.

Between the Lines: A Conversation with David F. Ford – Part 1

We recently had the chance to talk with David F. Ford about his book The Drama of Living: Becoming Wise in the Spirit.

David F. Ford (PhD, University of Cambridge) is Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge, where he has taught for more than twenty years, and director of the Cambridge Inter-Faith Program. He is also a Fellow of Selwyn College and the author or editor of more than fifteen books, including The Shape of Living. Ford is one of the founders of Scriptural Reasoning and has been extensively involved in generating new modes of engagement for inter-faith relations in the post-9/11 world.

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In this book, your sequel to The Shape of Living, why did you choose to concentrate on the Gospel of John and on the poetry of Micheal O’Siadhail?

The Shape of Living combined my experience of life with the earlier poetry of Micheal O’Siadhail and a variety of biblical themes. Since then, O’Siadhail has written several very fine volumes, including Love Life on thirty years of marriage and Globe on the contemporary world, and his publishers have also just brought out all he has written in his Collected Poems (Bloodaxe Books). I myself am now deep into a ten-year project writing a commentary on the Gospel of John and will be delivering the 2015 Bampton Lectures for Oxford University on the theme “Daring Spirit: The Gospel of John Today.” In addition, a good many things have happened in my own life since writing The Shape of Living fifteen years ago, including time in Rwanda, a great deal of interfaith engagement (especially with Jews and Muslims), and the extraordinary last six months in the life of my father-in-law, Dan Hardy.

The Drama of Living feels like a more intense fusion of those three elements than before. Perhaps it is the effect of being older, but the interplay between the poetry, the Gospel, and life today seems freer—there is more of the drama of my own life in this book, and I felt free to explore the big questions of meaning, truth, life and death in ways I had not before. I tend to think best while writing, and it was an exciting process, with all sorts of fresh insights and discoveries.

Why O’Siadhail’s poetry? I find him the best poet writing in English today (and it is good to see so many more people discovering him through his Collected Poems). He gets heart, head, and imagination together; his poetry is wonderfully musical, and he’s not afraid to use classic forms as well as inventing his own; and he is accessible. Above all, he takes on the great themes of life, love, meaning, and death. I see poetry at its best as the supreme form of meaning through language, and I find myself returning to O’Siadhail’s poems again and again.

Why John’s Gospel? I love all four of the Gospels, and at different times in my life have concentrated on each of them, but John’s is distinctive, mysterious, and both the deepest and the most dramatic. This Gospel is the result of many years of following Jesus and entering more and more into the depths of who he is and what it means to live “in the Spirit.” I also have come to see it as particularly well suited to the twenty-first century, and The Drama of Living tries to work out what that means. One of the things that fascinates me most about John is the sheer superabundance of meaning. There always seems to be more on every rereading, and he symbolizes that by images of abundance and overflow—large quantities of water turned into wine, water gushing up, wind blowing unpredictably, baskets of food left over after Jesus feeds the crowd, and so on—all summed up in the Spirit being given “without measure.”

 

What can the Gospel of John teach us about love? How is love central to the Gospel?

The first mention of the word love in John is God’s love for the world in chapter 3, but I see the key truth about love coming at the climax of the prologue in 1:18, where Jesus the Son is pictured, in the NRSV translation, “close to the Father’s heart”—literally “into the bosom of the Father.” This for John is the deepest secret of reality, the dynamic of love at the heart of the universe, and the whole Gospel can be seen as an invitation to readers to trust that this is so and be part of the reality of this love. At the Last Supper the beloved disciple (who I think is left unnamed so that everyone can identify with him, just as the mother of Jesus is not named at his crucifixion; and the term “beloved” gives the core identity of any disciple) is seen reclining “on the breast of Jesus,” and we are reminded of this again at the very end of the Gospel. So there is, as it were, a chain of love pictured through this image of intimacy: the Son close to the Father’s heart, the beloved disciple close to Jesus’s heart, and all the rest of us invited to be there with him.

The climactic act of Jesus is to lay down his life for his friends—only in this Gospel is discipleship described as friendship. And it is clear that this love, the embodiment of God’s love for the world, is for all: Jesus says, “I when I am lifted up will draw all people.” The crucifixion is the revelation of the love at the heart of the universe and is also utterly realistic about all that opposes that love: the drama of loving and hating, light and darkness, continues. The crucifixion is also the place where we get the deepest insight into the community Jesus desires to form. Only in John does Jesus bring those two unnamed people, the beloved disciple and his mother (who might, as I suggested, be seen as representing all of us), into a new community that includes family but transcends it. He says to his mother: “Woman, here is your son,” and to the beloved disciple, “Here is your mother”; and John adds, “And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home” (19:26–27). We are asked to imagine that this hidden life in a family-like community of friendship is where, in the coming years, the testimony and reflection took place that went into shaping this extraordinary Gospel.

