A new kind of spirituality for the Occupy generation

Despite the fact that some have labeled millennials the “entitled generation,” the truth is that millennials are, by and large, a generation of givers.  They want to pursue non-profit work where their skills and occupations give something back to the world, and they value finding a vocation over landing a six-figure salary.  Occupy Spirituality offers a creative and transformative way of being in the world that speaks to this generation and seeks to nurture its desire to work toward healing and well-being.

BC_OccupySpirituality_bioOccupy Spirituality is a dialogue between Adam Bucko, co-founder of Reciprocity Foundation, and Matthew Fox, long time spiritual theologian and activist.  Together the two trace out a new kind of spirituality that speaks to a younger generation of activists who are ready to help change the world.  They realize that they are writing to a post-religious culture, meaning that the religious hierarchies and structures so foundational for much of modernity are now either dying or are irrelevant to many in younger generations.  This realization, however, doesn’t squelch the practices included in their spirituality, but rather frees them to explore new traditions and practices as well as to uncover older traditions from other religions and cultures.

Bucko and Fox name seven points regarding the spirituality they develop and practice.  This new spirituality is:

  1. deeply ecumenical, inter-spiritual and post-traditional
  2. contemplative and experience based–it starts from experience but uses concepts to bring one to a deeper understanding of experience
  3. inclusive of other types of contemplative practices (ie. yoga, massage, deep human relationships)
  4. “about action that comes from one’s deepest calling”
  5. inclusive of joy, sensuality, celebration and “heartful aliveness”
  6. more democratic
  7. intended to be lived in communities

In the book Fox and Bucko describe their own personal transformations that include realizations that spirituality is not about escaping the world but about engaging more deeply with the world.  Thus the new kind of spirituality they articulate focuses on making connections with others and with the world in which we live with the idea that these connections make us more inclined to break the power strutters that cause suffering to people and things we value.  It talks about deeper engagement through encounters with the natural world, through intentional development of deep friendships and mentorships, through ritual and meditation, and through living in community with like-minded people who also want to deepen their engagement with others and the world.

What I found most refreshing and exciting about this book was Fox and Bucko’s eagerness to stand up to and call into question the power structures and hierarchies that are making our world a more challenging place to live for younger generations.  They are quite willing to point out the evil of corporate greed and the absurdity of the increasing distance between the 99% and the 1%.  Yet they don’t respond with anger; they respond with constructive alternatives and creative ways to steer one’s energy toward bettering the world.  Matthew Fox, in fact, mentions a number of times in the dialogue that if we don’t like the world in which we live, we should go out and create a new one.  The spirituality they describe gives us the resources necessary for sustaining ourselves as we take on that challenge, as we go about the work of recreating the world.

While there is much in this book that is geared toward the millennial generation, persons young and old and in between can find practices, traditions, and discussions within its pages that will spur our hearts, minds, and bodies toward creative transformation.

Derrida on metaphor

This post is the second in Alex and I’s series on Jesus and Derrida–an odd combination, I know. Before we dive into Alex’s sermon on John 3 (Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus), I want to give some background info on the philosophy of Jacques Derrida for those of you who might not be familiar with him.

Derrida-2Derrida was born in Algiers but spent most of his life in France, where he studied and eventually taught. He is famous (or infamous) for coming up with a philosophical method or procedure known as deconstruction, which is the process of turning upside down and examining the underlying structures, causes, and effects of things that we commonly take for granted. For instance, democracy is something we often discuss in the US (since we think, falsely, that we invented it) as an actual “thing,” as something that exists, when in reality, as Derrida would say, democracy does not exist but it calls to us or invites us to live democratically. When we flip democracy over and examine it we realize that it is an ideal, a principle, but that there’s nothing really there until we put it into practice. Furthermore, we also find out there are lots of ways and means of living out democracy, some of which actually end up being terribly anti-democratic. Law is another example Derrida uses to demonstrate that concepts are deconstructible. Laws also originate from some place and some time, and while they aim at inviting justice, laws themselves are not just…they are only what attempts to move us toward justice.

For the purposes of this blog series, there are a couple of things I want to say about Derrida’s philosophy. And in subsequent posts you’ll see why these concepts are important.

