existentialist cafe

life is sacred

Month: August, 2013

Words are like paint that cover our understanding. They make the understanding feel more liveable. Over time they crack. They must be scraped away for a new coat.


Often, if I have the wherewithal to complain, I have the wherewithal to do start to do something about it.

I’ve heard it said by several people that the life of the activist and the life of the contemplative are mutually exclusive. If you try to both, you will lose your mind.

I’ve also heard it said that they must exist together; that the union between lived reflection and reflected living is the essence of spirituality.

Is it possible that to be spiritual is to lose your mind?

Myself, I am drawn to the contemplative life more than to the activist life; though if I were to be quite honest I would have to say that I do neither very well. I think I sense what I would have to abandon if I were to walk that road. And even though I sense what I would gain as well, it is not a cost I am willing to pay.

the lord god formed man from dust. bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh. therefore a man and woman shall become one flesh. the Lord said, ‘until you return to the ground; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.’ son of man, can these bones live? i am poured out like water. my bones are out of joint. lay me down in the dust of death. son of man, can these bones live? the eye cannot say to the hand: i have no need of you. if one suffers, all suffer together. they were naked, and not ashamed. then the eyes of both were opened. and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths. the parts of the body we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty. the lord god breathed into his nostrils the breath of life. he touched his hip socket, and his hip was put out of joint. my bones are out of joint. i will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. and i will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live. and you shall know that i am the lord. and the word became flesh. he is the beginning, the first born from the dead. and all flesh shall see it together.

Bone fire

“Silence,” says the prophet Jeremiah, is a “burning fire shut up in my bones.” This bone-fire is the stomach-pitting, skin-galvanizing, hair-raising crooked old finger pointed straight at him. He is a man of conviction. A convict, condemned to speak plainly and clearly what he has heard from the Lord.

Jeremiah was a prophet, maddened by the word of the Lord. But I believe that we all feel that bone-fire from time to time. A moment when we feel some task or calling laid upon us, from which we can not turn away without doing ourself great harm. So, we look for water. Desperately. Douse the flame! Keep it from getting any large. Don’t you know that a fire that burns out of hand can burn a forest to the ground? Best to put it out. But, like a trick candle, it keeps coming back. We’re lucky that it does.

Interesting, the origin of the word ‘conviction.’ It comes from the latin ‘convincere’, which means ‘to overthrow, vanquish.’ A person of conviction has been overthrown by some belief or vision which compels them forward. At its best it reaches the heights of integrity: “Here I stand; I can do no other.” Our calling is not only laid upon us, but it overthrows us. What else can we do?

Why is it that when I am most free I seem to have the least choice? Perhaps what I call ‘freedom’ is the exultation I feel when I am overthrown by a good purpose that is greater than myself; and because it is greater than myself, it seems to originate from outside of myself; and because it originate from outside of myself, I seem to be its prisoner.

I do not want to end up like Jeremiah, or Ezekial. Or any of those other holy mad dogs, lying on my side eating bread baked over human excrement, or wandering through the streets of Jerusalem with my head in an iron yoke. But I do want to fan the flames of conviction. I want to respond truthfully and authentically to what I see and hear. Is it possible, to do this and not go insane? Or to go just a little bit insane? It is dangerous fire, for sure. I’m afraid we may have to accept all of it, or none.

The self as a stable structure is constituted through the experience of being seen. The painfulness of this experience is the distinction it ushers between the subjective ‘I’ and the objective ‘Me’ (to use Mead’s terminology). The craft of learning to see others’ subjective ‘I’ hidden within the folds of the ‘Me’ is the very task of love, as set forth by Martin Buber.

The notion of God holds out the possibility that the subjective and objective dimensions of reality, forever alienated from one another in human experience, recede into one another at the limits of reality. Whereas we are constituted by experience, God constitutes Godself in the singularity of seeing-and-seen. Duality is overcome, not by the vanquishing of one by the other, but the subsuming of the two into one another.

