Privilege, Whiteness, Alienation, Renunciation, and Gospel

At the third session of the Symposium for the Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Urban Ministry, I responded to a presentation on Raymon and Henry Emerson Fosdick’s relationship to Rockerfeller, I spoke of renunciation (of privilege and whiteness) and  voluntary poverty (drawing on the Monastic Tradition) as an answer to the problem presented.  I spoke deliberately but also knew the potential for misunderstanding (I also knew I was using provocative language that could be misunderstood in a particular way).

The responses of the presenter and respondent in this session were challenging and i feel showed a misunderstanding that I partially expected to elicit .  The presenter (Amy Hall of Duke) responded by talking about white male self-flagellation, and the problem of a theology of suffering that must create or invent suffering for the privileged individual when there is little or no suffering.  She saw this as a harmful self-denial, and an unwillingness to face oneself.  And I agree.  But renunciation and voluntary poverty in my mind aren’t such things.  Renunciation and holy poverty are about clearing the spiritual landscape of  barriers to one’s authentic self.  Reggie L. Williams response honed in on my suggestion of renunciation of Whiteness.  If I understood him correctly the claim was that one could only renonce a choice one makes not properties given to one by an overarching system.  I found this a strange claim.  As i see it, renunciation concerns precisely those things that are dictated to one by an hegemonic and demonic system, that demands my allegiance as a mere fact of life.  If I’m turning my back on something that has to do with my own choices, I’d use the term repentance.  It’s true I can’t repent for being white only for what i do or have done as a white person, and I can personally repent from the sins of a racist system of which I share in as privileged by that system.

I’m not married to this idea of renunciation of privilege and whiteness per se.  But what I was trying to get at was that monasticism and stories of early monastics like St. Anthony, were often stories of privileged Christians turning away and giving up their privilege and power (wealth that in the ancient world was used also for the civic good) to become powerless in the terms of that privilege, power, wealth and  status given by the system.  I’d argue that St Anthony and many early monastics from privileged and wealthy families were, through choosing voluntary poverty and the ascetic life, renouncing the sort of influence that the Fosdick’s had through their whiteness and  maleness and ties to  wealth and privilege of  the Rockefellers.  Sure there is suffering in these stories and we could see them as self-inflicted, but the point was something larger:  freedom before and  in relationship to God, which leads to being able to be authentically for others.

Bonhoeffer was also briefly referenced, and I’m alluding to him above.  Such allusion is appropriate Bonhoeffer is a footnote to this story of Riverside Fosdick, Rockefeller, and Harlem. I mention this since Bonhoeffer is in the back of my thoughts around this, and was, at least in my mind, a footnote to our discussion.

I do understand the objection though.  And I do question the path I have chosen.  There are dangers to what I have said, and there are difficulties if this were taken systematically or as some form of one size fits all prescription.  What I’m talking about needs to be based in an address, conviction, and call from Christ and the Spirit

However, the responses seem to say that the authentic place of someone with privilege and who is white is the embrace of that privilege and status.  But what if privilege and the category of privilege is alienating?

I at least have experienced it in this way.  As I have attempted to understand the cultural situatedness of my attitudes and upbringing what i have found is that being white erases all particularities and histories.  the systemic structures of privilege and race and class both give me a privileged status but at the cost of particularity.  In part it seems to me that whites tend to assume others have ethnic foods or accents, or culturally bound theologies and not themselves not only because “white” is normative but because white like the other categories of a racist structure,  masks or erases difference and particularity of those within the privileged class.  To be white I must deny that being German or Swedish is anything more than kitsch and food choices at Christmas.  Granted the system does this more destructively and insidiously with the minority or underprivileged groups, but this doesn’t deny that even as a white person, I have a particularity that “white” can’t and isn’t intended to encompass.  In fact I’m to ignore particularity in identifying as white. the privilege I hold as one who is sorted into the category of “white” is dependent upon my not viewing myself as other than other white people.   From my observation of my family and others who are 3  or 4th generation European Americans, it is precisely being white that keeps us from connecting the injustices suffered by our immigrant parents, grandparents and great grandparents with what asian, hispanic and other immigrants suffer today.  White identity by definition it seems to me prevents solidarity with  people sorted into the other categories of this racist system.