1. There is no direct correlation between a word and the thing toward which that word points. Derrida took the linguistic theory of Ferdinand de Saussure and deconstructed it to say that the signifier (the word) does not correspond directly and ultimately (as in all the time, forever) to a signified (the object the word denotes). For Saussure, the word tree, for example, always directly points to “the” concept of the tree. Derrida says, on the other hand, that the best we can say is that the signifier (word) points to another signifier, which probably also points to another signifier, and that we can likely never get back to the actual object (the signified). Though what remains is a trace of the signified, a trail that leads to the possibility of recovering the concept of the tree. What this looks like in practical speak is that when each of us hears the word tree we likely have different images of various trees pop into our heads, which leads us to believe that there isn’t any one fixed, settled concept of a tree that we all automatically see when we think of trees. Moreover, the word tree is fairly arbitrary. We could just as well agree to call it a flurb, since the word tree itself (though agreed upon for practical matters) has no relation to the physical objects.

2. Since there’s no direct correlation between words and concepts, but only a lot of words that attempt to articulate a concept as best as possible, then Derrida’s theory of metaphor is altered from what metaphor has traditionally meant. In a philosophical world where signifier points directly to signified (word “tree” points directly to concept “tree”), then we could understand metaphor as Aristotle did: metaphor occurs when a word stands in the place of another word. When this happens the new word, the metaphor, points to the original word, which in turn points to the concept. However, once the relationship between words and concepts has been deconstructed, then this theory of metaphor no longer holds. Derrida, in an essay called “White Mythology” wrote that all language is metaphorical because in every use of a word the word only points to other words and not to an actual concept. This denotes what he refers to as a “semantic loss,” meaning that language can never completely and clearly grasp the concepts that we once held dear as clear and distint. It doesn’t mean that we’re left in a world of confusion (like planet of the apes) in which there is no system of language. Obviously we all get by pretty well on a day to day basis while using words and attempting to get across a particular meaning (though clearly this too sometimes fails us). But what it does mean is that when we’re trying to talk about something difficult, there isn’t any easy way to do it, which brings me to point three.

3. What Derrida was really deconstructing in “White Mythology” has less to do with language per se and much more to do with logic and what the philosopher Heidegger called “onto-theology.” Onto-theology is a combination of theories of being with theories of God such that one’s theology is based off of how one understands what it means to exist. One consequence of onto-theology is that it renders God as a clear and distinct concept within one’s system of being. Onto-theology also ends up becoming what Derrida calls “white mythology,” by which he means that we take our own logical constructions and claim that there’s something eternal about them, that they are the very basis of reason in general. We build up reason out of our own logical myths, or we build up God out of our own logical myths. He thinks, and I agree, that this ends up being a dangerous proposition that can lead to all kinds of bad events. What does all this have to do with metaphor, you ask? Here it is… Derrida goes so far as to say that there are no concepts “behind” metaphor, but that metaphors and concepts are the same. Metaphor can’t properly articulate a clear and distinct concept because there are no clear and distinct concepts. All we have is metaphor. This he calls the death of philosophy, but really it is just the beginning of deconstruction. As John Caputo points out in numerous books, including The Insistence of God, deconstruction can be a helpful tool for theology because it gets us out of the game of taking our own logical constructs and calling them God and into the game of responding to God’s call in the world.

Caputo’s headless Hegelianism, a theology of perhaps

If you like to play it safe, if you like to stay within the confines of a comfortable and familiar confessional theology, if you like to sit neatly and quietly in a pew or folding chair for a very small fraction of your week in order to be soothed into complacency, then don’t read this book. If, however, you find the all of above way too static, rigid, dogmatic, and terribly boring, as many of us do, then Caputo’s Insistence of God will provide you with an/other way to do religion without religion, an/other form of theology that offers a fabric of life by means of a theopoetics.

9780253010070_medCaputo’s most recent book articulates a theology of “perhaps” as a radical theology (as opposed to confessional). For a great explanation of the difference between confessional/strong theology and radical/weak theology see Todd Littleton’s post on the first chapter of The Insistence of God. The gist, as Todd points out, is that radical or weak theology, by refusing to rely on confessional statements, minimizes God’s responsibility for the world and maximizes human responsiblity in the world. Caputo’s theology is a radical theology of the event, of a call that gets itself called (but that may or may not come from God) and to which we are invited to respond. The event insists and impinges upon us, calling us to respond and be responsibible in our response. When we do so, our response to the event constitutes, for Caputo, the only way in which we can say that God exists. God exists through us, when we respond to the call of the event by acting in the world.

