being human, part 1

Made_in_Gods_Image_by_MacIomhairIn my quasi-professional life, the life in which I write the sorts of things academic theologians are supposed to write but without any compensation for doing so, I am working on an essay on Catholic moral anthropology. Mostly I stick pretty close to what the official teaching of the Church is–this piece is, after all, for the Oxford Handbook of Catholic Theology.

The official teaching is good, I think, so I feel no need to stray. There is an emphasis on the way in which we human creatures are meant to live, that is, to live up to the image of God in which we have been made. Again, this is good: I do believe that we ought to be the image of God in the world. Elaborating on this, I would say (and will in the piece to be published) that means following Jesus in humility with love. I remember walking along the path by the river one afternoon in the weeks following my mother’s death. Having seen her lifeless body, and yet speaking to her, and knowing I ought to grieve, but couldn’t–well, the experience put me in a pretty strange space, spiritually speaking. So I lamented on that day by the river, ‘if only I could see you, God.’ Silly, I know: no one has ever seen God, etc. What came to me that day, though, was not the appropriate material from John’s gospel but a new attentiveness to what was in front of me. ‘That,’ I heard/realized/saw, ‘is the closest you will ever get.’ That was a person, a stranger, walking towards me on the path. He passed by, not realizing that he had changed something forever in me. People show (or fail to show) God to one another.

Believing that human beings are the image of God in the world has–from the evidence of Scripture and on the strength of that encounter–two very important implications. First, we must be the image of God. Jesus said, ‘he who has seen me has seen the Father.’ He himself did only what he saw the Father doing. His work on earth was (not only, but importantly) to make the Father known. So also we, who claim to be his disciples, must never forget this charge: to make the Father known. The weight of that responsibility did not occur to me immediately, but it is obvious. Bearing God’s image is not something we do chiefly for ourselves, but for our neighbor. We show God’s love and forbearance, or fail to show God’s love and forbearance, in every encounter. (I don’t know about you, but by day’s end I cannot count my failures to do this even on all ten fingers.)

Being in God’s image, second, requires us to respect that image in our neighbor. Here the official line is clear: every human being is created in the image of God. This of course has implications for the way we treat people at the ends of life, respecting the beginning and not hastening the end. It also, and crucially, must inform the way we regard every human being at every stage of his or her life. My children are all in the image of God, all equally so. The bouncy and bright four-year-old and the intelligent and high-strung twelve-year-old, the creative and brooding 9-year-old, and the happy and determined 14-year-old.  The fact that one of those children has one more chromosome than the others makes no difference to her being in God’s image. It also–and this is in many ways more difficult–means that however well or badly the children are behaving, however they reflect or fail to reflect the love and forbearance of the Father (and they do, more often than we see it, I think), we owe them the same respect. (An aside here, though: respect is not the same as capitulation. I make no claim to be an expert in parenting, but I do not think that letting our children get away with everything is respect. How to treat them with respect when they are behaving abominably? I can only say that the failures I mentioned above mount up very quickly in just that context.) It may well be that my children challenge me most, but I have opportunities every day to be patient or irritated, to be kind or scornful. Just because I am bound to fail doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try for patience and kindness always.

Calvin (in the above comic, not the famous theologian of Geneva) both gets the point and misses it entirely. Yes, we ought to recognize God’s image in ourselves and bear it proudly. The image of God is not, however, something we see best reflected in a mirror, but in one another. I know I am in God’s image in part because you show me–by reflecting God’s image to me, and by respecting God’s image in me. So I pray for the grace to fail less, and to be more like Jesus, today and every day.

For that grace, Deo gratias.

Moving

No vans required. I am moving all my blogs (yes, there are a number of them…) to a new website: atheologianinthefamily.net. When I started this blog, I had thought that Lewis and I would contribute to it together, and it would mostly be theological reflection.

