One of the challenges I face as a theologian working with educators in the public school system is helping teachers discover courage and hopefully a passion for engaging students in a life of the spirit as much as a life of the mind.  This is no easy task.  Teachers in elementary and secondary schools are under huge pressure to ‘teach for the test’ and constantly assessing students in ways that focus attention on skill acquisition without the time nor resources to adequately engender a reason and purpose for the life they are living.

One of my conversation partners is Parker Palmer who for years has sought to bridge the gap in educational theory with a deep concern for the spiritual in student’s development.  Palmer’s background is notable: he has a PhD in Sociology from UC Berkeley, has taught in both public schools and higher education, and is a Quaker which speaks to his framing his thoughts in a contemplative (‘consider the space of teaching’) rather than declaratory (‘here are five things to do in your classroom to make sure student succeed’) mode.  He is currently heading up the Center for Courage & Renewal which works with organizations to align “our lives and our work with renewed passion, commitment, and integrity.” Because Palmer approaches these questions as a contemplative himself,  this can be confounding to be sure and many of my students in the School of Education struggle with him – “does Palmer expect us to enact something here in the classroom? Where is the concrete amidst the abstract?”     Much of this is based on his premise that we live in a tension between the contemplative life vs. an active life – two primary modes of living that are in tension in modern culture and not merely the classroom. As he explores in his book “To Know as We Are Known” and some other books such as “The Courage to Teach”, he holds that in earlier centuries contemplation was the preferred life, one followed by academic or religious scholars through the medieval period until the rise of the scholastic period.  As Palmer would state, an “active life” was one of tedious toil where one did not have the time to reflect on a higher plane of existence. Over time that changed. An “active life” (he wrote a book entitled “The Active Life” which gets at this thesis) became more prominent as technology progressed and the power associated with it.  A pendulum effect between the two – active vs. contemplative – has swung back again as limits to technology have not provided a solution and the lure of a contemplative life and its seclusion has taken hold.  In short, this has resulted in the “why” questions have been replaced with the “how” questions especially in our classrooms.  The demands of ‘teaching for the test’  have created a culture of busyness and frantic skills assessment with little to no time given to what these ‘skills’ are for in our society and how they fund what it means to be a human being.   For some of my students, they are frustrated because Palmer is not forwarding his point based on the strict adherence to social scientific method which holds that which is to be considered ‘true’ as correlating with quantitative methods that can be measured via statistical analysis. No, Palmer is speaking from a more qualitative stream of reflection which does go back to Plato, Socrates, Aristotle and continues on through humanities and the arts: a more existential reflection on the human condition and (for the sake of his books) and exploration of the spiritual as a vital part to deep education.  He is inviting us to essentially go inward – the contemplative life – and sit in the space of quiet with our students and creates spaces for contemplation on the reasons to life in addition to the skills and tasks of living.  As those sitting in his books and lectures, the dominant challenge for what is means to be human in our 21st century age is take seriously our vocation – our calling – and live the life we were always meant to live and to live this full life in front of our students in a holistic manner.  Teachers have been forced into becoming information Pez dispensers – spitting out facts and figures and methods without context nor purpose to test and therefore ‘assess’ with reliability that students are learning.

Do you think that he has a point?

Have we lost something in the education of our children in the elevation of the ‘active’ life over the ‘contemplative’ life?

As I have begun to receive comments on my recent book Freedom of the Self, one of the questions I have had is for follow-up reading – people who are tilling the same soil I am seeking to work in bringing together continental philosophy, Christian mysticism, and a deep concern for the contemporary accelerated culture within which live in Western culture.  One of the books I point people to right away is Peter Rollins’ 2006 book How (Not) to Speak of God. It is a dense wee book filled with amazing insights from Rollins work in the academy as a research associate at the Trinity School of Ecumenics in Dublin (he holds a PhD in Post-Structual Thought from Queen’s University, Belfast) and has kept that scholarly reflection in tension alongside faith communities such as a collective in North Ireland  he founded called ‘ikon’ that in true Emergent spirit is a blended presence of live music, visual imagery, soundscapes, theatre and ritual in an act of what Rollins terms ‘transformance art’.