Chapter 5 turns toward a couple of philosophical/theological sources that “postmodern” thinkers/theologians have used and are using to de/construct confessional theology and think instead of a radical theology–Kant and Hegel. Ultimately, Caputo sides with Hegel, but only with what he calls a headless Hegelianism. Here is how his argument plays out.

Kant’s reaction to religion turned around two notions–morality and epistemology (theory of knowledge). For Kant “religion is reduced to ethics and the rest is superstition” (88). Additionally, Kant “found it necessary to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith,” since if knowledge remained then he thought we would surely see most of religion as mere superstition–something indefensible in the face of reason and not really worth attempting to defend anyway (98). Caputo argues that postmodern thinkers who operate under a Kantian version of continental philosophy (post-metaphysical philosophy) are really still doing confessional theology as a critique of the limits of what we can know (epistemology) and as an apologetics used to defend religious belief from dogmatic atheists. This type, according to Caputo, defends religion but fails to radicalize it. It can only say that we are not God and that the new atheists (Dennet, Dawkins, Hitchens) are not right. But it fails to describe the nature of events that require a respose to their insistent calling.

Hegel, on the other hand, gains some traction for Caputo by means of the Vorstellung–“a figurative presentation, a representation of the truth in the form of a narrative or a theological figure,” an image that “required conceptual clarification” (88-89). What Kant discarded from religion as mere superstition, Hegel sees as the Vorstellung, the representation, of what the actual truth is behind the narrative, story, or image. Caputo suggests that this is far more radical, the first radical theology, because Hegel dismissed the rational arguments in favor of the irrational story and pictures that are the representations of truth–they are truth becoming true, which means that we only have images of the truth and not the truth itself. This last part is important, because its where Caputo decapitates Hegel, cutting off the “head” that is the Absolute Spirit, God, truth.

A headless Hegelianism for Caputo is “a Vorstellung of which there is no Concept,” an image without the ability to definitely and finally point to a metaphysical truth. Caputo’s theology of perhaps denies that any such truth “exists”, though to be sure it “insists” through the event. And the Vorstellung becomes the stuff of theopoetics–not poetry or aesthetics, but images, figure, narratives that (attempt to) articulate an event.

There is so much goodness in this book (including Caputo’s hilarious dismantling of Zizek in chapter 7), but the two things I appreciate most about chapter 5 are, first, the recurrent mention that he is writing not just for academics but also for people in faith communities. He takes these communities seriously because events occur in the material world, in matter. “The weakness of God means that what is done in the name of God is done by human beings in the name of ‘God'” (107). Second, in this chapter he deconstructs the old two-world theories of traditional metaphysics so that there is no longer a destinction between transcendence and immanence, God and the world, time and eternity. Radical theology, he writes, doesn’t mount a counter-attack against traditional metaphysics, but offers a better option. Rather than choosing one side of all the traditional binaries he gives us a way out of binary thinking altogether. (Of course I’d argue that Whitehead did this in 1929, but that’s probably fuel for a later post or for questions to Caputo on the blog tour video Q&A.)

To repeat, if you’re tired of complacency, tired of confessional statements, and ready for action, for enacting, then Caputo’s Insistence of God is your ticket to a radical theology of the event, a theology of perhaps that calls us, impinges upon us and requires us to respond.

Back to the start…writing and deconstructing

Accountability is good. Partnership and collaboration are better. I’ve learned that I need all three in order to keep myself to some sort of writing/blogging schedule. Fortunately for me, and hopefully for you as well, my best friend, cohort, colleague, and accomplice in all things deviously religious–Alex Roller–has agreed to help me with these three ingredients for happy writing and posting. He and I will be blogging together individually, meaning that we will each post on our own blogs and link to the other’s posts. While we have a number of blog series/posts in mind, we’ve decided to start with the none-too-intimidating subject of Jesus and Derrida (read more on this below). We hope you’ll follow our conversation and reflection on both blogs as we delve into a variety of topics. We PLAN to post two to three times per week (schedules willing), but we hope you’ll forgive us if we slip up here or there.

