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Monday, April 24, 2017

Finding God in the Body: A Review

Finding God in the Body by Benjamin Riggs is the book about almost everything my conservative Christians friends worry I might believe. That doesn't automatically make it a bad book (neither does it automatically make it a good one) but it certainly made for an interesting read. On one level, Finding God in the Body is a well written, frequently insightful book containing some really useful spiritual practices and perspectives; on another, reading it felt a little like reading a caricature of myself, drawn by one of those more conservative friends. Whatever else it was, this book certainly was a good reminder to me that Christian theology is not the binary we like to make it into, but large room with a lot of shared furniture.

Because my overall reaction to the book was fairly complicated, I want to address a few aspects of it independently and will try to finish with a broad gestalt impression.

The writing

Riggs is a talented author and Finding God in the Body clearly benefits. His thoughts are well organized, he takes a warm, usually non-challenging, tone, and skillfully weaves narrative moments into his broad argument. While the ideas are deep and certainly challenging the read in itself is easy and quite compelling. While I did get a little bogged down in two of the thirteen chapters, the book as a whole is fundamentally read-able.

What I agreed with

There are several great insights in Finding God in the Body (not the least of which is that God is to be found within the Body). Riggs' overall project seems to be to represent some of the best of western and Tibetan Buddhist wisdom, insight and practice, in the idiom of Christian mystical and monastic/contemplative tradition. As such, the book participates robustly in the conversations around the relationship between eastern wisdom philosophy and Christian theology (I caught particular resonances with Thomas Merton, Joseph A Loya, and Heiromonk Damascene). Without launching into a defense of God's working in all peoples throughout history, I want to affirm Riggs' basic project here; we should all welcome attempts to bring the best of eastern and western thinking  into conversation with one another.

Not only does Riggs participate in the conversation, he adds to it significantly. The overall premise of the book is that we can benefit from paying attention to the the body as such beyond our thought-life (what Riggs refers to as the "false-self") and Riggs helpfully expounds quite a few techniques drawn from both eastern (primarily Buddhist) and western mystic traditions. He combines the practical directions well with the "why" of these practices, Chapter 11 How to Meditate with the Body is particularly good in this regard. Before laying out a helpful contemplative practice, Riggs explains the need as follows:
Busyness is the false-self's response to shame and insecurity. If our spiritual practice is to be transformative, then it cannot be characterized by this busyness. We cannot think our way out of  disembodiment. This is where many of us throw our hands up in frustration. We get mad because thinking about things is all we know. We feel stuck. 
The false-self system is a closed circuit system. It ignores any information that does not originate within itself. It disregards emotion, intuition, inconvenient truths, and challenging points of view. A closed mind cannot feel, listen trust, be still, or be silent. It is so closed off that it only sees itself. This breeds corruption. The mind keeps turning to itself to solve problems that it created. In a disembodied mind, the criminal is in charge of the crime scene. If we hope to escape this cycle, we must find another vantage point.
This overall project, insofar as it comes down to encouraging spiritual pilgrims to listen to, value, and honor the body—to find that the body is an image of God—is one I heartily approve of. It strikes me as a vital corrective both for contemporary western Christianity and for western culture as a whole, which has tended towards the modernist error of isolating the intellect as "true person" and the only final subject of improvement. Further, I cannot get over how happy I am that he offers practical advice for the reader wanting to develop a habit of body-mindfulness.


At the end of the day though, I part ways with Riggs on a basic level. He seems (ironically to my mind) to have accepted far more of the modern, western understanding of the world than I do, or could think wise. In focusing on the body Riggs somehow has managed to ring himself in as a deconstructed materialist. I am confident that he would dislike and want to challenge this characterization but I am tempted to say that Riggs ultimately rejects the transcendent (I suspect that he believes he has found it and that the natural is, in and of itself, the transcendent).