But my theology and my life are of a piece. I have been inspired by the prologue to the rule of Benedict, in which he describes the monastery as ‘a school for the Lord’s service.’ For me, the family is that school. Home is where we learn to love, to give, to trust, and to think. It seems to me that the most difficult place to live out the Christian faith is at home, in the family, where the daily vexations and struggles are utterly relentless. I once wrote to a friend that if anyone else tried my patience as unremittingly as my children do, I would find some means of escape. So here I am, learning to love those who are at once the easiest and most difficult people to love: those who are closest to me.

And I continue to be a theologian. I’m not a part-time theologian and a part-time mother; I am a full-time theologian and full-time mother. I think theology while I am cooking and disciplining and reading stories; I think about parenting while I am reading theology and Scripture and writing about ‘academic’ topics. These things live together in my soul, and I am both of them at the same time, by training and by temperament. As a teenager, I was certain that my future vocation had to be meaningful, and that I would have to practice it while fulfilling my other life’s goal: being a mother.

So here I am, having found that when dreams come true, they don’t always look like we expected or hoped. Living the dream means making ends meet and coping with defiance and struggling to meet deadlines and staying up late preparing for teaching. Sunny days and happy times grace my daily life, and usually I can see that my life is uncommonly good. Except when I can’t, and then the whole project of living and parenting and writing seems like it proceeds in deepest darkness. Fortunately the light continues to shine, even when my eyes are shut tight against it.

I am grateful for all who have followed this blog, and hope that you will enjoy the new one.

light and peace to you all.

fallow year

Tonight I had most of an evening off from the ordinary duties of mothering. But it wasn’t an evening out with friends or even a quiet night at home. I am grateful to our friend Ian Markham, Dean and President of Virginia Theological Seminary, for an opportunity to talk about my intellectual project. 

For a while there, I’d nearly forgotten I had one. Homeschooling our 11-year-old and running the others back and forth to school keeps me pretty well occupied. But tonight, as I had some space to reflect on what I am doing, I gave this year a new name: a fallow year.  Without teaching and administrative duties, or any work-related obligations, I’ve committed to a year of rest–of a sort. The “land” on which my research and writing usually take place is not being cultivated, not really. This academic year I’ve given myself to another sort of work, work I find much more difficult: the work of being a patient and kind mother to my children.

It’s difficult, and yet necessary. Because I hadn’t spent much time lately talking to grown-ups, I was more jittery than usual in anticipation of the event. As I paced around, I realized that I had my priorities all wrong. Being the person “up front” makes me vulnerable to the temptation to be the expert, to try to be the cleverest person in the room. I’m pretty sure that I am never the cleverest person in any room I enter (really: my kids are cleverer than I am; I’ve just got more experience of the world), hence I feel nervous at the thought of people listening to me and asking questions.

In the quiet (for which I thank Lewis: the children were driving him mad this evening) I realized (again) that I was mistaken. The object of the game, for me, is not to be the cleverest one. That’s not a game I am ever going to win, nor is it a game worth playing. I’m a theologian and a mother. Both of those occupations require patience and kindness, humility and generosity. Jesus didn’t say, “Blessed are the clever, for they shall win all the arguments,” but “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”

The clever do win arguments, it’s true. And I lose them, often. But I would much, much rather inherit the earth.

Common (intellectual) politeness

The reality is that Lewis is never going to post to this blog. But part of the reason I created it was to talk about some of the theological topics that we have discussed (sometimes at great length and with considerable intensity) over the years. Theological methodology has been one of those broad areas of conversation. Within that more general subject is the question of one’s mode of engagement with sources in constructive theology. I can remember being asked in graduate school, when I dared to wonder about whether John Milbank could possibly have interpreted every single one of his interlocutors with historical accuracy, why it mattered, if the constructive proposal was good. Then, I was surprised by the question, and didn’t have a good answer. Of course it matters, I thought. But can I say WHY? I think my short answer to the question now would be that it’s a matter of common scholarly politeness, which is far more important than it seems. Lewis has rather more to say on the subject, and posted the following to Facebook:

There’s a symposium on Catherine Pickstock’s new book on one of those trendy theology websites. One of the respondents goes on at great lengths to say that her book is a) written in incredibly dense English; b) doesn’t engage with much of the scholarship on the topics she considers. Catherine’s response is basically “well, you are right, I am sort of going where Kierkegaard’s Climacus says I should… but he hardly writes in clear prose or packs himself out with footnotes.” She adds to this “especially when I disagree with all that stuff” (I should say her reviewer wants her to read some “process” stuff; and I agree with her when she says “ain’t wasting my time on that”). Now, I think Catherine is really smart and deeply insightful, but her reviewer has a point. I was just disappointed that he offered no articulation of WHY the things she doesn’t do matter. I am not going to post a comment to that website – it is way too trendy – but I can’t contain myself and will say that there are 5 reasons why Catherine’s reviewer is on the right track:

1) Two of these reasons are simple philosophical ones. striving for clarity in expression is always a good. I still remember Maurice Wiles explaining to me that if I wanted to do Patristics I had to write for those for whom English was a second language. This was a VERY thinly veiled criticism of something he read of mine. He was right. Some ideas certainly require very complex expression, but it is far fewer than most of us who write imagine! We should certainly be ready to see genuine insight in very complex writing, especially that of the genuine genius (and even in writing without footnotes!), but we should not go around imagining that we are in that category. It ain’t good for our clarity of thought.

2) Honing one’s ideas through careful exploration of those who have gone before us on the same tracks is always a good. Often before we do this we simply repeat and/or miss giving our own insights true precision. If everyone before us has read a text differently it is a good to justify our own reading against all those predecessors. This is not the same as simply engaging with existing scholarship; learning to discern what matters and what not is itself something honed through such engagement. (and in this particular case Catherine’s reviewer thinks we need always to interrogate “continental” philosophy with a good dose of “analytical” – I wouldn’t make such a blanket statement and that’s a different point from mine).

3) BUT, there are also 2 good theological reasons why that which Catherine does not do is important. The first is to do with our own attentiveness as Christian readers. Attentiveness is pretty close to being a virtue. And in Christian academic writing attentiveness is in part appropriately performed via care in expression, knowledge of scholarly traditions, and well-formed footnotes!

4) In the same vein, not only is it the case that we should worry about our own formation, but we should worry about ourselves as readers within a community. Especially in the case where we, as Christian writers engage those who are also Christian writers, attentiveness should surely be seen as a virtue for Christian academics.

5) The last reason is a more complex one. I think that serious engagement with modern historical consciousness in its many forms is necessary for Christian intellectuals (see my draft paper on academia.edu) and we are not here talking only about contingent academic performance, but also how to find modes of exploration and expression that reflect a new attention to the complexities of tradition, to the history through which God (in part) speaks.

I am not saying I am any good at this, but I do think this is what we should do and I do occasionally try to do this.

I won’t pretend to be able to sum that up. If I could, I wouldn’t have quoted the whole thing (which Lewis posted under the caveat: ‘my longest Facebook post EVER’). But I will go so far as to say that I think good manners count for a lot. Christian faithfulness, for academics, includes the kind of attention Lewis describes as “a virtue for Christian academics.” Whether an ‘official’ virtue or not, it exhibits patience, kindness, gentleness, and (a form of) self-control–gifts of the Spirit. What we say in print and from the lectern and how we interact with students and colleagues and interlocutors are not somehow separate from our spirituality or devotion. Maybe those folks we think undeserving of our attention, for whatever reason, are ‘the least of these.’ And we know how to behave toward them.

slowly and gently

I can account for the hiatus in posts: last week I was in London for a day exploring the theology and practice of accompanying people with intellectual disabilities through experiences of loss, especially the death of loved ones. Although this isn’t one of my areas of experience or study, I was interested in the journey of accompaniment. What I found was that, like any other interpersonal adventure, the way forward requires less map-and-compass skills, and more listening and patience. Good navigational skills are necessary, but not sufficient, for walking with someone through the valley of the shadow of death–whether the death in question is their own or another’s.

In doing things with my young children, I frequently find myself repeating “slowly and gently”–it started with stirring cake batter. “Slowly and gently.” Then, as my youngest started trying to descend the stairs: “Slowly and gently.” This has never been my strong suit. Doing things slowly and gently and attending to the details requires time (of which I seem always to be in want) and patience (ditto). As I listened to the speakers throughout the day, this phrase came back to me. The journey of accompaniment, at any stage of life, is about going slowly and gently.