This is what I call in The Drama of Living the ordinary, daily, and largely hidden drama of loving that all of us are part of. I see John as deeply concerned for this. Compared to the other Gospels there is little specific ethical teaching by Jesus (no Sermon on the Mount, for example), but the “new commandment” is summed up by Jesus as “Love one another as I have loved you.” That “as” challenges his followers to pray, think, and imagine in the Spirit what is genuinely in line with how Jesus loved. We are invited to read and reread the dramatic stories of the encounters of Jesus throughout the Gospel of John, and the extended farewell discourses in chapters 13–17, and then improvise on them in our situations. The Gospel can be read as an introduction to who Jesus is—the one who loves like this—and an invitation to take part in the ongoing drama of loving in which he continues to be the main character. We are given a script on which we improvise in the Spirit every day, and the main aim of my book is to try to help people do this wisely.

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Next week Dr. Ford will explain “Scriptural Reasoning” (and its impact on religion and society) and the importance of “face-to-face” engagement (and what it means for how we interpret texts).

For more information on Dr. Ford’s new book, The Drama of Living, click here.

Between the Lines: A Conversation with Dennis Okholm – Part 2

We recently had the chance to talk with Dennis Okholm about his book Dangerous Passions, Deadly Sins: Learning from the Psychology of Ancient Monks.

Dennis Okholm (PhD, Princeton Theological Seminary), a Benedictine oblate, speaks frequently in church and youth group settings and serves as assistant pastor at Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Costa Mesa, California. He is also professor of theology at Azusa Pacific University and adjunct professor at Fuller Theological Seminary. Okholm is the author or editor of many books, including Monk Habits for Everyday People.

Part 1 of this interview is available here.

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You write that “chastity is the queen of the virtues”; how so? How is chastity different from abstinence? What role does grace play in our purity?

As I did for all seven deadly sins, in the chapter on lust I related what I found in the monastic literature to what I found in psychological literature—in this case, what I found out about sexual addiction. Along the way, one of the scholars of early monasticism who helped me understand what the monks were proposing as a counterveiling virtue to lust—namely, chastity—was Columba Stewart, a Benedictine who teaches at St. John’s in Collegeville, Minnesota. Both in conversations with him and in his book Cassian the Monk, he helped me to see that chastity was the queen of the virtues because it really had to do with sound spiritual health—an “abiding tranquility” that is very different from the constant struggle that mere abstinence requires. In fact, in Father Stewart’s words, abstinence just wrestles lust to a truce.

He helped me to see that, in one respect, when the monks insisted upon certain disciplines to keep lust in check, those disciplines also helped the monk to realize the limits of human effort to combat lustful thoughts. In other words, success cannot be achieved by human effort alone; ultimately, it requires God’s grace.

Interestingly, Cassian “proves” this by discussing our dreams—our unconscious states. Those who have conquered lust will not even have salacious dreams, and this is something that is impossible by mere abstinence (or continence). I think that this corresponds to the first of the twelve steps that tackle addiction—the admission that the addicted person is not in control but must depend on a higher power. Or, as one book title asserts, “willpower is not enough.” This recognition ought to be acknowledged by youth ministers in our churches!

By the way, I thought Cassian’s discussion about what we refer to as “wet dreams” (the monks are not as queasy as we often are when talking candidly about our embodied lives) goes well with Luther’s evening prayer that concludes, “and graciously keep me this night. For into your hands I commend myself, my body and soul, and all things. Let your holy angel be with me, that the wicked Foe may have no power over me. Amen.”

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For more information on Dr. Okholm’s new book, Dangerous Passions, Deadly Sins, click here.

Between the Lines: A Conversation with Dennis Okholm – Part 1

We recently had the chance to talk with Dennis Okholm about his book Dangerous Passions, Deadly Sins: Learning from the Psychology of Ancient Monks.

Dennis Okholm (PhD, Princeton Theological Seminary), a Benedictine oblate, speaks frequently in church and youth group settings and serves as assistant pastor at Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Costa Mesa, California. He is also professor of theology at Azusa Pacific University and adjunct professor at Fuller Theological Seminary. Okholm is the author or editor of many books, including Monk Habits for Everyday People.