Benjamin Riggs
Riggs seems like a
neat guy...
Our disagreement comes down to this: I am a supernaturalist and, so far as I can tell, Riggs is not. Where I want to argue that the body (and the mind) are images which have value in themselves, to which even more is added by the fact that they also point beyond themselves to God, Riggs seems content (and insistent) to say that the body points to itself alone. He he has found God in the body but seems to have concluded that God cannot therefore exist outside the body. As a result, his treatments of Jesus (chapter 8) and myth (chapter 7) suffer significantly. Where I believe that myth is an image of transcendent Truth clothed in particularities of history, culture, and story, Riggs claims "The primary function of myth is to move beyond the surface and penetrate our inmost core, laying bare our human nature" and so, his reading of myth focuses on the wrapping and mistakes it for the substance within. 

So too, when Riggs turns to talk about Jesus, he dismisses all accounts of the supernatural as literary and poetic licence (oversimplifying the text and thereby making the equal-and-opposite mistake of the fundamentalist who insists on an entirely literal reading of the bible). The result is a Jesus of Nazareth who is no more or less divine than any human person and who works well as a model, and maybe even savior-by-example, for us but not at all as a friend, or Lord. At the risk of sounding too damning, Riggs knows a good deal about Jesus but doesn't even claim to know Jesus. In fact he worries that those of us who do make such a claim, are committing the idolatry of worshiping that which is outside of ourselves (Jesus) in place of the divine within ourselves. My only real response to him there is a total acceptance of the accusation. I have given my allegiance to Jesus as external to my own being.

Bringing it all together

My final characterization of Finding God in the Body is that, while it contains a useful, and even necessary corrective to the culture and Christianity of our day, the book ultimately suffers from a pendulum like over-correction based in Riggs' rejection of the transcendent. He has read his Joseph Campbell but not his C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien; he has recognized myth but not realized that it might be fact at the same time. Ultimately I would argue that Finding God in the Body represents an important voice in the conversation about spirituality, philosophy, and being, and we are the richer for having Riggs as a part of it, but he has missed the main thing and his work suffers for it.  

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Having the Gall to Hope: An Easter Reflection

So, broadly speaking, 2016 really sucked, 2017 was a constant struggle, and (updated one year later) 2018 is looking to be just as rough. Tragedy seems (accurately or inaccurately) to be on the increase and the world's politics are (with a few exceptions) trending authoritarian in remarkably troubling ways. Add to that the ongoing social and religious tensions in my own, western, corner of the globe and everything stacked up for a remarkably powerful lent.

Since lent is the season where Christians engage in reflection, and repentance, the fact that my attention was already on the many broken parts of the world, made it far easier than normal for me to reflect on my own role in the world and to take a serious look at how I could be living a life which contributed more to the good goal I believe Jesus has for this world, and less to the ultimately destructive destination we seem so hell bent on dashing towards as a species. That isn't to suggest that people haven't been suffering or that there haven't been tragedies and injustices for millennia—I know that there have been—it is just that they were far harder to ignore this year.

So, yeah, lent worked for me this year.

And that meant that Easter—the resurrection—caught me almost entirely off guard in the best possible way.

Today we celebrate the utter victory of God over death, over injustice, over the broken and destructive systems of the world. For Christians, this weekend marks the celebration of the time God, having entered into the full experience of Humanity, allowed all the the power systems of the world to fall squarely on himself and then he defeated them without using a single one of those tools. Jesus has already rejected the opportunity to use religious or political power to fix things. He rejected violence, he rejected nationalism. And then he allowed all of those powers to sentence him to death. He let them bring the full weight of their force and scorn (what Greg Boyd refers to as power over) and they killed him.

They achieved their ultimate end.

What more is there to do to your enemy once you have alienated him from his friends, tortured and broken his body, and killed him. Jesus didn't just die, he died and outcast, abandoned by his closest friends, deemed a heretic and blasphemer by the religious leaders, designated treasonous by both the political empire and the rebellion against the empire. He was the scapegoat that both factions used to ease the tension between themselves for a time. In dying, Jesus exposed all of these systems for what they were. He unmasked them as the price for his death. They could not bring their full force to bear on the god-man without showing themselves in their full brokenness. So they were exposed, and he died.

Which is why there is a good bit of despair built into Good Friday. The forces, powers, and systems of the world had killed the man who identified as Love and as Truth, and in doing so they had shown themselves to be evil. And that seemed to leave us without Love, without Truth, and without the ability to pretend that the powers which took them from us are anything but perverse. God and Humanity died that day. Our powers, the systems we built, killed the best of us. So if our best could lead to nothing but death for the best among us, what could there be for us but death?