This leads me to wonder about the authenticity of whiteness.  Why wouldn’t privileged persons in a system of privilege be called by the Gospel to renounce that privilege for their salvation, that is to encounter before God their true selves.  If the issue is loyalty (As Reggie Williams asserted in his response to Hall), and identity and loyalty are closely tied, it seems to me that identifying as white and seeking to use that identification to change the racist system, is an exercise that may cosmetically change things, but will also re-inscribe the system and its categories on the altered situation.

 I must also admit that while being european or more to the point Swedish and German (which by the way is not free of sins of colonialism etc. so I’m not attempting to escape complicity ) makes sense.  Choosing this identity doesn’t free me from ethnocentrism or even the risk of assuming that my Swedish, or German or European American ways are just the way things are.  So this isn’t an attempt to ignore the possible continuing collusion of a European identity with a white racist system and its injustices.  

The only true identity and the only loyalty that will free me to be my authentic self isn’t any human particularity, but is Christ.  If I renounce and turn aside from any identity for anything other than Christ and Christ’s body, the Church, my action is futile and the height of foolishness.  I thus wonder if Hall’s observation of some white males and their self-flagellation is that they were attempting to be good liberals, or good humans, in their renunciation, rather than seeking to turn to Christ, and the Church.



Georges Florovsky, Ecumenism, and Writing Icons.

I was introduced to the work of Georges Florovsky in seminary.  I was discussing Eastern Orthodoxy with my History professor Phil Anderson.  Something in what I said clued him into that I was missing something about Orthodoxy and its history.  He asked if I had read (knowing I hadn’t) Georges Florovsky.

I immediately found his collected works in the North Park library collection, and began to read.  I made use of a number of his essay’s in various papers.  Until the past month I hadn’t returned to Florovsky.  Zizioulas, Schmemann, and Kallistos Ware have been more consistent companions.

I recently acquired volume two of  Georges Florovsky Collected Works.  I’m rereading it and finding that Florovsky made a deep impact on my thinking.  Though, I don’t think I fully understood Florovsky’s presentation of Orthodoxy.  Florovsky’s Orthodoxy is generous and ecumenical.  This posture allowed me as a Protestant looking to connect with the deep tradition of the Church and of Christianity, to drink from the well or Eastern Orthodoxy.   It has kept me in continual dialogue with Orthodoxy and it may be a large part of why I eventually took up the writing of icons.

Reading Florovsky again some 13 years later, I’m seeing that both my interest in Orthodoxy and how I have engaged Orthodoxy fits with how other Lutherans (before the 20th century) also engaged Orthodoxy.  It is also interesting to see how Georges Florovsky’s ecumenical stance fits within a similar historical vane.  He engages ecumenically to offer up Orthodoxy as the fullness of the Faith.

Florovsky’s ecumenical stance encouraged me to continue on as a Protestant and to do so in dialogue with the Orthodox, and others as well.  What I hadn’t taken into account in reading Florovsky in seminary was that he also had the Orthodox stance of insisting on agreement in faith as the basis of unity.  Looking back on my work in an ecumenical intentional community and an ecumenical Church plant,  the stance I took as a prior and pastor has been to seek that agreement in faith.  Now I’ve also done it in a fairly Lutheran style; willing to make a distinction between what is essential and what is adiaphora, a distinction that at least according to Florovsky Orthodoxy doesn’t make.

As I took up writing icons (before the community or congregation were formed) I chose to do so as though I was Orthodox.  I wasn’t going to try to make the writing of icons cohere with my protestant theology.  Rather I was going to take up the practice in its fulness and spirituality and theology.  In writing icons I was going to be Orthodox.  Florovsky’s writings, though at the time weren’t prominent in my thinking, and his ecumenical stance paved the way for this posture.

Re-reading Florovsky on the other side of becoming an iconographer (and remaining Protestant) and after having engaged in an ecumenical experiment, I’m not sure what to make of all this.  One thing I have noticed is that on some level Florovsky and I have to some extent played out the history of the ecumenical dialogue between Protestants and Orthodox, he recounts in some of the essays in volume 2 of his collected works.

I wonder where does all this leave me?  I write and pray before icons, the attempt to form an ecumenical congregation morphed into something else, a worshiping community and an ecumenical religious order (at this moment in the final stages of forming): these attitudes, postures and longings have lead me to strange places.   At the moment the witness of the Orthodox that the Faith isn’t something easily paired down to the essentials, it’s more holistic, both resonates with me now more than it did in seminary.  Yet, I remain outside of Orthodoxy.

