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Wednesday, 30 April 2014

On the Pursuit of Peace


They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, ‘Peace, peace’, when there is no peace.
      -- Jer 6:14

What does it mean to “find peace”?

Many are content to eke out moments of bliss and repose from the daily grind when they can, finding it enough to laugh with their children over silly cartoons, to share a meal with their clan every Christmas and Thanksgiving, to take the occasional moonlit walk with a spouse or alone, to read a book of poetry in a spare hour. Though they know it not, they are saying with Walt Whitman in their hearts, ““I have perceived that to be with those I like is enough, / To stop in company with the rest at evening is enough, / To be surrounded by beautiful curious breathing laughing flesh is enough.”

Others have set themselves more purposefully on the path to personal peace. There is a store in downtown Vancouver called Banyen Books which is full of self-help guides by gurus willing to give out the universal answer for $25.99. The store is still in business – there must be people who read them. I do not have any idea what the “success rates” are with these guides, or even if success in these cases are a good thing. Perhaps all we can say here is, at least these people have thematized the quest somehow.

Then there are the gurus themselves. These seem to be people who have managed to find some level of detachment from the flux of history and appear at rest, indeed exude restfulness. Just listen to Eckhart Tolle talk – it comes out of his pours. Especially in times of political turbulence and unpredictability (most of history…), these questing spirits emerge to seek peace in transcendence. Such, for example, were the Stoics, who believed that the only available salvation must exist in what can be controlled, the emotions. In a self-induced ataraxia these figures nourished a level-headed desire to depart history and take refuge within the (apparently) only safe zone of inner indifference. This does not characterize all religious or non-religious “paths to peace,” but it suggests at least a common theme: a separation of self and world.

A person does not have to find themselves in any one of these positions, and most likely will not give much credence to the typology. There are about 100 other places one might be in relation to the age old quest for peace, including a complete indifference towards it. The question of peace and contentment often appears in the culture, if at all, only as a distant pot of gold at the end of the rainbow – hardly ever is the quest actually considered. Thus the question of whether or not it is an “ethical” quest is so far from even being posed that we cannot consider it sensibly. Neither can we consider the question of what sort of peace is in fact possible in our world when the quest is neglected, for the force of the question is lost in advance – like a salesman asking you how much of his product you want to purchase when you are not even convinced you need the product at all.

Nonetheless, I am compelled to do so, since I not only think of the quest for peace as a profoundly ethical quest (a la St. Seraphim: “Acquire the Spirit of Peace and a thousand souls around you will be saved”), but as a kind of silent, unnoticed imperative upon the restlessness of the culture I find myself in.

I begin, then, by asserting against the gurus and Stoics and New Age crystal shops and Eckhart Tolle and some psychotherapists and all the Buddhist rip-offs out there, my belief that real personal peace, as it is imagined by such folks, is impossible. Not psychologically impossible, but impossible in reality. I say this because, obviously, though we can for instance measure a decrease in stress hormones in meditation, the point is that stress hormones are not the whole of reality. As a Christian I contest that in reality there are, in fact, no safe zones, nothing to retreat into. We live in world without corners. We cannot even hide within – especially not within. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer says, “there is no place to which the Christian can withdraw from the world” (Ethics 198).

The essential problem that cannot be solved by retreats into self, the “true reality” according to many contemporary metaphysics, is that this very act takes place within and is made possible by a larger reality – for, unfortunately, this is a reality so complex and ambiguous that it even allows people do deny its reality, subordinate it to the self, or equate it with the self! Rest that relies on this reductionist move cannot be true rest, only illusory rest, experienced as the experience of the narrowing of experience, known as the knowing of knowing less of reality. This is what no quest for personal peace that involves some religious rigmarole of “calming the nerves” can get around (and this is why it cannot be interpreted as a kind of ultimate salvation) – essentially, such peace is the very act of ignoring, albeit a forced, "skillful" ignoring. There can be no accounting, in this act, for the fact that suffering happens outside the act, for the nature of this act is the very turning away from that horrible, disturbing reality. This is connected with the old dilemma inherent to any kind of Gnosticism (a religious system built around a secret, saving knowledge): with every and any piece of saving knowledge there is, like its shadow, the deeper damning problem that not everyone knows it. This fact no knowledge can save, nor indeed anything isolated within the individual. Only the salvation of others through this knowledge can “save the salvation.” So too, any practice of the pursuit of peace that implicitly or explicitly regards the personal experience of peace as ultimate and saving is met with this paradox. Only the peace of others can bring peace to the peace of the self, and if this does not happen that peace is a sham built on contradiction.