And then, on Easter morning, dawn broke, and Love, Hope, and Faith—the Truth, the very Logic of being inextricably, incomprehensibly bound up with humanity, Life himself—came storming out of grave. And death, empire, nationalism, religion, oppression, injustice was defeated. What is there but defeat when your enemy can unmake your very best without recourse to anything of yours?

And it is too good to believe. In fact it is galling.

This cornerstone of Christian faith is that Jesus defeated the greatest power structures of the world without using a single one of them. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus had said that there was a better way to be human, and on this weekend, he proved that this new way—this way of Love, of Peace, of Meekness, of Humility, of Suffering, and of Joy—is ultimately triumphant.

So today we were in church singing Up from the Grave He Arose
Low in the grave he lay, Jesus my Savior, waiting the coming day, Jesus my Lord! 
Up from the grave he arose; with a mighty triumph o'er his foes; he arose a victor from the dark domain, and he lives forever, with his saints to reign. He arose! He arose! Hallelujah! Christ arose! 
Vainly they watch his bed, Jesus my Savior, vainly they seal the dead, Jesus my Lord! 
Death cannot keep its prey, Jesus my Savior; he tore the bars away, Jesus my Lord!  
a pretty darned traditional Easter hymn, and I was struck by the nerve. Here Turkey is in the middle of a referendum to turn itself into a dictatorship, the country which bills itself as the defender of freedom and human rights just dropped the largest non-nuclear bomb in human history, petty tyrants and dictators are killing their own people in horrific ways and testing nuclear technology; Chechnya has started up concentration camps for gay men, more than 3/4 of a billion people don't have access to clean water, and the list goes on and on... death is still throwing its weight around, power, destruction, tribalism, and hate are still running strong. And Christians around the world today are declaring our belief that these forces cannot win in the end, that resurrection—not death—marks the next chapter in the human story. That takes some serious nerve.

At the risk of stealing a book title from our recent president, we have audacious hope. Not just hope that the story of humanity will somehow end well, but that it can end well at all. Easter is our feast day for celebrating the victory of God's way of being over our own violent, tribal, hierarchical solutions. Today we have the unmitigated gall to declare the suffering, love, peacemaking, faithfulness, and seemingly irrational hope, are not in vain but must ultimately win.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Sex, God & the Conservative Church: A Review

Tina Schirmer Sellers is a fascinating person within the context of American Christianity, and if her book is any indication, she probably wishes that she weren't. I just finished Sex, God & the Conservative Church: Erasing Shame from Sexual Intimacy and I have to say that I am really excited that this book is going out into the world—it is very much needed. We certainly need more people joining her efforts and this book intends to help with that project.

Sellers is a Christian therapist and researcher who holds a PhD in Clinical Sexology, teaches at a Christian University (Seattle Pacific University), and has been looking into the impact that the "Purity Movement" had on conservative Christians since somewhere around 2000 (she gives a good account of what that process has looked like HERE). And that isn't the sort of thing we generally expect to find among Christian (and particularly Evangelical Christian) counselors these days. In an environment where sexuality is sill perceived as threatening and awkward, Tina Schirmer Sellers is a sunlight and a stiff breeze. I want all of the Christian counselors out there to read her book. And I want her to turn this book into at least three other books.

The book itself has two distinct audiences. First, she is writing to therapists and counselors (Christian or otherwise) who will be, and already are, working with people who were raised in conservative Christianity. Second, she is writing to Christians who want to get a better understanding of "how we got here" and how to think positively about sexuality from a Christian perspective. Because I am the latter, I will not be reviewing the book for it's quality as a manual for therapists beyond recognizing that from my layman's perspective it seems to be very well researched. 