And the good news is that we also can participate in this. In glimpses and murmurs when we confront experiences that dissolve the boundaries between objective and subjective self, whether induced naturally or artificially. And even more fully when we move beyond mere experience, and beyond mere knowledge, and rest on the deeper foundation of non-contingent Being. This, in religious terms, is what is called grace.

Like its homophone, ‘seem’ stitches together the fabrics of subjectivity and objectivity.

The heart of a stranger

I am teaching a course on Judaism to Presbyterians. In preparation, I was doing some reading on Passover, and was really struck by Exodus 23:9.

Do not oppress the stranger. You know the heart of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Passover is, of course, a political story as much as it is a religious story. In addition to being a story of a God who does miraculous deeds on behalf of his chosen people in fulfilment of a promise given 400+ years earlier, it is the story of the outcome of that miracle – the establishment of the people of Israel as a people group and as a nation.

We are, at our socio-biological heart, a tribalistic species. Our groups mark the boundaries of respect and responsibility. They tell us who we can trust, and who we can not trust. Nations, the contemporary manifestation of such groups, are notoriously self-serving. To their own inhabitants – life, liberty, and all the perks of belonging. To others – apathy at best, and annihilation at worst. At the national level, there is no greater good then national self-interest.

Suffering, deprivation and conflict easily strengthen those lines of demarcation. This is why persecution often has the unintended result of creating in marginalized groups a stronger identity rather than weaker one, and why persecution sometimes escalates to final solutions. One you have the tiger by the tail, you better finish the job.

On the day of liberation, then, this is why God made this point to Israel very clear – you are to be a group unlike any other group. If you are chosen, than ‘chosenness’ means not being defined by self-aggrandizement and self-concern, but by empathy and hospitality. Not by lines of separation, but by permeability and inclusion. Inclusion on what grounds? Israel knows the heart of a stranger. On that grounds, therefore, they are able to share in the alienation of all. Suffering, rather than being a wall against others, is a bridge to others. What a gift empathy is! By remembering your experience, you are able not only to think about other people with more grace and compassion, but you are able actually to enter into the experience of others.

Memories have short lives, however. That is why Passover is celebrated every year. That is why even the Jew who is “educated in all the ways of Torah” must still listen. “Redemption begins with remembering.” And what is redemption? Nothing short of the liberation of all. As long as there is still alienation, slavery, and spiritual dis-ease in the world, we must participate in redemption. Passover concludes with an open door. This is a radical, even absurd act, in a world of crime rates and anonymity. I can not defend such a gesture. Nor can I compel or convince anyone to adopt it. We are simply offered it as a possible way of being in the world. Opening, rather than closing. I believe that in that openness there is great promise and hope.


home-cooked soul food

A processed meal is one that has been prepared for me by others, in which a script (i.e., recipe) dictates the mixture of cheap, homogenous ingredients. It is safe only because it is predictable, and requires minimal cost. Buy it and heat it up. Eat. Technically it counts as food.

A processed soul is one that has been prepared for me by others, in which a set of social scripts dictates a mixture of cheap, homogenous emotions, thoughts, words, and behaviors. It is safe only because it is predictable, and requires minimal cost. Buy it and heat it up. Eat. Technically it counts as a soul.

I have largely given up processed foods, but I have not largely given up a processed soul. Day after day I choose the easier path. How wonderful to cook a meal from scratch! I’m bad at planning my meals. I look around the house, take stock of the scraps and go from there. It’s the way I do it. It’s a good way to cook a soul as well. The leftover scraps of my life, the shreds and tears – it is out of these things that I create my self. Stone soup. Each day it’s new. Each moment it’s new. I open my refrigerator and pantry and see what’s there. I make no apology, and am not surprised if people pass it over for finer meals (or more predictable ones). It nourishes me though; and sometimes it nourishes others. That’s all I would ask for.