Such are my qualms against any rigorously individualistic paths to peace, or paths to peace that do not involve the whole of reality, in fact. Such insular peace is an illusory peace, a tent set up in a wilderness of scent-searching predators. It is a peace that is constructed “top down,” presupposing some likely unexpressed structure to the universe the knowledge of which can be used to personal advantage. The more this implicit ordering of reality is taken with confidence, the more the peace-seeker undergoes the narrowing of his vision which is the activity of his peace-making – just as the camper deceives himself by erecting the tent, thinking in his actions that he has “conquered” the wilderness, when in fact the only way to conquer the wilderness is to conquer it.

Is there not some humbler, “bottom up” approach to personal peace out there, for those of us who take it as a given that, because the world is fallen, there can be no true, ultimate joy here? “Peace here and now, whether the peace shared by all men or our own special possession, is such that it affords,” Augustine says, only “a solace for our wretchedness rather than the joy of blessedness” (City of God XIX. 27). How is it, then, possible to take seriously any quest for peace, knowing in advance that no peace is “ultimate” or “final”?

I see the alternative as the pursuit of an analogy of peace. Here and now, in the utmost hope and the utmost realism, our peace can only be the pursuit of peace – and I mean this in the very literal sense that this peace is the very pursuit. It must be so if it is to operate under the knowledge of the final limitation: there is no true joy unless it is universal joy. Knowing this, our peace, personally and communally, must consist in the fight against non-peace: injustice, suffering, indifference, confusion, envy, or just plain mediocrity and foolishness.

This is a difficult paradigm shift. It means, among other things, that peace as it manifests in the here and now might not always feel like peace. As Karl Barth has said, in this fallen state “we can see the stick dipped in water only as a broken stick. But though we cannot see it, it is invisibly and yet in truth a completely unbroken stick” (I/1 243). It can be no other way in a world so far from its ideal, and in fact this discrepancy – peace not always feeling like peace – indicates that our pursuit of peace is on the right track. If we instead simply worked on seeing the stick as unbroken, we would be practicing a denial of reality by bending our vision instead of attending to the way things are: the stick is halfway in the water and must be pulled out to be seen in its truth, i.e., as straight.

Therefore we must not imagine “peace” by conjuring images of meditating Buddhist monks. Meditation may be a part of the pattern of life of the peace-seeker, used, as it were, as a well-spring of hope and strength, but never regarded as the “real thing,” the object of the quest. We are not at peace until all of us are at peace. It is a step in the path of peace to realize this, and therefore insofar as meditative or other calming techniques make this fact unreal, satisfying us in the feeling of peace, they are part of the non-peace we must struggle against.

For this reason the true search for peace ought not to follow any metaphors of escape or inwardness. It is not a man being heli-lifted out of turbulent waters. Rather, it must follow a metaphor of rightly-directed movement, so that the man, still in the water, has begun to swim, dodging flotsam, ducking waves, aiming his strokes, finding his path by the stars. This change of imagery expresses the relationship between the peace-seeker and her world, which amounts to this: true peace cannot be had if we make ourselves incongruous with the world. I have expressed my opinion on finding peace in blindness, in the act of ignoring – setting up tents in the wilderness. I am negative towards this path because I cannot believe that true peace is not also caught up in the search for truth and coherence, which for me is part of the same search. One must want to be at peace in reality, not outside it, and this involves having a sense for what reality is. A true search for peace is exactly that, true, and accordingly does not dump overboard any element of reality to get going faster. 

Inevitably it is left with a very messy whole. But it is in this mess that one must search for peace, and – here is the point – not peace as some object within the mess but as the calming of the mess itself. To repeat, it is in this world that we search for peace, so how could we therefore achieve peace by making ourselves incongruous with it? But this does not mean we ought therefore to mirror the mess by making ourselves a mess too, thus finding our rest by so perfectly mimicking chaos that we merge with it, erasing those differences that rub against each other. This “going with the flow” cannot lead to anything but an even greater disaster. The very opposite is required – we are already part of the mess, and so unless we make the mess not a mess, we will never cease being all tossed up with it! My salvation is bound up with every person and thing. This is only a description of reality, a reality that exists in moments of empathy – though one cannot make it any less real by removing empathy.

So this is my conclusion: our peace is more immense a task than is peaceful to think upon. But unless we come to grips with this, we won’t have peace at all.