As a Christian who grew up in the thick of the "Purity Movement" within Evangelical Christianity, the real meat of the book for me was in the first five (out of eight) chapters. Sellers starts with an overview of the last 30-ish years of conservative Christian thinking and teaching on the subject of sex and sexuality, then provides an solid survey of the Western Church's teaching and evolution on the subject. That is followed by an exploration of the current Western (American) environment and messaging on sexuality, before two chapters exploring her own research and thoughts into a healthy, joyful, and sex-positive understanding of sexuality, based in Hebrew tradition together with New-Testament Christian theology. The book ends with her advice to therapists and counselors about how they can best help their clients heal from the damage which the purity movement and western culture have brought about. In other words, she describes the problem, identifies its causes, offers corrective thinking, and ends with specific solutions—the book is excellently organized, and (as a bonus) winsomely written with helpful anecdotes, case studies, and illustrations throughout.

My only complaint about the book is that it is too short. I regularly found myself at the end of a given chapter wishing that she had written a full book on that particular subject (and I am still eager to dive into the many books, blogs, journal articles, and researchers she cites throughout the book). After a little reflection, I can only hope that Sellers will follow this book up with first, a more exhaustive book (maybe as a collaboration with some theologians and Christian Historians) on the history of Jewish and Christian teaching on sexuality generally, and the shape of the last 40 years or so particularly; second, a rigorous theological exploration of God and eros (though she does reference some books which I have not yet read and which may do this quite well); and third, a more comprehensive survey of the messages which Christians have grown up with over the last 30-40 years in Western and Christian culture—I would love to read her thoughts on the impact that the LGBT "debate" has had on the sexual health of LGBTQ+ and cis, straight Christians. But I do not mean that to be a real critique, I suspect that Sex, God & the Conservative Church already does as much as can be done in a single volume and Sellers certainly avoids any sense of leaving an argument or explanation incomplete. As most good books do, it left me eager to learn and understand more.

I have already recommended this book to my pastor and am planning to recommend it to my Christian counselor and therapist friends, as well as to anyone who is working to understand the sexual shame and dysfunction plaguing Christian Gen-Xers and Millennials. This book is sorely needed and I really hope that it will become an active part of the conversation going forward.

Sex, God & the Conservative Church: Erasing Shame from Sexual Intimacy is available for pre-order now on Amazon and will be released on April 27, 2017

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Blue Ocean Reflections Part 3: Childlike Faith

This is the third post in a six part series. You can find Part 1, Solus Jesus is HERE, and Part 2, Centered Set HERE

The Blue Ocean Reflections series consists of my personal interaction and history with the six "distinctives" of the Blue Ocean Faith movement as laid out in the book of the same name (you can find my review of the book HERE). Throughout the series I intend to talk about my own history and journey of faith and to offer some thoughts on how what I have come to believe impacts my understanding of the world. As such this series is likely to have a heavy focus on theology, philosophy, and politics. But since my formal education has been as broad as I could make it, my reflections are apt to be fairly wide-ranging as well.

The third "Blue Ocean Distinctive" is a belief that "childlike faith" is the best (only?) path to spiritual growth. Of all of the six distinctives, this one has probably been both the most important and the most counter-intuitive for me. It is also thoroughly intertwined with several of the other distinctives.

Kids are generally black-and-white, concrete thinkers, and I was no exception to this. For all of my childhood and adolescence and on into my early twenties, I was eager to find out "how the world works" and believed that my answers were out there. In terms of my relationship with God, this had the effect of driving me into the arms of theology and apologetics (for those of you who do not share my conservative Christian background, apologetics is the discipline of offering evidence, arguments, and proofs in defense of Christian tennets of faith). It was never enough for me to know that someone had apparently solved a particular problem, I had to know how they had solved it and evaluate the quality of their argument.

And I really enjoyed it.

To this day, there is little which I enjoy more that the rigorous back-and-forth of well crafted argument and response. I experience clarity of thought and elegance of expression as a particular beauty; I find it energizing and life giving. And I don't think that there is anything wrong with that at all, in fact I think that appreciating, critiquing, and crafting arguments is part of my vocation in this world.

But that is what makes childlike faith counter-intuitive for me.

Schmelzer opens this chapter of the book with the story of a conversation he had with a woman who approached him with questions about opportunities for academically rigorous classes as a means for spiritual growth. In the account, the lady is eager to get training in theology or apologetics based on her belief that these disciplines will effect spiritual growth. Essentially, she believes that spiritual growth consists in knowing more truths. In contrast, Schmelzer suggests that spiritual growth consists in knowing Jesus more fully. 