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What are the seven deadly sins? What makes a sin cardinal, mortal, or venial?

The so-called “deadly sins” didn’t start out as a list of seven but as a list of eight thoughts that plague us simply because we are fallen human beings. They were listed and reflected upon by Evagrius (fourth century) and John Cassian (fifth century). The list included gluttony, lust, greed, anger, dejection (tristitia), weariness of heart (acedia), vainglory, and pride. Gregory the Great (sixth century) did some rearranging and came up with our list of seven, essentially combining tristitia and acedia into “sloth,” taking pride out as the font of all, and adding envy.

These are “cardinal” sins because they give birth to progeny, as it were: lesser but related sins. But they don’t become “deadly” (just “venial”) until they so consume your thoughts that they clog up your spiritual arteries so that God’s grace cannot flow through your life; as a result, spiritual death ensues and, sometimes, even physical death. You get an idea of this if you compare what they said about gluttony—our thoughts about food—to contemporary research on eating disorders. In fact, that’s what I am doing throughout the book—noting that what they said about these sins has much in common with what we think we’ve recently learned about similar issues in psychology and sociology.

 

How would monks have pursued emotional health, and what did that look like? What can we learn from them? What can we imitate?

The monks I write about in this book—monks who lived centuries before us—were living together in close relationship with others day in and day out. In the process they dealt with all the issues with which we deal every day—how to think about food intake, lust, anger issues, envious thoughts about fellow monks, desiring more than is needed for daily life, and so on. When it comes to our spiritual, emotional, and bodily health, things really haven’t changed that much over the centuries; so their insights can be very helpful for us, particularly because they were processing it all from a specifically Christian understanding.

They analyzed these problems—causes, symptoms. Essentially, they were providing an etiology of psychological and sociological problems that ail us. Then they prescribed strategies to deal with these problems. As an example, in their discussions about anger they recommend, among other strategies, what we would call “reframing”; that is, they encourage me to think what might have caused someone on the LA freeway to cut me off—such as word that a family member has just gone to the hospital—before I impulsively vent in a fit of road rage. And they recommend the cultivation of counterveiling virtues, such as patience in the case of anger—the virtue of expansion of the heart to relieve the built-up pressure that is anger.

Along the way I discovered that at times the ancient monks anticipated cures that we only recently discovered. To use anger as an example again, I discovered in psychological literature that research reversed the long-held supposition that cathartic venting was the best way to deal with anger; in the 1960s research began to demonstrate that a response of verbal aggression actually increased anger—something that Cassian said 1500 years ago.

There is much wisdom in the writings of these early Christian monks that I have tried to unpack so that it will help us to diagnose what ails us and to develop strategies and cultivate virtues so as to be healthier human beings. I can honestly say that I myself have taken their wisdom to heart, analyzing my own sins and developing strategies for dealing with them based on what they have recommended.

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Next week Dr. Okholm will explain how “chastity is the queen of the virtues” and what role grace plays in our purity.

For more information on Dr. Okholm’s new book, Dangerous Passions, Deadly Sins, click here.

Between the Lines: A Conversation with David G. Benner, PhD – Part 2

We recently had the chance to talk with David G. Benner, PhD, about his book Presence and Encounter: The Sacramental Possibilities of Everyday Life.

David G. Benner (PhD, York University; postdoctoral studies, Chicago Institute of Psychoanalysis) is an internationally known depth psychologist, author, spiritual guide, and personal transformation coach who lives in Toronto, Ontario. He is a faculty member of The Rohr Institute’s Living School for Action and Contemplation, where he serves as a master teacher. Benner has authored or edited more than twenty books, including Soulful Spirituality and Spirituality and the Awakening Self. He lectures widely around the world and has held numerous clinical and academic appointments. For more information, visit his website at www.drdavidgbenner.ca or his Facebook page.

Part 1 of this interview is available here.

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What is a “clouded” presence? What are its causes and how does it manifest itself?

Personality is seldom clouded. Think of your circle of acquaintances. You don’t have to be a psychologist to be able to identify salient personality traits for each of them. But this is not their presence. The presence that shadows us all is deeper than our personality and yet often more difficult to discern. It is with us in every interaction and will influence others one way or another—even though most people will be unaware of it. It lurks and lingers but is easily ignored or missed. And the major reason for this is because it is so often clouded.