Even though such peace cannot be strictly arrived at in any individual life, it can in another sense be constantly enacted, so that it possess an already/not yet, dipolar structure. We can, therefore, find peace in the very pursuit of it, knowing that it involves the whole world. There must be a kind of impudent relaxation that occurs when we become truly convicted that it is not possible to have perfect peace. The awareness that one’s discontent involves all of reality, rather than just one’s personal insecurities, dopamine levels, relationships, financial hardships, etc., points us to truth, and, therefore, knowing we face the right direction, we may gain confidence and contentment in the hard journey.

If thought with delicacy and with a double-vision that does not exclude goodness, joy and, yes, experienced peace,  it is not wrong to think that “everything is wrong,” that “wrongness” is a part of everything – just as it is not improper to call a broken toy broken. But the point becomes to see it fixed. From one perspective, incomprehensible to the Stoics and their look-alikes, our being in the world is like this: there is a problem in front of you, some complex mathematical equation, or perhaps just a leaky faucet, and it vexes you. Is your desire to be free of vexation so strong that you run and hide from the problem? Obviously not. The greater your desire to see it solves, the more intensely will you look at it. You attempt to solve it, because you know the vexation is not in you but in the problem. It is external and as such can only be resolved externally.

If I were to attempt to describe this sort of pursuit of peace (rather, the analogy of peace) I would find it too manifold in the forms it takes with each individual. It might look like the making of hard though ultimately restorative policies in some governmental office; it might look like the tending and sharing of gardens; it might look like the mediator's diligent and patient use of kindness and compassion; it might even look like meditation. The only thing binding these actions together, actions which might occur under any telos besides that of universal peace, is that telos. This pursuit of peace, however it looks, is therefore always the very peace found in making strong choices oriented to the widest good imaginable. It is not a peace of isolation from the world, one that simply manifests in “relaxedness.” The making of strong choices and the alleviation of ills must become this relaxation. But it does not work without hope, the cosmic vision of wholeness, and the telos of true peace: shalom.


Sunday, 20 April 2014

Resurrection: An Easter Reflection on Faith

On Easter Sunday, we are confronted by what makes faith possible. But we are also confronted by what faith makes possible.

The former – the strange but irrepressibly real life and death of Jesus Christ, the 1st century Palestinian “godman” – is the appropriate focus of liturgical participation and celebration on Easter Sunday. For Christians worship a God who has conquered death – not in some convoluted pantomime that God acted out on this earthly stage in a costume of flesh, but in a living Person. So we say that he has “conquered death,” and do not mean he has plucked Jesus away from the gobbling worms, saying, like Kronk’s devil of The Emperor’s New Groove, “Yeah, but look what I can do”; rather, we mean he has emerged from the grave himself, and in such a way and in such a context that the meaning of this action is far, far more than a crude exhibition of divine omnipotence. Christ’s resurrection means life for those who participate in it, believe it: “whoever lives by believing in me will never die” (Jn. 11:26).

It is here that we modern minds get hung up. Yet, of course, it is precisely in this moment that the meaning of the resurrection is. The resurrection of Jesus makes faith possible, but – and without this “but” we must say “so what?” – this truth must not wander far from its twin, born only seconds later and clinging to its older brother’s heel: faith in the resurrection makes new life possible.

It is by no means an unfortunate reality that much has been made of uncertainty. A healthy dose of uncertainty is the spice of thought, and as the right amount of spice can make a whole pot of soup come to life, so too can uncertainty infuse that humility into thinking which seems to me the very wisdom behind any particular wisdom. Indeed, many great philosophers have struggled their whole lives after perfect and consummate doubt.

But it is true that doubt can become an idol, a personal god, a fundamental commitment whereby skepticism becomes absolute, rejecting in advance the possibility of a suspension of doubt for the sake of venturing into a hypothesis, let alone the possibility of actually knowing. In such habits of thought we see the perversity that results when doubt is never allowed to turn towards itself, when skepticism is never permitted to be skeptical of itself.

It is such well-buffered minds that cannot quite come to grips with this uncanny younger twin of truth, faith, and not just in terms of accounting for its presence – for such buffered minds find it hard to admit that in fact more can be done with faith than with doubt.

But is not this fact part of the whole story of the resurrection, part of what the resurrection reveals and does? The reality of the resurrection is not containable simply in its historical factuality, its small-t “truth”: its meaning, its import, is so abundant that it wells up from truth and spills over into faith – and through faith enacts itself, building up the Church, the members of Christ’s body, resurrecting them into the new life of the kingdom.