I have found that a linguistic distinction has been really helpful in getting my head around this—unfortunately it is not a distinction which exists in English. In many other languages though there is a distinction between the kind of knowing that has to do with fact and the kind of knowing that has to do with relationships or acquaintance. "I know that 2+2=4" would be an example of the first, "fact" type of knowing. The Turkish word for this sort of knowing is bilmek, (in German it is wissen, in French savoir) while the Turkish for relational knowing is tanımak (German kennen, French connaître). On one level, we could say that the woman in the story believed that spiritual growth is achieved—at least past a certain rudimentary point—by an increase in bilmek, while Schmelzer maintains that spiritual growth is all about tanımak.

In my own experience, the distinction between bilmek knowing God and tanımak knowing God, started to really stand out while I was in Bible college. Certainly before that I would have spoken sincerely about having a "personal relationship with Jesus" and I still believe that that relationship was a real one. But if I were being honest, even then, I would have had to say that the adjective "personal" in that particular trope really meant something like "strong" or "powerful". I had a relationship with Jesus but it didn't much occur to me that the relationship itself was the point. I sort of thought that being right about everything was the point (notice how intertwined this "distinctive" is with the first two?)  Facts-about Jesus rather than Jesus himself were what I thought really drove my spiritual life. And that led me to prioritize using bilmek knowledge to draw as accurate a boundary as I could around my bounded (rather than centered) set faith. 

This led, frankly, to me being a jerk on an unfortunately frequent basis. In my defense, it is really hard not to be a jerk when concerns of ultimate importance are all about which propositions someone does or doesn't accept as true. The sheer pressure to get people to agree with you has a tendency to turn differences of opinion into condescension, disagreements into quarrels, and debates into fights. When saving someone is the same thing as convincing them, friendships become incredibly difficult. I did manage it occasionally, but some  of my least favorite memories with my non-Christian friends in highschool have to do with our conversations about religion. Most of the time I just talked to them about other things altogether—and then felt incredibly guilty.

And it really wasn't much better with my Christian friends. Particularly once I started at Bible college, each discussion about God (a subject I genuinely love to discuss) was too frequently haunted by possibility that one or both of us might be falling into heresy. There were places our discussions simply mustn't be allowed to go, ideas which were simply too dangerous to explore.

And I think that is what saved me.

I still don't get it—there should be a black dot in the center right!?!
I have never been very good at just letting a question go. I remember getting in trouble once in middle school because I wouldn't be satisfied with any explanation of why I didn't see a black dot in
the middle of my field of vision when I looked through a Newtonian telescope. When the teacher gave up and told me to just drop it so that he could continue the lesson I must have said something rude about his knowledge base. It didn't end well.

The thing is, that impulse to keep pushing until I get an answer which actually satisfies me, ultimately led me to some pretty scary conclusions about the availability of bilmek knowledge out there. This whole process will likely get its own blog post one day, so for the time being let's just say that the biggest lesson I took away from Bible college is not only that we don't know nearly as much as we pretend to, but that we can't know nearly as much as we think we have to. I had gone to the very place where I was supposed to get answers (bilmek knowledge) only to discover that those answers which I had been assured I would understand with enough education, didn't seem to actually exist. At least they didn't exist in any form that satisfied me.

Three years later I went to a secular grad school where we played with ideas, asked questions, and did our best to discover what truth we could find. It was freeing, beautiful, and life giving. It turns out that the pursuit of truth is way more fun once you give up on needing to find all of it and instead "settle" for insights into Truth.

The upshot was that, as much as I love it, I discovered that bilmek knowledge wasn't especially helpful for my own spiritual growth. The most I can say for it is that it taught me its own limitations.