One cannot read Rollins’ book without seeing the role that irony has played and currently plays in contemporary thought be it theological or culturally embedded.    It has been said that irony is the final trope of theology – that the literal assertion of any theological proposition be it creedal, hermeneutical, or

experiential is ultimately radically undone in the face of its practical outworking given the inherent limits certainty has on things of faith.  Kierkegaard’s famous aphorism that “it is the objective label ‘God’ that ultimately negates the subject” or Martin Heidegger’s grand pronouncement “Das Heilige läßt sich überhaupt nicht ‘theologisch’ ausmachen, denn […] immer dort, wo die Theologie aufkommt, [hat] der Gott schon die Flucht begonnen” (“Wherever theology comes up, God has been on the run for quite a while”) both resonate with the notion of irony as a grand theological trope.  In short, you can’t box up the gift you really want after all…

In Rollins’ book, the place of theological irony is not overtly labeled per se but (rather ironically I might add) is deeply implied throughout.  Rollins lays claim to this tradition in his introduction (ironically subtitled “the secret” given that Rollins quickly notes that there is no secret) by citing Wittgenstein’s final sentence in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: “what we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.” (xiii)    As Rollins further argues throughout Part 1 of the book, the tradition of ‘naming’ God has de-evolved into a practice of ‘heretical orthodoxy’ where authenticity in relation to God is falsely boundaried by theoretical constraints born after the Enlightenment where God is only apprehended ideologically vis a vis a disembodied theology.   Here Rollins chooses conversation partners amidst the ‘Masters of Suspicion’ (Nietzsche, Freud, and Marx) and seeks to embrace a way of approaching God that acknowledges that “one of the central elements of the postmodern critique, namely the recognition that relativism (i.e. the claim that there is no meaning) is ultimately self-contradictory, for to say there is no meaning to the universe is itself a meaningful statement, as it makes a meaningful claim about the way that the universe really is.” (11) The path upon which Rollins ventures is a contemporary recovery of the apophatic tradition.

Rollins appeals to the work of Pseudo-Dionysus, Meister Eckhart and other mystics within the Christian faith by noting the challenge of naming God is perpetually bounded by kataphatic or positive language that would correspond with the procession of the divine out of itself into its manifestation in and as the cosmos, as opposed to apophatic or negative language would articulate the path of the created soul’s return to the unmanifest divine transcendence.

Simply put, kataphasis for Rollins has given way to what he terms ‘the idolatry of ideology’ where the primacy of validity given to ideological renderings of God is comparable to fashioning idols.  Conversely, the road of apophasis leads to a silence that continues to be anything but quiet since God desires to be known.  As Rollins concisely states, “revelation [of God] ought not to be thought of either as that which makes God known or as that which leaves God unknown, but rather as the overpowering light that renders God known as unknown.” (17)   What Rollins advocates as the via media – the middle way – through the constraints of kataphatic and apophatic extremes is what he terms “the third mile” or what philosopher and ethicist Emmanuel Levinas terms the way of eminence, where ‘naming God’ would bespeak the completion of the created soul’s return to God as the unmanifest source of the manifestation which the creature is.  This ‘third mile’ of eminence is for Rollins the way of orthopraxis (right action) in fulfillment of orthodoxy (right belief) .  Referring to Jesus’ teaching that “if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles, this way of God is a movement of procession where the transcendent cause shows itself transcendently embodied in the cosmos whose procession it is.  As Hans von Balthasar has put it long ago, in the kataphatic mode of theology, emphasis is placed on the “manifestation of the unmanifest.”   As immanent to all creation, God “has the name of everything that is” and “the theologians praise it by every name”.   In this regard Rollins agrees yet calls our naming/theology to be incarnate/praxiological.  Rollins makes clear that it is only in going this ‘third mile’ – which he reframes later as going from ‘knowledge’ (orthodoxy) to ‘love’ (orthopraxy) – fulfills the meaning of theology into superabundance.  In this way the Christian path is one that moves beyond mere ethics “[f]or ethical systems allow us to follow rules whether we love or not.  While ethics says, ‘What must I do in order to fulfill my responsibility?’ love says, ‘I will do more than is required.’  (65)  Rollins concludes his book with a number of rituals and liturgies that provide typologies for performing this ‘third mile’ in the midst of marginalized and silenced communities.   As I mentioned earlier, there is a level of irony in the writing of this book – the seeking to unname God in order that God may be made known as a project that ‘names’ the unnaming as such in print.  That said, I commend How (Not) to Speak of God to those seeking a confessional approach to this deep tradition of theological irony and apophasis and perhaps finding means to (re)new ways for services of worship that give voice to those silenced as well as those seeking the name of God as one ‘unnamed’.