Clouded presence is hard to read. The waters of the soul are opaque and restless. We may sense that someone’s surface presentation does not tell their whole story, but the nature of that deeper story will be as unclear as their presence. Or we may feel uneasy with them and not understand why. But chances are good that the uneasiness we feel is justified and that the clouding of the person’s presence is because of the mask they wear. This mask obscures their motives and parts of themselves that they don’t acknowledge and, if they did, would not want others to see. We can, therefore, describe the cause of clouding of presence as hiding behind a persona. But it is important to realize that we are seldom aware that we are doing this and that the real cause can more simply be described as living out of a false self.

The core of a clouded presence is always limited self-knowledge and an unwillingness to be honest about what we actually do know about ourselves. You don’t have to be perfect to have a clear and unambiguous presence. But, pretense will always confuse it. Pretense compromises our grounding in reality. It also produces the complexity that complicates knowing how to relate to such a person and the confusion you feel when engaged with them. This confusion is only clarified when you understand the ulterior motivations and needs that are opaque to them. But, because the person who is hiding behind a persona believes he or she is that public face, the presence that is their soul signature is clouded and confused.

 

What is “luminous” presence, and how can we recognize or encounter it? 

Luminous presence is the natural state of being. Rocks, trees, houses, and bridges are luminously clear in their presence to us, but we are seldom sufficiently present to notice. Although we don’t experience luminous presence often, perhaps you can think of occasions when the presence of something or someone was so clear and powerful that it broke through your preoccupations and distractions and pulled you into presence for at least a moment.

When we encounter this sort of presence in a person it shines through them with such luminosity that it can be quite dazzling. You might easily assume that it is the person who is dazzling. But what you are encountering is not simply the other person but the Presence they mediate. This transcendent source of all presence lurks behind all encounters. The other always brings us in potential contact with the Ultimate Other, and all presence mediates—usually in a partial and imperfect way—Ultimate Presence. This is why presence to anything opens the door to presence to the transcendent.

In luminous presence we encounter the purity of simple being. Life is complex. Personality is complex. Mind, self, relationships, and experience are all complex. But being has about it a singularity that marks it as pure.

The best example of this purity and luminosity of presence is Jesus. The Gospels describe him as speaking with amazing authority. I think what people were noticing was his presence, not his personality or his elocution. They were noticing the power and influence that comes from the simplicity and purity of being that we see in Jesus who Christians understand to be the perfect personification of Luminous Presence.

 

Why have mystics been so concerned with presence and encounter? What can we learn from them about encountering God and how it can change us?

The mystics understand that both spiritual transmission and transformation are through presence and encounter. And they know that encountering anything—particularly God—is something quite different from holding beliefs or having information about someone or something. They understand that authentic encounter is always potentially transformational because it calls us into presence and invites us to return to our center—our being in the Ground of Being. But they also understand that we miss the potential for encounter because of our lack of presence. So, presence and encounter are right at the center of the life and teaching of the mystics.

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For more information on Dr. Benner’s new book, Presence and Encounter, click here.

Between the Lines: A Conversation with David G. Benner, PhD – Part 1

We recently had the chance to talk with David G. Benner, PhD, about his book Presence and Encounter: The Sacramental Possibilities of Everyday Life.

David G. Benner (PhD, York University; postdoctoral studies, Chicago Institute of Psychoanalysis) is an internationally known depth psychologist, author, spiritual guide, and personal transformation coach who lives in Toronto, Ontario. He is a faculty member of The Rohr Institute’s Living School for Action and Contemplation, where he serves as a master teacher. Benner has authored or edited more than twenty books, including Soulful Spirituality and Spirituality and the Awakening Self. He lectures widely around the world and has held numerous clinical and academic appointments. For more information, visit his website at www.drdavidgbenner.ca or his Facebook page.

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What can the story of Moses and the burning bush teach us about presence and encounter?

The story of Moses wonderfully illustrates almost everything I have to say about presence and encounter in this book, so this is a great question to start with. First, let’s notice Moses. On that day and in that moment Moses was present. Rather than being caught up in his own preoccupations or agendas for the day, Moses was aware of what was happening within and around him and open to his life being interrupted. The interruption came in the form of his curiosity. He noticed a fire and paid attention to it long enough and with sufficient openness that he allowed his curiosity to draw him into an encounter. The bush was present to him because presence is the default and steady state for everything in existence with the exception of humans. Only humans can be distant enough from their existence that they can—and regularly do—lose presence. But, like us, Moses could not notice the presence of the bush to him until he was first present to himself. In presence, and only in presence, do we become accessible to encounter.