Simultaneously, but only partly connected to the blog series, we are beginning a “Theology at the Pub” group as a part of MissionGathering Christian Church that will meet each Wednesday evening (Oct 9 to Dec 18) at 7:30pm at Thorn Street Brewery in North Park. If you live in San Diego and enjoy both theological reflection and beer, or even just one of those two (drinking isn’t required), we encourage you to join us. This group will focus on process theology and theology after the Holocaust, looking particularly at how a theology of remembrance can be helpful as we continue sorting through the fact that fellow human beings can and do cause so much devastation and destruction of life. We do plan to continue the discussion of our group through our blogs and will potentially even post audio recordings of our conversations for those unable to attend every or any meeting.

Our first blog series, however, deals with a different theme–deconstruction. My interest in writing these posts was sparked by a sermon that Alex preached last spring on the story of Jesus and Nicodemus. Last spring I also participated in a conference that asked the question: can postmodern theology live in the church? I think the (always tentative) answer is that postmodern theology can and, in fact, does live in some churches. Of course postmodern thought/theology comes in many modes, deconstruction being but one of those modes, and churches come in many forms–many of which are not accepting of postmodern thought. As one who finds himself in a church community in which postmodern thought receives both sometimes critical and sometimes enthusiastic engagement, I am interested in pursuing this question further in order to see where postmodern thought in the mode of deconstruction takes us, and in order to see what it is that we choose to reconstruct after the critical maneauvor.

In this first blog series, Alex and I plan to follow the Derridean trace as we look at the story of Jesus and Nicodemus in Luke’s gospel. While Jack Caputo wrote an incredibly insightful and accessible book on Jesus and Deconstruction, which we don’t wish to repeat, I think that this story deserves and requires some reflection (a la Caputo) in order to think about the role of metaphor in religious language and in order to deconstruct those assumed meanings that many within churches take for granted. We hope you’ll continue to drop by this site and Alex’s and engage with us in this discussion.

Check out Alex’s most recent post, which gives a bit more detail on the writing process, why we’re doing this, etc.

Repoliticizing the church at Subverting the Norm

I’m excited to present with my awesome partner in all things radical Bo Eberle at Subverting the Norm this weekend.  Here’s a description of what I’ll be discussing.  You can also go here if you want to see what Bo will be presenting.

Repoliticizing the Church: Finding Postsecular Engagement in Adorno and Benjamin

At a recent speaking engagement, Brian McLaren said, “In many cases the church is not relevant in today’s world.  But can it be and should it be is another question.”  More forcefully, in their book on the new materialism, Jeffrey Robbins and Clayton Crocket describe the postsecular world as repoliticizing religion such that radicalized religion can no longer perform religious acts in solitary confinement, so to speak, but must engage its own culpability for and entanglement in the most pressing issues facing inhabitants of our world.  Other postmodern philosophers, such as Slavoj Zizek and Judith Butler, have in recent years turned to the work of two early critical theorists—Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin—as examples for how to (re)think religion’s repoliticization.  This presentation will return to Adorno’s critique of Enlightenment religion as secularized and de-radicalized before examining how both Adorno and Benjamin reinscribe religion with political import, allowing us in turn to rethink the church’s engagement with perhaps the two most pernicious problems facing the world today: the global economic crisis and the ecological crisis (which are inextricably linked).  I will argue that the church should make itself relevant in today’s world by responding to these issues and ensuring that such issues are no longer ignored in our preaching, liturgy, and church theology.  Adorno and Benjamin’s materialist conceptions of religion and notion of inverse theology (now in play in both the work of Zizek and Butler) provide a compelling means for moving the church from stasis to radical re-engagement.

The Rapture…not what you’re thinking

I like to ask my friends if they’ve heard of The Rapture because it typically throws them off a bit and makes them think I’m about to unload some long pent-up apocalyptic madness. That is not the case.