In my new book – Freedom of the Self: Kenosis, Cultural Identity and Mission at the Crossroads – I outline an argument to move away from the posture of consumerism and into what I call “the Kenotic Self” based on Philippians 2:5-11.  In the book I track the forgotten path of the Kenotic self in philosophy dating back to Aristotle and Augustine through to Derrida, Levinas and Jean-Luc Marion and theologians such as Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Graham Ward.  In light of this move toward the Kenotic self for 2010, here are 5 things to consider for ‘twenty-ten’ and 5 questions to ask yourself in making economic decisions in the new year drawn from the latter half of the book where I spell out the lifestyle choices of the Kenotic self:

1. God owns all things. As we hear in Ps 24: 11 and Job 41:11, the notion of personal and corporate ownership is an illusion. We have a lease relationship with this life. The fact that people in the U.S. speak of “owning” a home when the truth of the matter is that a vast majority of so-called “home owners” are tenants in a residence “owned” by a mortgage company or bank shows how far we have come as a culture into the illusion that “debt” can be equated with “ownership.” This mentality has seeped into the marrow of our understanding of God’s ownership of creation and all that dwells in it. Regardless of stance on free will and human ethical agency, it is central to the Christian story that God is the not only the sustainer of creation, but the owner as well. We are “stewards” of the garden, not owners. As John Taylor points out in his book Enough is Enough: “Only in his unbroken awareness of God is man’s technological mastery safe. Only in his acceptance of creaturehood can his dominion [over creation] be prevented from becoming raw domination. For being answerable to God, man remains answerable for his fellow creatures and for the soil of his earth.”

2. God provides all things. As the Bible reminds us, there is no need for anxiety: Matt 6; Luke 12: 22–31; no need for love of money: Heb 13:5; no need to serve two masters: Matt 6:24; no need to seek secondary treasures: Matt 13:45. In short, what is needed is provided for—all the rest is fuel of fear at best. Part of the concerns surrounding economic flux in the global market and the rash responses—from Y2K paranoia to increased interest in Middle East oil reserves—has to do with a need to manage and control those things we need due to our deep lack of faith. In short, we pay lip service to God’s providence the more we hoard goods and services unto ourselves at the expense of others. The notion that we are to “focus on our family” as a “primary concern” only exacerbates the divide between our nuclear family and the “widow and orphan” whose caring is not additive, but central to our understanding of what the Kingdom of God looks like.

3. We release all things. Henri Nouwen spoke prophetically in regard to the only true prayer is the prayer offered with open hands. Jesus’ ministry was one of freedom for hospitality through our availability to others. In this way, the extreme is the normative—we are to sell all, give all, and ultimately receive all and pure gift as we hear in Luke 12:33–34 and Mark 10:21, 29–30. To “hold on” and grasp things is harmful—both to relationship with God (i.e. “Eye of the Needle,” Luke 18:18–24) and to one’s own identity and relations with others as we hear in 1 Tim 6:8–10. It is important to remember that the judgment upon Sodom and Gomorrah was a judgment primarily based upon a lack of hospitality—they had become so consumed with feeding their own lusts and desires that they had no time nor vision to acknowledge the needs of others. In this notion as Americans do not stand apart from Sodom, but in the Sodom town square.