But the story then brings us to a second really important dimension of this miracle of presence and encounter. What Moses encountered was not merely a burning bush but the Transcendent God. Presence to God also demands presence to self. There can, in fact, be no meaningful encounter with God apart from presence. But presence to anything is a potential doorway to an encounter with the transcendent source of all presence—God. This is why I speak of presence and encounter as sacraments of daily living. Nothing is too small, insignificant, or non-spiritual to fail to be a potential occasion of encountering Presence if we only dare to be present ourselves.

 

You speak of three laws of presence. What are they and what do they tell us about the nature of presence?

I didn’t receive these laws on tablets of stone on a mountaintop, nor did I derive them scientifically. So perhaps it’s a little presumptuous to speak of them as laws. But they do pull together some of the things that I think are important to understand about presence and how it opens us to the possibilities of encounter. The three “laws” are:

• Presence to anything starts with presence to self,
• Presence to anything is constrained by presence to everything, and
• Presence to anything can be a threshold to the Transcendent.

Being present isn’t something we do. Anything we simply do will always involve more pretense than presence. Presence isn’t something, therefore, that we can simply turn on like a faucet. Authentic presence is always grounded in authenticity. Being present is being real. It is really being in the here-and-now. This is why presence to anyone or anything always must start with presence to self.

But while presence to anything is built on presence to self, the presence that we will be able to offer ourselves will always be constrained by the presence we regularly offer to anything and everything. It is virtually impossible to sustain more presence to anything than we routinely offer to everything. This is because presence is an expression of our being, not simply a behavior. It is a soul posture of openness and attentiveness—not something we can turn into a command performance. The hospitality offered by the best hosts is never simply a way of behaving when guests are present. It is a way of being. Presence is a way of being that will characterize our relationship to everything or it characterizes our relationship to nothing.

Presence is a thin place. It is a place where we are particularly close to Transcendent realities that are normally beyond our awareness but that always surround us. Being present to anything opens us to potential encounter with the transcendent presence that is the Ground of Being. God is always present. It is us who are absent. Our absence is our lack of presence. Once we learn to be present we become aware of the truth of the eternal presence of the One who is present to us.

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Next week Dr. Benner will explain “clouded” and “luminous” presence, and he will illuminate mystics’ thoughts on presence and encounter, as well as what we can learn from them about encountering God.

For more information on Dr. Benner’s new book, Presence and Encounter, click here.

Between the Lines: A Conversation with Rev. Kathryn Greene-McCreight, PhD – Part 2

We recently had the chance to talk with Rev. Kathryn Greene-McCreight, PhD, about her book, Darkness Is My Only Companion: A Christian Response to Mental Illness.

Kathryn Greene-McCreight (PhD., Yale University) is Priest Associate at The Episcopal Church at Yale. Her previous books include Ad Litteram: How Augustine, Calvin, and Barth Read the Plain Sense of Genesis 1–3 and Feminist Reconstructions of Christian Doctrine: A Narrative Analysis and Appraisal.  She also serves on the board of the Elm City Chapter of NAMI (National Alliance for Mental Illness) and on the Patient and Advisory Council of Yale Psychiatric Hospital.

Part 1 of this interview is available here.

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3. You suggest that friendship is important for the mentally ill. Don’t we all need friendship?

Yes, we all need friendship. Ill people in general need friendship and companionship more than healthy people do. But mentally ill people especially need friends. The symptoms of mental illnesses themselves can be so isolating, both subjectively and objectively. The pain of mental illness is compounded by the isolation and stigma fueled by people’s fears of the symptoms.

 

4. You mention that feelings are relatively unimportant in our life before God. How can you say this when psychotherapy itself focuses mainly on feelings? Isn’t the exploration of feelings important in the healing process?

This is a good question. It is true that psychotherapy focuses in part on feelings. And that is important for healing, to learn how you feel and why. But you can’t leave it there. I think there is a misunderstanding of psychotherapy, or of good psychotherapy anyway. And I think this misunderstanding keeps many from seeking out psychotherapy. I actually had one person tell me that he did not need psychotherapy (although he clearly did) because he wasn’t a “feelings person.” As though feelings were the only thing psychotherapy would affect.

It is true that psychotherapy makes you face your feelings, learn to accept them, and learn how to act or not act on them. Most importantly, psychotherapy seeks to help the patient learn how to handle feelings so they don’t cause further pain, either to the patient or to those whom the patient loves or has to live with. Part of this goal is to keep the feelings from coming out in maladaptive actions rather than in healthy ways of relating.