Taking my share of humanities courses in university, I have naturally had cursory access to some of the so-called sophisticated spheres of intellectual life. Taking this activity seriously – though, despite the consequences I do not mean that at the time it would have been better not to have taken it seriously – I have necessarily passed through some fairly extreme periods of questioning. There have been a few moments of my life in which I have, in mind and soul, been so confused that, like a dog vengefully biting at the fleeting tailcoat of meaning, I would become (there is no other way of putting it) angry at reality herself.

Since then, I have been struck more and more by the mysterious grace present in the leap of faith which, however incomprehensible it is in itself, makes that act of submission in belief so intriguingly sensible. Of course, this is never a blind leap – for a whole host of witnesses and a God who has proved His faithfulness in history gives reason and encouragement to the movement even before it is made, however a poor interpretation of Kierkegaard might have it. Nonetheless it is a leap, a moment where you leave the ground – to land on it anew, “heavier by the weight of where” you “have been,” as Rilke put it.

It is always gratifying to find some form and content to hazy musings of the past. Last summer, as I struggled against some unfair biases against certain expressions of Christian faith which we might call more “evangelical,” I was struck one Sunday by the incredible liberating consequences of believing something. I came home and wrote:

Undoubtedly, belief makes possible certain things that un-belief cannot yield to a person. Belief renders real psychological “options” to the believer. For example, belief in a God of justice allows/provokes a person to take their burden of guilt seriously, to look it in the ugly mug, and even to relive themselves of it. Belief in God allows a person to develop into a saint, if they let themselves. Saints are, after all, our best apologetics, our best proof of God’s existence. I believe this is the reason I am beginning to have trouble with theologies like John Caputo’s, or fundamentally uncommitted and existentialized theologies as such. Such a theology can never go far enough, for it never lets itself get to the point where it can make a true psychological difference on the individual. Caputo’s radical theology cannot make a saint. I am beginning to think more, therefore, about that moment of belief, and about what belief is – for the puzzling and alarming fact is, unless a person believes, they cannot change. If they are stuck trying to believe, they never get to the point where they can grow. If they are stuck doubting, they prevent themselves from growing. For this reason, a person’s “spiritual journey” (i.e. their life) cannot be simply about “whether they believe or not.”

Only now, after a year’s worth of thought, conversation, and reading, do I think I can attempt to bring to light some of the things that I was only feeling at here with my all-too-short theological antennae.

In the Easter narrative it really all comes to a crux, for belief, in fact the entire Christian faith, here stands or falls with the resurrection: “if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain” (1 Cor. 15:14).

Why is this? Because it is in the resurrection that all things are made new, and it is our faith in the historical and present reality of the resurrection that allows us to participate in this “new creation.” As Rowan Williams, in his book Resurrection, sums up the interconnection between these factors, “it is a story which makes possible the comprehensive act of trust without which growth is impossible” (49).

And so, on the flip side from “without the resurrection, no belief,” we can also say (with qualification to follow) “without belief, no resurrection” – that is, without belief our participation in this new creation is not active. This means that unless we accept the grace offered to us in this strange and frankly unbelievable action of God (and this acceptance, for us moderns, simply cannot help involving some form of intellection) we will be unable to fully participate in this new creation. Barth puts the basic insight that I wish to articulate so forcefully that the best thing to do is to quote it at length.

The third day a new life of Jesus begins; but at the same time on the third day there begins a new Aeon, a new shape of the world, after the old world has been completely done away and settled in the death of Jesus Christ… The game is won, even though the player can still play a few further moves. Actually he is already mated… It is in this interim space that we are living: the old is past, behold it has all become new. The Easter message tells us that our enemies, sin, the curse and death, are beaten. Ultimately they can no longer start mischief. They still behave as though the game were not decided, the battle not fought; we must still reckon with them, but fundamentally we must cease to fear them any more. (Dogmatics in Outline 123)

Albert Camus said he could not abide Christianity because it dictated the end before it came. In this way, according to Camus, it in fact lost the struggle of the existing individual to the victory of the Whole. Camus’ existential concerns led him to narrow in on the moment to moment of accessible history in a profound way – and who could argue otherwise of The Plague than that it puts forward one of the most profound ethical paradigms in history? –  in order to purify his vision of eschatological speculations and ultimate resolutions, those pernicious distractions from the suffering of actual people in the hic et nunc and the problem they pose in the hic et nunc.

But Camus might just have joined the Church if his life had not been truncated by that tragic car accident in 1960, and he might have done this without giving up his existential convictions. For, in fact, the hope contained in the Easter event only bolsters the immediacy and significance of Camus’ existential concern. In Barth’s bare-bones analysis of the meaning of the resurrection we see what hope makes possible.