Actually, The Rapture, a band that’s been around since 1998, is a post-punk incarnation featuring ethereal keys and strong lead guitar lines. But more than that, they have some of the most spiritual lyrics I’ve heard recently (aside from perhaps some well-loved indie folk stuff). Their 2011 album, In the Grace of Your Love, includes a song by the same title and another entitled “How Deep Is Your Love?” Neither song is overtly religious, and yet they resound with deeply spiritual tones. “In the Grace of Your Love” features lyrics like “In the grace of your love / I know we can find a way / In the grace of your love / We can find a brighter day” that seem to speak from a place of brokenness, from damaged life itself, with the hope of finding something better. The person who provides this loving grace actually appears rather ambiguous, as seen in the lyrics “In the grace of your love / I am scared and I’m sick / In the grace of your love / Please don’t hurt me so quick”, yet the overall sense is that this grace is what enables one to get up in the morning, to face another day.

8eec2dfd91ea2cd835c2d1c68be4666afc394a9dLikewise, “How Deep Is Your Love?” speaks of hope in the midst of darkness with a similar sense of ambiguity about the world. The lines “All the feeling I have for you / Standing in your shoes / When I cry you heal my pain / Help me come unglued” come before the song ends with a repetition of the two lines “Let me hear that song / How deep is your love?”, which gives us the impression that the singer is actually asking (without knowing the answer) how deep the love really is.

These two songs strike me as deeply spiritual because they are completely honest about the way we sometimes see and experience the world–as utterly ambiguous. Where overtly Christian songs tend to wrap up with a neat little bow (with the notable exception of Gungor–listen recent Homebrewed podcast here), The Rapture’s secular, spiritual stylings are quite comfortable leaving things undone and simply stating our raw emotion. Even the album’s cover art is tinged with a combination of rapturous joy (pun intended) and uncertainty. The image is a black and white photo of a boy standing, arms outstretched (cross-like), on the front of a surfboard, riding a wave–an experience that can be (so I’m told) both joyfully thrilling and a bit frightening, because you might wipe out at any moment. I wonder if what The Rapture has captured here, better than most, is the way life really is…but with the added insight that you might find grace in the most unexpected places.

The Enoch Factor

As a budding materialist (for info on what that means, see these posts) and philosopher, I’m not typically interested in books on spirituality. This is probably a fault of mine, but I openly admit it. However, when I first read about Steve McSwain‘s book The Enoch Factor I was intrigued for a couple of reasons. First, I read the Book of Enoch in college and remembered him having been an interesting character of the Hebrew Bible. Second, McSwain’s take on the type of shallow spirituality professed in many churches today seemed right on, and I wanted to hear him out. Fortunately, I wasn’t disappointed.

ImageWhat initially drew me to this book is also what carried me through to the end–McSwain’s unapologetic critique of the type of Christianity that requires assent to key beliefs or dogmas. McSwain himself has clearly undergone a very real transformation after which he understands truth, religion, and faith not as a set of dogmatic statements or theological litmus-tests, but as a journey that could take on many forms. As one who attends an “emergent” church with openly gay ministers on staff, it was absolutely refreshing to hear a former Southern Baptist pastor articulate his understanding of faith as constantly expanding and evolving and his understanding of other religions as equally possible paths to the divine reality. McSwain’s book is truly brave in this regard–he embraces his gay and lesbian brothers and sisters and affirms that while Christianity is his chosen path, it is not the only path to knowing God.

The reason I tend not to read books on spirituality is that all too often these books focus on extra-worldly concerns, leaving aside the issues that face us everyday in the world we currently inhabit. I don’t, however, think this is the case with The Enoch Factor. Aside from a couple of statements (which I may have misinterpreted), I think that the type of spirituality McSwain models could in fact be one that renews human individuals in order for them to focus on addressing real-world concerns with new vivacity and a renewed sense of purpose. Knowing God, the way he articulates it, is a journey that can lead each person to a better space, a better personal awareness, and toward a healthier means of living and being in the world. McSwain writes: “Unless there are profound changes in human consciousness–that is, changes in how we look at each other and treat each other, there is little hope for humanity’s survival.” This statement from the beginning of the book signals his desire to address the problems inherent in the physical world we call home through a vital spiritual quest that calls us to give up on “religion” in favor of a life of faith with an acute awareness of the divine and a clearer understanding of our role on this earth.