To a certain extant, psychotherapy seeks to train the patient in proper communication. This can take the form of many kinds of therapy. Talk therapy and art therapy may be some of the most profound I have experienced. Art therapy, I must quickly add, is often mistaken for helping patients paste bits of construction paper and string and beads. Another caricature. The creative arts used in therapy can include painting, photography, writing, gardening, cooking, dance, etc. The goal is in part to bring the often denied or repressed negative feelings to the surface in a healthy way in order to short-circuit patterns of thinking and acting that might aggravate the symptoms of the mental illness.

But I think what I meant by saying that I mistrust feelings is in part this: feelings change so often and so dramatically. This is especially true for someone with poor mental health. Also, while you are of course right that psychotherapy deals (in part) with feelings, the Christian faith has to do with an action. That is, God’s action of healing the world in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Granted, much of Protestant Christianity rides on a tradition that would focus on feelings, whether the feeling of ultimate dependence on God, feeling of joy, feeling of love toward neighbor. These may make us feel good. They may not. But even if they don’t make us feel good, that doesn’t falsify the gospel. It doesn’t negate the faithfulness of our witness.

Evangelical Christianity can sometimes fall into a distortion of Christian confession by telling us that if we don’t feel the joy of the Lord, we somehow have missed the mark, we are not saved, we don’t believe aright, we don’t pray enough. But this all locates the truth of the gospel in our interiority and subjectivity. This is dangerous. People struggling with poor mental health sometimes simply cannot feel pleasure. The technical term for this is anhedonia. But the fact that we may not be able to feel joy doesn’t mean that God doesn’t love us or that we are lost. I think it is especially important for Christians who live with mental illnesses to be reminded that God is “objective.” Being a Christian is not a matter of subjective experience of God but of God’s objective reality. God is objectively real, whether we feel His presence or not. We all need to be reminded of that, ill or healthy. We all need to remind each other of that.

Between the Lines: A Conversation with Rev. Kathryn Greene-McCreight, PhD – Part 1

We recently had the chance to talk with Rev. Kathryn Greene-McCreight, PhD, about her book, Darkness Is My Only Companion: A Christian Response to Mental Illness.

Kathryn Greene-McCreight (PhD., Yale University) is Priest Associate at The Episcopal Church at Yale. Her previous books include Ad Litteram: How Augustine, Calvin, and Barth Read the Plain Sense of Genesis 1–3 and Feminist Reconstructions of Christian Doctrine: A Narrative Analysis and Appraisal.  She also serves on the board of the Elm City Chapter of NAMI (National Alliance for Mental Illness) and on the Patient and Advisory Council of Yale Psychiatric Hospital.

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1. What makes this book different from any other narrative of mental illness? You’ve written theological books before—how does this one differ from your other work?

A colleague once referred to the book as a memoir, but I corrected her. It is not a memoir. If it fits a genre, I might say it is a theodicy, but that doesn’t work either. Modern philosophical theodicy dwells on the level of theory. There is nothing wrong per se with theories about God’s relation to human suffering—unless you are in the midst of suffering, in which case theories are the last thing you need. Don’t try to give a theory to someone in the death throes of stage four cancer or to someone at the window ledge ready to jump.

Darkness asks questions about God’s relation to human suffering but from within a specific life, the life of a Christian trying to live faithfully with and in spite of a mental illness. The larger framework is not philosophical. The framework in which the questions are asked and lived out is orthodox Christian confession and practice.

I suppose I would say that, more properly, the book is a lament; it is a prayer; it is a testimony. It is an offering for the upbuilding of the Church in love of God and love of neighbor, especially in love of those neighbors who happen to live with mental illnesses.

 

2. Why did you title your book Darkness Is My Only Companion?

The phrase “Darkness is my only companion” is from the final verse of Psalm 88 in the 1979 Episcopal Book of Common Prayer (BCP) psalter. Because I pray the psalms from the Book of Common Prayer, I memorized the verse as it is translated there: “My friend and neighbor you have put away from me, and darkness is my only companion.” When I prayed, it rang out to me. As hard as this may be for others to understand, it even reassured me. I could feel completely alone and in pain and in darkness, but that was okay. My complete despair was not a sign of my lack of faith. If the psalmist could cry out in such misery, then I felt it was okay for me to say it too.

But here is where things get muddy. You can blame the negativity of my title on the odd translation of the 1979 revision of the 1928 prayerbook’s psalter. The 1979 BCP modernized Coverdale’s long-cherished translation of the psalter, which had laid the foundation for the classical tradition of English psalmody from the sixteenth century onward. Here is Coverdale’s translation: “My lovers and friends hast thou put away from me, and hid mine acquaintance out of my sight.” Coverdale’s translation is closer, it seems to me, to the Hebrew, Septuagint, and Vulgate than is the 1979 BCP. In fact, I don’t quite see how or why the translators came to render the verse as they did. Here it is in the RSV: “Thou hast caused lover and friend to shun me; my companions are in darkness.” The NRSV is not much different. “You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me; my companions are in darkness.” The other English translations I checked do not understand darkness itself to be the psalmist’s companion.