I  created Ecclesial Longings as a place to explore my longings for church beyond the Protestant conceptions of it and examine what keeps me from entering either Eastern Orthodoxy or Roman Catholicism.  Full agreement of the Faith, makes sense.  But how is this achieved and what are the sources of all the failures in finding this agreement?  I’m no longer satisfied with the essential/adiaphora distinction in faith.  Florovsky has awakened and heightened a growing discomfort with Protestantism and my own place in the Christian landscape.

Ecumenism still seems like the only way forward. A way forward that is both generous and seeking full agreement in faith.


Trust even when the crops fail and teraces produce no nurishment

One of the canticles said at Lauds is taken from the third chapter of Habakkuk. It begins so confident , with such surety that God will vindicate and show God’s power.  But then the reality of  the siege of the city sinks in as the author sees beyond immediate circumstance even immediate suffering and hardship.    It doesn’t make much sense.

For the community this past year has been a bit like crops failing, terraces producing no nourishment and flocks disappearing from the fold.  Things have been shrinking.  God hasn’t intervened.  Things haven’t lined up, opportunities have come but slipped away, not because of missed opportunity based in inaction or mistake, but due to bad timing and things beyond our control.

It’s been difficult to know what to do.  So, I’ve just continued on the path before me.  I could step away.  Find something less difficult.  But I’d have to seek it out.  No alternative is presenting itself, there are not other offers.  Without the obvious second path, without the fork in the road, I’ve chosen to stay the course and not veer off the current path in search of a different one.  I’m not sure that is a good or bad thing.

No clear direction.  Just hints. Small affirmations that although difficult and full of uncertainty, that this is what I should be doing.

Trusting even when there is no obvious direction, from God.  Trusting God, and resting in God even when everything seems to be failing and dwindling.   This trust is difficult and appears, even to me, to be  fool hardy.

I relate to this canticle the swing from confidence that God will do some dramatic work and decisive thing to swinging to the other side seeing how helpless things are, and somehow settling in a quite trust in God even in the midst of failure and hardship (I’ve experienced nothing close to the extremes of having no food or threat to life). Somehow I still find God’s presence and movement of the Spirit.  No dramatic alteration of the facts, no miraculous intervention, but God is there, and I’m sustained in relationship to God, and I see God at work even though, I don’t know where we are going to be living in a week and a half.

I don’t get it, yet there is trust in God, there is a sense of God’s provision and sustenance that is beyond circumstance.  There is even joy and rest.  Well…, if I trust in what is beyond my control and my understanding.  So I trust in God even when things don’t seem to be going right, even when God doesn’t intervene on my behalf.  Trust even though the terraces produce no nourishment… though  flocks disappear from the fold…” and nothing seems to be going right.

Further reflection on this theme and the communities struggles, from the standpoint of leading the Community of the Holy Trinity through this difficult time. LEK 7/21/2013

Encountering Myself as Wounded Healer

Although I appreciate the work of both Carl Jung and Henri Nouwen, I have been hesitant to embrace the archetype of the wounded healer.  In part because I have seen it used to allow clergy and other spiritual leaders to bleed all over those under their spiritual care.   I’ve seen it allow some leaders to more identify with their being “wounded” then with their being “healers”. I know that’s not the point of the archetype , nor what Nouwen was getting at, but it still has seemed that the archetype isn’t always very helpful.

Also, it has been clear to me both in Spiritual Direction and as a pastor that due to family and life circumstance, my spiritual and metaphorical woundedness parallels the amount of  physical woundedness I’ve experienced over my life time of 40 plus years:  a broken bone, and one fairly serious illness, but mostly just scrapes and bruises and the common cold and occasional flu.  That to say in comparison to most of the people I minister with and to, to identify as wounded would be like my attempting to sympathise with an amputee by talking about my many scraped knees over my lifetime mostly incurred as a child attempting to jump bikes, and pointing to the barely noticeable scars from those long healed minor wounds. In other words entirely and completely inappropriate!

By the grace of God and by circumstance, I’ve experienced my amount scrapes and a serious illness but most of it is in the past, and has healed well. I’m not wounded.

Or so I thought.