But what does all of this have to do with childlike faith? Schmelzer describes "childlike faith" using the analogy of a three year old child in downtown Manhattan. From the book:

Imagine that you're a three-year-old child in downtown Manhattan who says to your parent, "Hey, thanks so much for all your help to this point. I totally appreciate it! But, you know, I'm good at this point and I don't think I'll need you anymore. I can take things from here. I'll get a job, get a lease on a nice apartment, and set myself up just great. But thanks again for everything!
What I think is utterly critical here is the relational aspect of the faith in question. I am convinced that the God who wants to be tanımak known, is far less interested in us having high degrees of certainty when it comes to facts-about-the-nature-of-reality than in being trusted in relationship. It has become my nearly automatic habit to mentally replace the word "faith" whenever it appears as a command, with the word "trust". You see the difference? "Faith" has all to do with bilemk knowldege, where trust rests on tanımak knowledge.
Paul Ricoeur

Schmelzer works this through riffing of the the spiritual development model of Paul Ricoeur (he also builds out a terrifically compelling model based on Joseph Campbell's Monomyth using Tolkien's work as the primary example—you can find some of his best explanation of that HERE):
Now how Ricoeur uses this and how I'm using it are not one-to-one, but here's the central idea. When we first experience Jesus, were plunged into the first naïveté . Whatever anyone says about the Bible is awesome. Whatever insights we get in our own scripture readings or prayers are fantastic. Jesus begins to talk to us, and it's astounding. We're confident there are only good things in store for us in this amazing journey of faith we've just been invited onto!
But then, Ricoeur says, we enter "critical distance." We realize that things we'd innocently assumed to be true just don't hold up,either because we get a little learning about the Bile and churches, because we get pushback from smart people, or because life itself doesn't work out the way we thought it would. Our expectations have bee messed with.
At this point we have options. One powerful urge would tell us to stuff critical distance at all costs! Go back to the first naïveté! Ignore all that stuff you've been hearing or the experiences you've been having! All those insights about life aren't really worth having if they cost you the first naïveté! Do what you can to crawl back into the womb! In hopes of regaining the safety and security that we've lost, the price we pay when we make this choice is a sort of permanent opposition to everything that called us into critical distance. WE become combative, religious people, "standing firm" against challenges from ... well, from those lousy people who are experiencing critical distance.
Or, we could camp out in critical distance and become profoundly reactive to combative, religious people. That's another option.
But our goal is the second naïveté, which is this resurrection...The second naïveté is the "childlike maturity" that Paul is talking about in 1 Corinthians 13, or the author of Hebrews is talking about in chapter 5. ... Almost none of us gets this. The road is narrow that leads to life 
The second naïveté is, I would argue, the complex, relationally difficult (because it is relationship after all) discovery of tanımak based trust in a living, interactive Jesus who is far more profound, and far more fundamentally True, than any of the truths we sought through bilmek knowledge. The second naïveté is coming home, only to discover that "home" is a more terrifying, painful, beautiful, awful, awesome, glorious adventure than we could ever have imagined before.  

The surprising result of giving up my attachment to the pursuit of bilmek knowledge of God as an ultimate end and replacing it with a committed and (at least aspirationally) trusting relationship with the person who is Jesus has been that my intellectual life, my study of philosophy and theology, my enjoyment of debate and conversation has actually gotten richer. The quote (I heard it first from David Foster Wallace, but I don't think it is original to him) that "the mind is a wonderful servant but a terrible master" turns out to be true. Once we come to understand spiritual growth to be a process of learning to trust a loving God more and more—always deepening our relationship, our tanımak knowledge—we become free to explore our questions and posit answers with far more joy and freedom. It is one more iteration of C.S. Lewis' Law of First and Second Things:
Put first things first and we get second things thrown in: put second things first and we lose both first and second things.

For Part 4: Religious Squabbles and the Third Way, Click HERE

Product Details
Click HERE to get Blue Ocean Faith on Amazon

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Why We Need Artists or: Why Modernists are Letting their Guard Down

Eve L. Ewing has written an Op-Ed over at the New York Times reflecting on the penchant of authoritarian regimes for censoring and controlling the arts. While I think the article wrings its hands a little too much over the Trump administration's move to cut the National Endowment for the Arts (there is a significant difference between cutting government funding and outright censorship and control) the piece is well worth reading for its straightforward and elegant apologetic for the arts in a democratic society. She argues that artists, and particularly avant-garde artists, play a crucial role in critiquing the norms and institutions of a given society. Given the value authoritarian regimes place on defending established norms and institutions, it is unsurprising that authoritarians generally react against our more prophetic artists.