Slowly and gently becomes not only advice for toddlers learning to stir; it changes the way I approach theological questions. Attending to the person with me, the person with an intellectual disability, impresses on me the reality of each person’s creation in the image of God. What is it to be human? It is to be in relationship with God, and that relationship originates with God and not with us. Ours is the capacity to receive the relationship God offers us continuously. The question for theological anthropology then becomes, ‘What does the disabled body (including the disabled mind) reveal to us about God?’ If what obscures the image of God in the first place is sin, then intellectual disability is not necessarily something that obscures the image of God. In and through that disability, God is revealing himself, revealing transcendence, divinity.

Because this is so, there are two important features of spiritual friendship with a person with an intellectual disability. First, the relationship that person has with God is no more or less than ours, though it will be expressed differently and experienced differently by us. The obstacles we encounter in relationship with people with intellectual disabilities are not obstacles for God. Relationship with God is not impaired by cognitive impairment. (Sin does that.) The second feature of that friendship is that the revelation of the divine through the divine image is not a one-way street, from those of us who are aware of being made in the image of God to those who are not. We ought to be looking for God’s image in the faces of those with intellectual disabilities, and expecting to find God’s self-revelation there.

But we will only see it if we go slowly–slowly and gently.

Sadness and truth

It’s worth noting that the weather outside is miserable: cold, wet, and windy. Maybe that contributes to my sense of the overwhelming sadness in the world today. But I usually like the rain, even the cold and the wind, and I love the winter-bare trees against a pale and greyish sky. So I think it’s not the weather. It’s not even my own sadness, really. It’s these two things. 

The first is the work so beautifully presented on upworthy (which a friend posted to Facebook) on the difficulties boys face as they try to achieve an unrealistic and hurtful masculinity. Boys don’t have to be tough. It also made me think again about the way I am with my boys, and that’s good. But the video made me really sad, sad that there are so many stories of pain and loneliness. The second might seem completely unconnected: a project exploring poverty in the UK. They overlap, though, in the stories of tough times and pain. 

And just yesterday, I was engaged in a lively conversation with my students, a conversation about the Incarnation. Of course the question of suffering somehow always comes up, one way or another, as soon as the questions begin. So it did. There isn’t an answer, as I have said before, here on this neglected blog. There is suffering, and there is redemption; we endure the former and hope for the latter…and it is a mystery. It’s no less true today than it was yesterday, but the question is more poignant. The answer is less comforting. And so it should be. It is one thing to say in front of the lecture hall that you don’t have all the answers. It is another thing entirely to face the questions out there, in the world where they arise out of raw disappointment and agony–whether the pain is mine or another’s. 

And so I will try to be grateful for the sadness I found today. I heard somewhere that joy comes in the morning. 

Deo gratias.

What my three-year-old taught me about the body’s grace

You know that essay, the famous one by Rowan Williams, 'The Body's Grace.' He wrote it in 1989 and it was first delivered as the 10th Michael Harding memorial address. Then it appeared as a pamphlet, and was reproduced in volumes of essays edited by Charles Hefling and Eugene Rogers. I distinctly remember where I was the first time I read it: in my carrel in the basement of the theology library at Duke. “…that God desires us as God desires God…” Really?
 
At the time, I could not conceive of it. Of course it was appealing, mind-boggling, and changed the way I thought about sex and sexual relationships. When I married Lewis three years later, the light had begun to dawn. Although I had written off the idea of falling in love, and having that be a real thing, not just infatuation, or something that happens in movies (they say 'happily ever after,' but you don't get to see what that looks like), I had to admit that there might be something to it. (I said as much at our wedding reception.)
 
But I still had no idea, really, about this grace. Still, and I think this is the case in Rowan's amazing essay, it was about the sexual meaning of the body. The enjoyment and desire remained in a sexual register. Yet what I learned as I had children was that there is something else–not to say more–that is graced, and grace-filled, about the body. I remember saying to a friend when my first-born was still very small that it was very sensual but not at all sexual.
 