Over the past several months three members of Church of  Jesus Christ, Reconciler have lost parents.  Since their parents were not part of our worshiping community we did not hold the funeral services.   As I reflected on this with my co-pastor I felt that we should offer a worship service where their parents could be remembered and in which we could grieve with them.  When I first had the idea it just made sense to offer them the opportunity to have their loved ones remembered in a worship service in their primary spiritual community.

As I have sat with this, and as the day of the Requiem Service approached I found myself in a fit of melancholy, sad and restless.   Finally it came to the surface, over 20 years ago I lost my older half-brother in a freak boating accident, he was 30, I was in my early 20’s.  He lived in New Orléans I lived with my parents in Los Angeles.  The last time I had seen him was not long after my 12th birthday.   It has been my brother’s life time since I last saw him, and I was still just a boy.  A great deal of loss, that simply will never be regained.  Add to this that due to a number of things school, finances and timing I was unable to attend my brothers funeral.  Not only was I unable to ritually remember my brother in my faith community, but I didn’t get a chance to do so with my family and those who gathered at his funeral in New Orléans.   Over the years since, I have done a great deal of grief work around his passing and my grief and loss including missing out on the funeral- written poems, created a whole series of paintings on loss and grief including this significant event.  Told the story in various settings, and cried again and again.  Mostly, have found healing.  Except in this one way, I have never remembered my brother and ritually lifted him up to God .   The Requiem service is as much for myself as for those in my congregation who are grieving.

Here was I think the archetype of the Wounded Healer working itself out in me and my ministry.   My loss and lack, my wound (mostly healed, but in need of some further healing), met up with the woundedness of those with whom I’m ministering. I’m not sure holding a requiem service would have occurred to me if I hadn’t had this lack, this wound around my brother’s death.  My own need actually allowed me to effectively minister to my congregation, and in the process I’m finding healing and resolution, of something I’ve long carried with me, and thought could never be healed.

This is how the wounded healer should work, or so it seems to me, from within the space of healing.  From the space of already having begun to heal.  In that space one then can find resources to help others heal, and in that same moment find further healing for oneself as the wounded healer.



Review of the Enoch Factor: The sacred art of knowing God

Steve McSwain, wants to let us in on an amazing secret: you can know God.  The problem is it shouldn’t be much of a secret and many who think they know how (including the author at one point in his life even as a Baptist pastor) and can know God don’t know what Enoch knew.  Enoch is that character in the beginning chapters of Genesis about whom all we know  is that “He walked with God and was no more.”  Enoch for McSwain is a model for what it means to know God: we all can walk with God and overcome death.

While on one level McSwain’s book has the sound and focus of something quite esoteric oddly mystical, most of his book sounds like the revivalist and pietist faith in which I was raised in the Evangelical Covenant church.  The difference being that while I’ve always been fascinated by Enoch, few if any of my teachers in the faith talked about him.  However, McSwain’s emphasis on knowing God as being in a relationship with God and one that overcomes one’s fear of death, all sound very familiar.

In this I think The Enoch Factor is a great artifact of how Baptist and Evangelical congregations and leaders have in the past 20 to 30 years failed to pass on the central aspects of their tradition, teaching instead a legalistic, and doctrinaire religiosity replacing relationship with God for knowledge about God.  McSwain’s experience both being raised a Baptist and being a Baptist pastor were until his “conversion” recounted in the book, was such a walk of faith. One mediated by rules, doctrines and authority figures (in McSwain’s case his father who was a Baptist pastor and missionary).  Oddly enough McSwain’s account of the faith of his childhood and career as a pastor prior to his faith crisis, was the stereotype of Baptists I grew up with in the Evangelical Covenant Church: Baptist had only the forms of faith and relationship with God but not the substance.

McSwain in the Enoch Factor has some real wisdom.  Unfortunately in our context and the way in which McSwain writes it can appear to be a new discovery.  McSwain does attempt to connect up the wisdom he has found in the art of knowing God with a long tradition within the history of the Church.  However, his sense that this wisdom and art is all but lost in our time leads to some exaggeration that in my view makes him a poor spiritual guide.  The value of the Enoch factor is more as an example of how even in the midst of the failure of American Christianity in our time, God reaches out and in the midst of a desolate spiritual landscape, can enliven a soul.   I however recommend taking McSwain with a grain of salt, there are better guides to the Spiritual life out there both in our time and in the past.  If one can’t find one in your immediate context read for yourself Cynthia Bourgeault,  Richard Foster, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Brother Lawrence, Julian of Norwich, St. Catherine of Siena, St John of  Cross, St Augustine, and the Desert Fathers and Mothers(and that’s a quick list off the top of my head, dig around and you’ll find more.)

