The forgotten frontier

For those of suburban Christian faith, developing the capacity for spiritual consciousness tends to be the forgotten frontier. At least that's true in the Protestant tradition in which I grew up and which I, for the most part, still inhabit. The kingdom of God belongs to the busy, to those who know how to work, to the spiritual entrepreneurs. The highest compliment to pay a young woman from the rural culture in which I was raised is: "She's a hard worker (and a good cook)." My suburban neighbors are a bit more sophisticated: "Mary is on the traveling soccer team and has the lead in the school play, and she has three hours of homework every night! Oh my God, can you believe it?"

Add to that the suburban environment of security, efficiency, and opportunities—and the overindulged self, which desperately needs all three—and spirituality morphs into activities: Bible studies, small group meetings, reading yet another best-selling book on the key to victorious Christian living, even serving at the local homeless shelter. It's the reverse, through, of what should happen. Such activities or practices should open our eyes to the larger world. Instead, they obscure it. I've always felt cheered by the comment a friend made about his prayer life: he said he didn't really like the actual act of praying much, though he loved the open space that praying created in his life for God to work.

In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Pulitzer prize-winning writer Annie Dillard writes that "the mind's muddy river, this ceaseless flow of trivia and trash, cannot be dammed, and that trying to dam it is a waste of effort that might lead to madness." The muddy river of suburban life cannot be stopped. It simply is. The muddy river of illusion cannot be escaped, really. There's not much use in moralizing about it, mocking it, thumbing your nose at it, treating it with light disdain—or sacrificing your way out of it (I'll drop everything and become a missionary or move to a Wisconsin cabin to live the simple life)....

You can try to slow down your life, adjust your lifestyle downward, give more, pray more. Another study group, another stint on a church committee, another year as the nursery coordinator, another mission trip to a Third World country—all good things—but not necessarily superhighways to the deeper life....

For centuries, the classic spiritual disciplines and practices enlarged the capacity of ordinary people to engage the Sacred. Spiritual practices are not really a direct route to an awakened God-consciousness. Some days, they seem stupid, quite worthless, even just one of the many activities that keep me from God. Yet over time they awaken us to a brave new world that is, ultimately, more satisfying and true to who we are than is what we encounter without them....

... [But] [d]oesn't Jesus require something more radical? Doesn't Jesus demand immediate results, fresh sacrifice, more doing?....

But more what? More sacrifice? More church activities? ... The Protestant tradition loves the heroic call to sacrifice all for the kingdom of God. But the call to sacrifice often feeds, ultimately, mostly the ego.... The kingdom of God often appears plain, ordinary, small, in the moment.

David L. Goetz, Death by Suburb: How to Keep the Suburbs from Killing Your Soul (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2006), 14–17.

The pursuit of happiness

Medieval people believed with great seriousness that final happiness lay on the other side of death. They did not expect it in its fullness on this earth. But the methods of modern science provide no grounds for belief that there is anything beyond death. Hence, the whole freight of human happiness has to be carried in the few short and uncertain years that are allowed to us before death ends it all. The quest for happiness becomes that much more hectic, more fraught with anxiety than it was to the people of the Middle Ages.

There is a further implication of the emergence of the concept of human rights.... [T]he concept would have been meaningless in an earlier age. "Rights" only exist where there is a legal and social structure that defines them. Anyone can, of course, assert a need or express a wish apart from such a legal or social structure. But a claim to a right must rest upon some juridical basis. Asserting a right where there is no such basis would be like writing a check on a nonexistent bank. Therefore, if the right of every person to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is asserted, one has to ask, "Who is under obligation to honor the claim?" In the Middle Ages the answer was found within the network of reciprocal rights and duties. The man farming the land had a duty to provide troops to fight his lord's battle and a corresponding right to his lord's protection. Duties and rights were reciprocal. One could not exist without the other, and all were finite. But the quest for happiness is infinite. Who, then, has the infinite duty to honor the infinite claims of every person to the pursuit of happiness? The answer of the eighteenth century, and of those who have followed, is familiar: it is the nation-state. The nation-state replaces the holy church and the holy empire as the centerpiece in the post-Enlightenment ordering of society. Upon it devolves the duty of providing the means for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And since the pursuit of happiness is endless, the demands upon the state are without limit. If—for modern Western peoples—nature has taken the place of God as the ultimate reality with which we have to deal, the nation-state has taken the place of God as the source to which we look for happiness, health, and welfare.

Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1986), 26–7.

Only a prehistory

[In] natural science and technology, the history of their discoveries is not an essential part of themselves, but only a prehistory. Only the datum is significant, not how it came to be. In much the same way, the history of exegesis has degenerated for the [contemporary] exegetes into a prehistory with which their own efforts are not directly concerned.

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Principles of Catholic Theology: Building Stones for a Fundamental Theology (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1987), Part 1, Section 2 E, p. 133 (emphasis added), as cited in Mary S. Ford, The Soul's Longing: An Orthodox Christian Perspective on Biblical Interpretation (Waymart, Pennsylvania: St. Tikhon's Monastery Press, 2015), 165.

Following instructions

My oldest daughter just turned four. In preparation for her birthday party, we instructed her that if someone gave her a gift containing something she already owns, she should simply say thank you (and not point out that she already owns it).

At the party, someone gave her a few books and she already had all but one of them. She began to speak but caught herself, then I could see the little gears in her head turning. She then said, “Mommy, I don’t have this one!”

She followed our instructions to the best of her ability, and it was hilarious.