4. We are called to desacralise all things. Jacques Ellul in The Technological Society argued that money in and of itself when we imbue it with idol-like mission—in this way money qua money has power in itself and we need to act counter to this temptation and set people and relationships in primary consideration as having priority over things. In this way we need to work toward a redefinition of the Good Life: not quantity of things but quality of relations. As we are challenged under the divine command ethics of the ten commandments, we are not to mission any other God than God, period. To hold things and the monetary value we have placed upon those things above drawing people close in relationship with ourselves and their Creator is to choose graven images. This goes for the notion of usury or putting interest upon money borrowed from others. As we hear in 2 Cor 8, we are challenged not to coerce more money from people but liberate people from addiction and release people from debts. The work of DATA and Jubilee 2000 is not merely fad, it is a mandate. As we learn from liberative and emancipatory theologies, God’s concern for the poor is primary throughout scripture. The “new poverty” is the poverty of ignorance to the cry from the margins. Theologian Ron Sider reminds us: “Are the people of God truly God’s people if they oppress the poor? Is the church really the church if it does not work to free the oppressed? [Regarding Matt 25:41] The meaning [of Matt 25] is clear and unambiguous. Jesus intends that disciples imitate his own special concern for the poor and needy. Those who disobey will experience eternal damnation . . . Regardless of what we do or say at 11am on Sunday morning, affluent people who neglect the poor are not the people of God . . . God is not neutral. His freedom from bias does not mean that he maintains neutrality in the struggle for justice. He is indeed on the side of the poor.” What are some of the challenges that remain before us in striving toward an authentic and humble biblical economics? We are reminded of the Lausanne Covenant:  “All of us are shocked by the poverty of millions and disturbed by the injustices which cause it. Those of us who live in affluent circumstances accept our duty to develop a simple life-style in order to contribute more generously to both relief and evangelism.”  In many respects, little has changed in the 30 years since the Lausanne Covenant was drafted, but the challenge before us as people of integrity is still there.

5. Create communities of loving defiance. Ron Sider puts it this way in Rich Christians in An Age of Hunger: “The church should consist of communities of loving defiance. Instead it consists largely of comfortable clubs of conformity. A far-reaching reformation of the church is a prerequisite if it is to commit itself to Jesus’ mission of liberating the oppressed.” There is a need for intentionality among the faithful to form a new vision of the church as “communities of loving defiance” is a world moving with the inertia of consumerism and an ego-born appetite that shows no natural hope of slowing. The time for a spiritual reassessment of economics and the “new poverty” where the deficits of the soul are acknowledged on the balance sheet alongside the deficits of the check book in now needed. Bonhoeffer made this all too apparent as a factor for authentic discipleship: “Earthly possessions dazzle our eyes and delude us into thinking that they can provide security and freedom from anxiety. Yet all the time they are the very source of anxiety. If our hearts are set on them, our reward is an anxiety whose burden is intolerable . . . When we seek security in possessions we are trying to drive out care with care, and the net result is the . opposite of our anticipations.”

Here are five more resolutions to ask yourself for ‘twenty-ten’ form Ron Sider in Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger:

6. Does this purchase I am about to make move toward a globally sustainable personal lifestyle? Are the choices you are making sustainable outside of the US?  Can someone from different economic system live into the life you are surrounding yourself with?  If making high end purchases – clothing brands, technology upgrades – are not attainable by others then why are you binding yourself to such a lifestyle?