This is hardly surprising, and is probably the testimony of mothers from the beginning of time. I love having children, and I am especially fond of babies. When my son, who is now seven, was three, though, I learned a more significant lesson. One morning I was dressing, and he came into the bedroom. His eyes lit up when he saw me. Now I wasn't keen on what I looked like without too many clothes on, but he was obviously delighted with me. To be close and to touch my skin was a great pleasure for him. It was as if he appreciated the skin, the body, of this person whose body had borne him and fed him (until he was two-and-a-half!), not because of its objective beauty or potential for giving “joy”, as Williams says. No, the skin and the body were desirable because they were mine.
 
I had always had trouble with “God desiring us” because the context in which it was set was so sexual. Sure, sex is good, but it isn't everything. Something about the way my son responded to me (and not just on that one occasion, but for many months) broadened my understanding of the body's grace. Desire comes in lots of forms, and intimacy has many dimensions. I always knew that, sort of, but it has become much more real for me as I have been a mother. My son has a little sister, who, at two-and-a-half, is very much the same way–she likes to curl up next to me on the sofa (or anywhere, really) with her head resting on my bare stomach. If she's in the room with me when I am dressing, it always takes longer. There is a deep mutual affection and intimacy that characterises my relationship with my children, and it is not remotely sexual but equally profound. And I find it much more powerful, actually, to think that God desires us, fragile and fallen human beings, as I desire my children, and–even more–as my children desire me. Their pleasure and uncritical joy in my body has taught me more about the body's grace than anything else I have ever encountered.
 
I was reminded of all this by a video I saw–what our kids see when they see us. As a mother, I felt the same way as those interviewed: I wish I were more patient, attentive and calm. But what the kids said (really, the video is worth watching) brought back to me this truth about the body's grace. And it put into words what my children have said with their gestures and expressions and touch.
 
Is that the way it is with God? Is that what mercy means? Is it my children's uncritical joy that erupts in heaven over the repentant sinner?
 
I sure hope so.
 

the ordinary

I’ll tell you what my novitiate in the blogosphere has taught me: I’m ordinary. My experience is just human, and my reflection on that experience is just as human. I knew that, or at least I sort of knew that. And I don’t even really have anything peculiar to say about it. As Matt Jones put it so eloquently today, ‘being human is crazy.’ And it’s not easy. My favorite David Foster Wallace sentence (from the commencement address I blogged about a couple of weeks ago) is:

The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people, and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad, petty little unsexy ways every day.

Yep. And he didn’t even have children. The daily routine he describes in that commencement address doesn’t involve a 9-year-old shouting that it’s all your fault, or a 2-year-old clamoring ‘up! uppppyyyy!’ while you’re trying to peel carrots or help the 6-year-old with his reading. I listened to his address again while my girls were in the tub, and heard this sentence in the middle of the dreaded hair-washing, I think. Definitely having an unsexy moment, there.

My real hero, though, isn’t David Foster Wallace, as insightful as he was, God rest his soul. More than just about anyone, I admire Jean Vanier. Although he’s a renowned person now, having been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, among other things, he didn’t set out to create an international network. L’Arche was his home, and he shared it–at the beginning–with two young men who required unsexy sacrifices every day. I don’t admire him because he was successful, or because he’s a wise and caring person. I admire him because it has always been about being faithful to the teachings of Jesus.

Jean Vanier makes the ordinary radiant with the love of God. Would that I had an ounce of his spirit of tenderness and faithfulness. I want to escape the ordinary, the ‘crazy’ that is being human every day. But freedom and faithfulness are not in the heroic acts–or the brilliant and widely-read books-that make me say, ‘wow’. Nope. Freedom–the ‘most precious’ freedom–and faithfulness are in the power to stay, to stay calm…not to shout back at the 9-year-old or lose patience with the 2-year-old, but to persevere in tenderness.

That’s the hard, hard work of being ordinary. I’m glad I am not alone in doing it.