Steve McSain on the Web:

McSwain’s Website

On The Huffington Post


McSwain’s You Tube channel

On Facebook

Icons of the Three Days: Approach the Mystery in Silence

These are the icons in which and around which we live as we celebrate the liturgy of the Three Days:

Maundy Thursday as we wash feet and remember the supper we return to again and again in Eucharist.

Then we are here at the Cross and Jesus Christ in the Grave:

Behold the life-giving Cross.

And then Jesus Christ in Hades/Sheol/Hell the land of the dead, the shades, bringing up Adam and Eve:

I have meant to write this icon for years. I never have.  I think I shrink from its truth.  If I were to  paint I would need to fully enter into it and face it, in all its pain and all its glory.  God entered the depths of our humanity and the world and pulled us up.  This is too much.

And so I approach Silence:

Holy Saturday Reflection – and Silence

Rob Bell has a new book out, and Tripp Hudgins and Adam Ericksen are having a blogalogue about it.  Thought I’d link to my Holy Saturday reflection of two years ago, in which I reference Rob Bell’s Love Wins.

Holy Saturday Reflection: Love Wins and Christ’s Descent into Hell(Hades)

I haven’t blogged about Holy Week and the Three Days and Easter this time around.  Mostly because this year I felt silence was the place from which to encounter this mystery again.  I’m not preaching at all this festival cycle, so no sermons to post either.

How does one mark silence as intentional in the cacophony of the internet?

I suppose this is one way to speak around the silence to say I’m being silent for a reason, not just because I haven’t posted anything or haven’t tweeted anything.


….And words past, from Rob and me.

“Enjoy the silence…”


Other past posts on Holy Week and the Three Days:

A Maundy Thursday Reflection

A Good Friday Reflection on a sermon

Presence, Absence and Belief in God

I’m continuing to expand on some comments I made at over at glassdimily, as requested by Jeremy John.  In the previous post, I compared Peter Rollins and St. John of the Cross.  I concluded that a difference between Rollins and St. John is that while both may call for a radical doubt of our conceptions or beliefs about God; for St John there is a more radical act, that of trust in what is beyond our conceptions of God.

In Micah Bales post (yes I haven’t moved on just yet.  I think there is a great deal to unpack and good reason to sit with the disagreement between Micah Bales and Peter Rollins)  he used a comparison that I both understand and question, between needing God and needing air to breath.  In the context of Atheism for Lent and Rollins’ work this seems like admitting he needs his belief in God to get along in the world, that with out his beliefs he’d be unable to function in the world.  This is how Rollins’ chose to read Micah’s statement in his response to Micah.  When I first read Micah’s piece I chose to read it differently.   I heard him articulating that God is like air in that we as organisms can’t exist without it. Analogically God (not our beliefs about God) can be likened to  air as God can be said to be that in which all that exists subsists and receives it’s being as gift.

One doesn’t have to grasp what air is (and even saying air is imprecise as what we actually need is oxygen) or even name what we need correctly for the relation between my being alive and “air” to simply be the case.  

I also recognized the romantic element that Rollins points – As we may speak about a significant other, or spouse or lover as one whom one needs like air.   Such a statement can romantically speaking either simply be untrue or co-dependent, but it also can be a hyperbolic expression of true and deep intertwining of two people in a deep love and trust.  Thus, I heard Micah’s words as an expression of depth and experience of God as ultimate concern (to use Tillich’s term as Rollins did) as that which simply is in which all things have their existence.  But also, recognize that such analogy suffers from the limits of all metaphorical speech, and if taken literally is then problematic even destructive.