7. How am I distinguishing between necessities and luxuries in my economic priorities? One of the best ways to life into this is to surround yourself with a community of discernment who have permission to speak into your purchases and economic decisions.  Remember, what becomes normative is what we spend up to.  Find friends who share a lifestyle you wish to hold as normative and then give people permission to hold you to it.

8. Work toward eliminating “status expenditures”—can a basic Mp3 player do the job that the iPod can? On a recent trip to Hong Kong, I was amazed that most of the brand clothing lines (think: ‘7 for all mankind’ jeans) merely have labels attached to them where as the same jeans in a discount store do not. Same jeans sans the label.  Another thing I advise college students to do – wait 1 day for every dollar you are thinking of spending on entertainment items.  If a new CD or download costs $12, then wait two weeks before buying it.  I have often found that the “need to buy” and the “need to have” diminishes merely by waiting to see if you really want and need it. I still have that stupid T’Pau CD that if I had waited a few days I would have released how lame it was...

9. Work toward distinguishing between expenditures for creativity and recreation and excessive self-indulgence. People spend often when they are bored and as a way to alleviate loneliness and boredom.  “I don’t have anything to do, I will go shopping.”  If the chief question is community and connection, then begin with people and have spending follow.  Additionally, you do not need to spend money to spend time with people – i.e. you do not need to buy food as an excuse to spend time together.

10. Strive toward severing the connection between what you earn and what you consume. This is by far the most difficult task for many. The reality that “downsizing” is incredibly difficult shouldn’t surprise anyone—but the call to do so is certainly central to what it means to life selflessly and self-fully rather than selfishly.

Let me know what you think.  Since I am in the final stages of editing Freedom of the Self, your comments may make it into the final book!

I was in fourth grade when Paul McCartney’s musings in 1976 that ‘you think that people would’ve had enough of silly love songs, I look around me and I see it isn’t so…oh no…’ filled the airwaves.  Retrofitted by Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman during a montage dance number in Baz Luhrmann’s film Moulin Rouge in 2001, the question of whether there is a place for love anymore continues to perplex and befuddle.

I am a second reader on a senior thesis honors project looking at phenomenological turn in the work of Jean-Luc Marion.  One of the grand works of Marion is his reflections on the absence of love in philosophy.  As he notes in the beginning of book The Erotic Phenomenon:

Philosophers have in fact forsaken love, dismissed it without a concept and finally thrown it to the dark and worried margins of their sufficient reason – along with the repressed, the unsaid, and the unmentionable.  Doubtless other forms of discourse claim to recover from this escheat, and, in their own way, they have sometimes succeeded.

I fear that he is correct.   Spend time in the philosophy section of your local college, university or seminary library and flip through the generous tomes that bear the heft and girth of centuries of the ‘philo-sophia’ or ‘love of wisdom’ and where is the passionate call to love and be loved in return?  As Marion goes on to say in The Erotic Phenomenon, we have relied too much upon poetry, novels and even theology to frame the conversation and therefore releases philosophy from its mandate.  Such assumptions need to be reconsidered :

Poetry can tell me about the experience I have not known how to articulate, and thus liberate me from my erotic aphasia – but it will never make me understand love conceptually.  The novel succeeds in breaking the autism of my amorous crises because it reinscribes them in a sociable, plural, and public narrativity – but it does not explain what really and truly happens to me.  Theology knows what love is all about; but it knows it too well ever to avoid imposing upon me an interpretation that comes so directly through the Passion that it annuals my passions – without taking the time to render justice to their phenomenality, or to give a meaning to their immanence.

It is this last statement about theology that vexes me the most.  Have we so easily resigned the task of critically reflecting upon the nature of love to the ‘soft disciplines’ that we have lost the ability to speak of love, let alone render some grounded understanding of what love truly entails – this most elusive yet necessary of all truth?

Perhaps the question isn’t whether people have had enough of silly love songs… it is why they continue to stomach such shallow ones.  Perhaps we haven’t given people many choices…