If I were to have written it now, I think I would have entitled it using the first part of John 1:5, “The light shines in the darkness.” Or maybe Psalm 27:1, “The Lord is my light and my salvation.” I would choose these not so much because they are more uplifting than “Darkness is my only companion,” but because I don’t like the 1979 BCP translation of Psalm 88:19! But this didn’t occur to me at the time.

Between the Lines: A Conversation with Brad Harper and Paul Louis Metzger – Part 2

We recently had the chance to talk with Brad Harper and Paul Louis Metzger about their Brazos book, Exploring Ecclesiology: An Evangelical and Ecumenical Introduction.

Brad Harper (PhD, St. Louis University) is professor of theology at Multnomah University in Portland, Oregon. He is the college adviser for The Institute for Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins and the book review editor forCultural Encounters: A Journal for the Theology of Culture. He has also worked as a pastor and church planter.

Paul Louis Metzger (PhD, King’s College London) is professor of Christian theology and theology of culture at Multnomah Biblical Seminary and director of its Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins. He is the editor of the journal Cultural Encounters and the author of Consuming Jesus: Beyond Race and Class Divisions in a Consumer Church.

Last week, Brad and Paul explained what ecclesiology is, why evangelicals should care about it, and how it affects how we experience the church.

In today’s post, Brad and Paul address what evangelicals can learn from other ecclesiologies and how ecclesiology can inform our worship and the role of women in our churches.

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What can evangelicals learn from other ecclesiologies?

Here again, we find a question with deep and broad implications. We often tell our students that if they want to do theology well they need to listen vertically (to two thousand years of church history) and horizontally (across the spectrum of traditions). From the Catholic and Orthodox traditions especially, evangelicals can learn that being a Christian is not just about inviting Jesus into our hearts as individuals.

It also entails being constituted and shaped by the saved community: in other words, the saved community is indispensable to our growth as believers. In the early church, if a person were asked what it means to be a Christian, his first response may not have been “I have accepted Jesus as Savior” but rather “I belong to them,” pointing to the church.

From the Pentecostal tradition, non-Pentecostal believers can be challenged to think about what it means that the church is the locus not just of the presence of the Holy Spirit but also of the Spirit’s unique activity.

Again, the list here could be long. If evangelicals wish to influence other ecclesiologies in the spheres of rigorous engagement of Scripture, personal spiritual formation, the priesthood of all believers, and evangelistic mission to the surrounding world, it would be good for us to learn from those in other traditions so as to communicate our values more effectively. Moreover, learning from the unique insights of other traditions helps us to become more well-rounded and so strengthen our particular strengths and remove our blind spots. Otherwise, unguarded strengths can often become glaring weaknesses.

 

 

How can ecclesiology inform our worship?

One of many ways that ecclesiology can inform our worship is in the area of worship styles and music, which have become a battleground for the evangelical church in the last several decades. The common practice of “traditional” and “contemporary” worship services often ends up separating the church along generational or consumerist lines. Instead, we need a strong understanding of the biblical principle that the church is meant to be a community that brings diverse persons together. What would it look like for the church to use music, worship, and liturgical styles that focused on bringing its generations together rather than allowing them to separate along preference lines?

Another area where ecclesiology can inform our worship is in the sphere of individual participation. All too often, praise choruses in evangelical circles emphasize the individual believer and fail to account for the community of faith. Individual believers are not the body and bride of Christ; only the community of believers constitutes the body and bride. While taking seriously the need for individual participation, we must also account for the fact that the whole is greater than the sum of individual parts.

Lastly, the study of ecclesiology will help us recognize the connection between the visible and invisible church. All too often evangelicals have emphasized the invisible church (those who are saved by faith) and have failed to account for the need to make visible our spiritual transformation. If evangelicals take seriously the connection between the visible and invisible church, it will help our movement come to terms with the pressing need to bring people from diverse ecclesial heritages and other backgrounds together in visible worship. Our oneness is intended to signify to the world God’s unity, God’s sending of his Son, and his love for the church in his Son (John 17:23). How else will we demonstrate to the world that we are one?

 

How can ecclesiology inform the role of women in our churches?