I interpreted Micah in this way because, as i said over at glassdimly,  as far as I can remember I’ve never given much importance to my experiences or “beliefs” of God.  Feeling God’s presence or feeling God’s absence were of no particular significance for the possibility of God.  I have long, first intuitively and then more consciously, been aware of what I might project upon God.  But I have also had moments of encounter that were not simply an experience of beliefs I might hold about God.  At three and ten years of age I experienced seeing the world glowing, become translucent with a light that came from nowhere and everywhere accompanied by an overwhelming sense of love for all.  At ten the experience occurred while sitting at the edge of the camp fire at church camp, somewhat bored with the campfire program, looking up into the starry night.  At a great depth in myself, answering a question I had hardly articulated and would always wrestle with, a thought/voice/resonance said “It is true.”  When queried “what is true”, the resonance simply insisted “It is true.”

 It is relevant to note that while I was baptized as an infant, the denomination in which I was baptized and raised  also had those who were very concerned that children “say the prayer of salvation”, concerned that we children of the church have a moment of conversion (my parents and their friends didn’t have such a concern).  I never went forward for an altar call. I never went forward or raised my hand in Sunday school.  I disliked those Sunday School teachers who felt it was their duty to get us to say some silly prayer.  Yet, it wasn’t that I doubted there was a God, or that I was to be in relationship with God.  I didn’t find the prayer necessary for me to be in relationship with God.  I was baptized after all.

Baptism and the experiences of the un-created light at three and ten, were the only overt experiences of God I had as a child.  The cathedrals of Europe and the shrine of Lourdes I encountered when eight and nine resonated with me but it was only as an adult that I came to recognize their spiritual impact.  

For much of my life God’s absence has been a more enduring experience, that is if evident spiritual experiences of God’s presence and God speaking to one are signs of God’s presence.

“Belief” in God, as I was taught to believe, had little to do with these experiences or even discrete propositional statements, called beliefs.  Even something like the Apostles Creed was not interpreted to me as beliefs I was to hold, rather it was given to me as expressions of a trust in God, who was totally other (though I didn’t use that phrase until an adult in college).  Belief was trust, it was faith, that is entrusting oneself to an other.   This ‘belief’ did not guarantee outcomes.  My father lost a number of jobs, often due to his faith (that is the way he lived his life as a person of faith).   Dad believed all the same, not in spite of the evidence, because trusting in evidence would suggest that God was an object to be manipulated and controlled for our benefit.

I never found apologetic literature, like that of Josh McDowell’s “Evidence that Demands a Verdict”, convincing let alone as having anything to do with the faith I had, or raised to believe.  I saw such apologetic as a profound lack of faith.

Once in University I plunged into intellectual exploration with gusto, I read widely, was part of a philosophical theological and literary group called The Society, we read Marx, Nietzsche  Feuerbach, and I surprised a Religious Studies professor in a course on Christianity and Marxism with my familiarity with Hegel, and Marx and Feuerbach.  Around this same period,  I doubted my salvation, was convinced I was going to hell, found myself to be an atheist (though I never stopped going to church, so if Wittgenstein is correct and practice and belief are intimately connected then I sabotaged my atheism, but also if Wittgenstein is correct atheism is just another language game no more true or real than any other).  In the midst of this or at the culmination or throughout this time, a persistent image remained of my self represented by large stone bricks suspended in space slowly dissipating into the nothingness, and as they dispersed at the center the crucified Christ was there, and it was the gravity of the crucified one on the cross that kept the pieces of myself from dispersing into oblivion.

Doubt, faith, relationship, and the Crucified One all conspired together to keep me in relation with God.  A god who is as absent as present, a god I believe in as I believe in other persons I trust and entrust myself to, not in the sense of mere propositions that have nothing to do with the real relationship, mere abstractions of a person.  I entrust myself not to that which props me up, but that which knows me and is closer to me than I know or am to myself.  Therefore each Sunday I say ” I believe in God…” not as some intellectual assent but an act of trust and love.

I have doubted. I have questioned all the major doctrines and dogmas of orthodox Christian faith.  I have more often than not felt God’s absence than God’s presence.  Even now as a pastor, someone committed to leading and aiding people in the spiritual life and a life of faith, God’s presence is not a consistent experience nor an experience upon which I depend.  I have no certainty.

As I transitioned from seminary to pastoral ministry, I recognized that beliefs and life of faith, the spiritual life, was more than struggling with questions and maintaining a dubious attitude towards the propositions of the faith handed on to me.  I came to see the creeds, the doctrines of Trinity, resurrection, divinity of Christ, and virgin birth as invitations to radical trust and commitment  precisely because they were things I doubted and because I could not solve them without remainder.  I committed myself to a path, though nothing solved without remainder.  I’m not certain, but I trust myself to the one who is other than I and in whom and from whom I have myself as a gift.