The piece has me thinking about the overall role that artists play in human society. Well beyond offering important critiques of existing power structures and institutions, I want to suggest that artists are able to communicate a consciousness of the world which is not fundamentally reducible to propositional language. My favorite example of this is the story that, when asked to explain the meaning of The Wasteland, T.S. Elliot replied by reciting the poem itself—art can be discussed and explored, maybe even understood, but it cannot be fundamentally deconstructed. Along these lines, I have become more and more convinced of late that we have both direct and modeled experiences of reality—let's call the modeled experiences physical and the direct experiences metaphysical as they do not require a sensory model. I suspect that we experience the world more fully than our five senses can adequately process or than our mental models can represent. And art, of nearly any type, communicates on both the physical and metaphysical level. Either that, or by being an unfamiliar representation of the familiar, art confronts us with the artificiality of our own model of reality, thereby shocking us into some sort of greater contact with reality as such. 

Or I could be entirely wrong about that. 

Either way, the fact remains that art is able to make an impression on us which prose and reason find far more difficult. The philosopher Peter Kreeft compares art, poetry, humor, and music to the burglar who sneaks past our critical thinking to take up unexamined (or at least, far less-examined) habitation in our minds. From the perspective of most philosophers. mentors, parents, and teachers this makes art exceptionally dangerous and exceptionally powerful. Art bypasses all of the carefully trained resistances we have against bad thinking and fallacious logic. And, of course, so it is. We cannot combat the negative influence of bad or evil art by critical thinking; it is, to quote Dr. Kreeft again, dark magic. And the only solution to dark magic is good magic—good art (total side note but is it any surprise that Evangelicals who, with a few notable exceptions have proved unable to produce much beyond the most anemic art, feel that they are losing a great culture war?). This has resulted in a considerable amount of hand-wringing on the part of those who hope to keep bad beliefs out of the heads of good people. And for good reason.

But I think there is a serious mistake we frequently commit when we start to worry about the powerful impact of art on our own minds; and I think that it is a modernist mistake. We tend to believe that truth comes from logic or reason and that any other communication represents, at best, a short-cut or an attempt to make the experience more palatable. Put another way, we believe that reason=truth and art=emotions.This is, as I have said, a mistake—for a number of reasons. First, it is a mistake because it fails to recognize that there is truth which cannot be reduced to rational propositions (if there weren't then the cosmos would be fundamentally reduce-able to a perfect mathematical model and I don't accept that it is), it amounts to a claim that our constructed models of reality can be tested for "truth" but gives up on the possibility of a more basic, more absolute Truth against which those models might be judged. Second, it is a mistake because it overvalues our capacity to recognize bad reasoning. If the recent elections and the ensuing brouhaha over legitimate and illegitimate news sources, or the crisis of internet polarization and sloppy reasoning have taught us anything, it is that the Dunning-Kruger effect and confirmation bias are far more powerful that any 18th century rationalist or empiricist would ever want to accept; a guard who can fulfill her duties is a great thing, but putting our trust in a guard whom we know to be only semi-competent at best is simple foolishness. And the fact of the matter is that with all of our careful reasoning and critical thinking, the rational guards on our minds are semi-competent at best. Wisdom demands that we recognize our own rational limitations and work within them rather than pretending that our critical faculties are able to perfectly sort good reasoning from bad.

And yet we can't and won't simply throw in the towel and accept an existence wherein we stop evaluating all experience for Truth. 

This, too, is a book of Truth
I want to suggest that we are left with only one option. We need to allow it all. We need the artists, the poets, the painters, the singers, and the story tellers with all their silver lies and golden Truths. And we need the Mathematicians and the physicists with their known unknowns and their limited models of reality. The quest for Truth cannot be avoided—to avoid it is to surrender—and the fight for Truth cannot be restricted to a single arena—that would be to invite summary defeat from another arena. Our approach must be mixed, it must be complex, and it must be alive. We need to ask about the aesthetics of our proofs and much as we ask about the logic of our dance. We are whole persons living in a real world. No partial measures will do.