One way ecclesiology can cause us to rethink the role of women in the church is to recognize the biblical idea that the church and the family are not the same institutions and operate by different structures. Too often, evangelicals simply collapse these two institutions into each other so that the relationships between husbands, wives, and children in the family are inserted directly into the church when, in fact, the church is built on a different structure. While the church is to recognize and respect the structure of the family, leadership in the church is built on issues of calling, gifting, and communal affirmation, not just on whether someone is a father, wife, male, or female. Regarding communal affirmation, we need to move beyond production and consumption language so often present in the church and society today. In view of the triune God of holy, communal love who saves and shapes the church, we are called to view men and women together in communal terms (not reducing them to mere producers and consumers) where we share in life and ministry together for the sake of cultivating deeper communion in the body. Much more work needs to be done in this area. But these points alone could have a major impact on the role of women in the church.

 

Between the Lines: A Conversation with Brad Harper and Paul Louis Metzger – Part 1

We recently had the chance to talk with Brad Harper and Paul Louis Metzger about their Brazos book, Exploring Ecclesiology: An Evangelical and Ecumenical Introduction.

Brad Harper (PhD, St. Louis University) is professor of theology at Multnomah University in Portland, Oregon. He is the college adviser for The Institute for Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins and the book review editor forCultural Encounters: A Journal for the Theology of Culture. He has also worked as a pastor and church planter.

Paul Louis Metzger (PhD, King’s College London) is professor of Christian theology and theology of culture at Multnomah Biblical Seminary and director of its Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins. He is the editor of the journal Cultural Encounters and the author of Consuming Jesus: Beyond Race and Class Divisions in a Consumer Church.

In today’s post, Brad and Paul explain what ecclesiology is, why evangelicals should care about it, and how it affects how we experience the church.

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What is ecclesiology, and why should evangelicals care about it?

Ecclesiology is the study of the nature, mission, and life of the church. Evangelicals should care about it for several reasons.

1. The church alone is the bride and body of Christ—now and for eternity. The church is the kingdom community of the triune God. As such, it is very different from other social groupings such as national, regional, or local governments; NGOs; businesses; and nuclear families. As important as these other social groupings are, they should never displace the significance of the church for the individual believer.

2. We belong to the church as God’s people. As God’s people, we are not just a worldwide community of individual believers. We are a community unified under the lordship of Jesus Christ and by a biblical structure which includes, among other things, pastoral leadership, accountability and discipline, and the Word and Sacraments.

3. The Scriptures indicate that the church is a place of God’s unique presence and activity, a place where he engages us as he does nowhere else.

4. The church is not simply a localized and contextualized community for the present. It is also Christ’s community for all eternity. The church is the concrete embodiment of Christ’s eschatological kingdom. We should be participating now in the community that will be our eternal destiny.

 

 

 

How can the study of ecclesiology affect how we experience the church?

Answers to this question could take up many pages, so we will just suggest a few examples: All too often, the church in North America operates by way of pragmatic impulses rather than careful reflection that would benefit sustainable practices that cultivate healthy church growth for the long haul. Careful consideration of what the Scriptures and church leaders throughout the ages and across the globe have to say about the identity, mission, and life of the church can guard against short-term fixes that hurt long-term communal gains. Moreover, the study of the nature and role of church leadership can make a huge difference in how we experience church. For example, if the Bible invests pastors or elders with significant authority in the areas of doctrinal teaching and proper moral behavior, this will tend to cultivate unity of belief and behavior in the church. If, on the other hand, the authority of the Bible as understood by church members is valued over the authority of pastoral leadership, the church has more freedom to question pastoral teaching; having said that, such an emphasis may also give way to greater openness to doctrinal and ethical error.

The study of the Sacraments is also an area which can significantly affect the way we experience church. Something as simple as coming to the conviction that the Lord’s Supper should be celebrated weekly instead of monthly or quarterly makes a significant difference in believers’ ecclesial experience. Further, if the sacraments are understood to be significant moments of the reception of grace rather than merely a time to remember Christ, this will likely affect the attitude of the believer in partaking in them. Lastly, it is important that we take to heart the significance of the table for calling sinners who are saints and saints who are sinners together to serve one another and to receive and offer forgiveness to one another as equals at the foot of the cross. Thus, in addition to confessing our sins to God, we confess our sins to one another so that we might be healed (James 5:16). Here we see the vertical as well as the horizontal significance of the table.

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Next week, Brad and Paul will address what evangelicals can learn from other ecclesiologies and how ecclesiology can inform our worship and the role of women in our churches.