St. John of the Cross and Peter Rollins

(Authors note: What follows is not expert opinion.  I’m reliant upon others acquaintance with both St. John of the Cross and Peter Rollins.  The connection between the Dark Night of the Soul and Atheism for Lent is not mine, but Jeremy John’s.  I’m mainly familiar w/ St John of the Cross from general religious Studies courses and a seminary course on the spiritual discipline of silence.  I’m mainly familiar with Rollins based on his Insurrection Tour a few years ago, I attended one of his stops in a pub in Chicago.  Since then I have read his blog on occasion and caught a number of his videos.  I haven’t read any of his books.  I then in this especially stand to be corrected. I speak at the request of a friend who values my insight and so I offer to him and to you my reader what I have.  And what I have is this moment of intersection, I pray it is helpful to some.)

My friend Jeremy John, asked me to write something in response to his piece on Peter Rollins’ “atheism for Lent” and the dark night of the soul.

On some level I feel unqualified to speak.  Since asked, the dispute between Micah Bales and Peter Rollins worked itself through various corners of the internet.  Jeremy’s post responded to Bales original critical post of Peter Rollins.

Billy Kangas wrote, a couple of years ago over at The Orant, a far better post on the Dark Night of the Soul and Lent, than I could write.  So, I will be using Kangas’ summary of St. John of The Cross’ Dark Night of the Soul, to engage Jeremy, Peter and Micah.

I’m not certain that Rollins’ Atheism for Lent is the Dark Night of the Soul though some of St John of The Cross’ approaches to faith and God have some similarity to what Rollins seems to be encouraging people to realize through “atheism for lent” and his emphasis on the role of doubt.

There are 4 aspects that  Kangas draws out in his summary of The Dark night of the Soul, that have some overlap with Rollins.  St John of the Cross calls us to let go of our Spiritual practices as the guarantor of our relationship to God. Related to this is that St. John of the Cross also tells us we aren’t to concern ourselves with doctrinal certainty.  (Yes, a saint beatified by the Roman Catholic Church does not give much credence to certainty – hmm… this might reveal a certain complexity we often don’t recognize in “religious” organisms.).  You could say that St. John of the Cross recognized that God isn’t our ideas about God.  We can get stuck in our ideas about God.  (This seems to be the main point of connection between the dark night of the soul and Rollins’ Atheism for Lent.), Lastly Kangas points out that St. John of the Cross reminds us that we can get stuck in what helped us know God in the past.  God and our relationship to God can’t be contained in merely repeating the same disciplines and practices without thought or reflection.

I’d argue that there is some overlap between St. John of the Cross’  Dark Night of the Soul and Rollins’ Atheism for Lent and his lifting up the way of doubt.  In this Rollins calls us to let go of past practices, to give up certainty, and let go of our God-ideas.    But as Kangas also points out this is not all there is to the Dark Night of the Soul.  St. John of the Cross wants us to encounter a God beyond, a God who guides us through the transformation of ourselves.  Part of this Transformation is the dark night. Encountering the true God beyond our ideas, our practices, our certainties  is a terrible thing.

I can see that for some Rollins’ works and Atheism for Lent might provoke a dark night of the soul, it might lead someone to the point of this deep encounter with what is beyond all our certainties, ideas, and spiritual practices, but I’m not sure that Rollins’ focus on our ideas and practices we mistakenly name as God can guide one through to genuine encounter in the darkness.

To put it another way, Rollins’ project around doubt and his Atheism for Lent, might just be the practices that we can’t depend upon for our encounter.  I wonder if there is a place for the radical trust that St. John of the Cross is really calling us to.  Rollins enjoins us to a Radical doubt, and on some level so does St. John of the Cross, but more importantly St John of the Cross calls us to a radical trust even when all falls away, even when we can’t even bear our selves, even when our very sense of self begins to dissolve.   St. John of the Cross calls us to something unflinching, a trust beyond our knowledge and certainties, but based upon the one who leads us into the darkness and the desert.  And that one who guides us can’t simply be another human being.  At most we as human beings may accompany one another in these moments of this radical transformation, called the dark night of the soul.