If the Christian hope was some pie in the sky fantasy or naïve escapism, it would rightly fall against Camus’ criticism. But, in fact, the Christian hope is resurrectional hope, that is, it is always for the sake of the here and now – for must not resurrection by definition take place in time and space? Indeed, this hope is the heart of a Christian’s responsibility, for it pumps the fiery blood that extends into our limbs for the good work of God. It releases us from any form of ultimate fear, and does this precisely so that we may live resurrection lives, lives markedly different than the world at large, lives characterized by selfless love in resurrectional freedom.

This Christian hope is not a hopeful illusion, the kind of thing that trembling souls fashion for themselves to snuggle up against in hard times. This is the kind of hope that yells at you when things are going poorly – not as some inane cheerleader singing platitudinous ditties about how “the game is won,” but rather as a hard-ass parent on the sidelines who in such moments of difficulty and confusion, when it looks as though the game is lost, becomes sober and realistic, reminding of you of your beginning and end, your origin and purpose, and in this way offering encouragement.

Now, grasping the relation between the real happening of the resurrection and our faith, we can begin to say something really remarkable. Williams, again in his book Resurrection, articulates a participatory theology wherein our trust in God is part of God’s act in us, which, being a necessary stage or element in the general process of new creation on earth, is itself a share in that new creation: “To believe in the risen Jesus is to trust that the generative power of God is active in the human world; that it can be experienced as transformation and recreation and empowerment in the present; and that its availability and relevance extends to every human situation” (49). In this trust and only in this trust can we begin to act – as Christians, with hope, with our reality oriented and our big picture “taken care of.” This is why our belief in the resurrection is in fact a part of the resurrection. This is why we can say that this belief is a participation in the transformative work of Christ in our midst.

All I wish to convey, and all I am struggling to understand and commit to, is simple, really: we cannot live the resurrection life without actually believing in the resurrection. It is not my intention in saying this to persuade anyone not convinced to “simply believe” – that is not the kind of belief needed, in any case. Nor do I mean this reflection as some kind of post-game yell-down: “come on, people, we need to believe more!” That is equally obtuse.

I am just trying to see clearly what exactly is going on in the Christian faith which stakes so much on the resurrection. This Christian faith is complicated, painful, paradoxical, filled with 2000 years of stupid mistakes, accumulated insights, spiritual practices, ethical atrocities, and etc. after etc.  But again and again in it we find the simple question: “how are we to act decisively – which is freedom – if we are indecisive about our faith?”

This is why faith is so much more than dreaming, than a lozenge for anxiety. This is why faith is a gift (i.e. something more than just “free,” but something worth something that happens to be free), for there are real consequences to faith. It has fruit which are directly experienced and determinative in history. In a philosophical climate where sophisticated uncertainty (whether it be Rortian “irony” or Heideggarian “authenticity” or some other newfangled take on the ambiguity of reality) is apparently prized as the ideal disposition, where the dark side of faith is emphasized more than its far brighter side, where doubt seems to constitute the “examined” life, we have much to gain by beginning to perceive that there is indeed something special and advantageous about believing. What one can do, if one is able to presuppose!

And here, as a kind of endnote, or icing on the cake, we may discern an implicit apologetics contained within faith itself. Is not freedom from ultimate fear some indication of the worth, if not truth, of faith – the same way that the condensation on the inside of a windowpane in winter is an indirect indication that there must be warmth in the house? There is something worth considering about this faith, for it is a faith that makes life more, not less, accessible. As Barth writes, “The Christian hope does not lead us away from this life; it is rather the uncovering of the truth in which God sees our life… The man who believes that is already beginning here and now to live the complete life” (154-55). To take up the analogy of the house in winter again: is the cold any more revealing of our nature than warmth? Cannot we live better, in fact, if we come in from the cold?

It hardly needs to be said that we ought not to, then, believe things indiscriminately for the sake of the “benefits of confidence.” But we cannot neglect to see, either, the positive consequences of a true faith, realities which in some sense constitute the best apologetic for faith. Despite the fact that these fruit do not provide satisfactory historical/philosophical/aesthetic defenses – these can and should be sought elsewhere – they embody their own defense.

This is why we ought not to dismiss certainty out of hand, and even consider the possibility, that the gospel provides us not just with a compelling object of belief (the resurrection) but the compelling possibility of allowing that belief to transform our existence – but only if we unflinchingly stake our lives on this reality, unabashedly believing in the power of God to restore us and complete us and in the love of God to preserve and ensure the future of our story.