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Saturday, May 27, 2017

Delight as a Spiritual Discipline

Everyone raised his hand to pick the fruit he best liked the look of, and then everyone paused for a second. This fruit was so beautiful that each felt "It can't be meant for me . . . surely we're not allowed to pluck it."
It's all right," said Peter. "I know what we're all thinking. But I'm sure, quite sure, we needn't. I've a feeling we've got to the country where everything is allowed."
"Here goes, then!" said Eustace. And they all began to eat.
What was the fruit like? Unfortunately no one can describe a taste. All I can say is that, compared with those fruits, the freshest grapefruit you've ever eaten was dull, and the juiciest orange was dry, and the most melting pear was hard and woody, and the sweetest wild strawberry was sour. And there were no seeds or stones, and no wasps." 
-C.S. Lewis The Last Battle

I turned thirty five the other day and my family bought me a pair of Enchroma glasses for my birthday. In case you haven't watched one of their videos online yet, Enchroma glasses correct a degree of red-green colorblindness for those who have the condition. I had watched the videos and was really excited when I opened the box. The idea that I would be suddenly gaining access to a world that everyone else experiences all the time was somewhere between exhilarating and terrifying. Now my color blindness is pretty mild. I don't have any trouble with stoplights and I am rarely wrong about any given color (purple is my undoing—I just can't see the red in it so I almost always think it is dark blue). But for my entire life, people have been going on about sunsets and autumn leaves in a way that has convinced me that there really must be something to them even though they generally leave me flat (I experience most sunsets as a fairly drab wash of bleached pastels). Now it was suddenly possible that I would be swept into new beauty—beauty which I could literally not imagine. At the same time, I was aware of the fact that the classes don't work for everyone ("individual results will vary") and the fear of disappointment was almost as keen as the hope for I-knew-not-what-exactly.

Without leaving you in suspense: they worked. At least they make a significant difference in the way I see the world around me. I can't say that with them I see the world as though I weren't colorblind since I don't know what the world looks like through your eyes. But when I wear these glasses purple becomes a whole thing. Also nobody ever told me that green has this much variety to it. I spent the first hours after I got the glasses just wandering around with a stupid grin on my face being distracted by the grass, the spring leaves, and the sky. There is one particular tree just across the street, which I am now particularly taken by. I think the underside of each leaf is a different shade of green from the topside (I hadn't realized it before) so when I look at that tree from all the way across the street, I can still make out each individual leaf, even thought they are all just green. My distance vision is perfectly fine, but I had never seen more than an indistinct blob-with-lines above the trunk before.

I think it must be like hearing harmony for the first time after a life of knowing only the melody. The world is simply more vibrant, more deep, more subtle, more complex, more real than I ever imagined it was.

This experience has left me thinking more and more about the overlapping concepts of delight, longing, and joy. Historically, Christianity has tended to be associated with the idea of asceticism and discipline. The ten commandments are generally thought of as negatives sorts of commands (don't do this, that, and the other), the whole concept of holiness in Christian teaching is popularly understood to be a list of things people are supposed to not do in order to avoid contaminating their moral purity, as well as a few things we are to do (but which are generally viewed as onerous). We are told that we should be able to find delight in this (the psalms seem to get really excited about obeying "the law") but that doesn't actually tend to jibe with our experience of life all that often. Christian-ing just doesn't come across as that much fun.

And while I know that I have just constructed a straw man, that the "fruit of the Spirit" are all actually beautiful and exciting ways of being, there is a genuine sense that "serious" Christians are those who really embrace a dour sense of suffering and sacrifice.

But. But. But.

That actually doesn't describe the people we read about in the bible. It actually doesn't describe the great saints, it actually doesn't describe the very life of Jesus. Those lives are rich and messy. Those lives are balls-to-the-wall vibrant. We find Jesus laughing and yelling and weeping and partying. In order to be considered for canonization, a saint's life has to show evidence of all of the fruits of the Spirit—joy no less than patience; after all Jesus' great prayer for us was that we would have lives lived to the full—abundant lives.

I think Charles Williams, the Anglican mystic poet-scholar can be of great help here. He (following an older tradition) describes two "ways" of Christianity: the way of negation, and the way of affirmation of images (I have written a bit more about them HERE). The first is the way of the ascetic. In the way of negation, the whole deal is to stop being distracted by all the things which are not God and which cause us to think of God in terms of what we see rather than as the transcendent unknowable. The way of negation tends to focus on knowing God directly; the mystical experience, meditation, and spiritual disciplines like fasting and accountability are hallmarks of the way of negation. The latter, the way of the affirmation of images, attempts to see God "though" the images of god's self in the good world that God has made, and it is worth nothing that the mystics have as much of a propensity to wind up here as as they do in the way of negation; think of St. Francis preaching to the animals, or St. Thomas Aquinas' appreciation for the table and attendant unwillingness to impose his weight on a donkey, these are marks of the way of affirmation. Williams is at pains to remind us that each can become disastrous without the other, that people following the one way need to be reminded not to judge those who follow the other—that, in fact, we need the wisdom and input of those following the other—and that each offers insights the other is likely blind to.

That is all well and good, and I am very much persuaded by Williams' account. But I think it can, and should, be taken a bit farther. I want to suggest that the temperament which is drawn to the way of negation also tends towards a dismissal of the physical as such. In the desire to be united to the Spirit of God there seems to be a strong temptation to deny the goodness of the body, a desire to become mere spirit. This is a dangerous thing. We are spirits but we are not mere spirits, we are body-spirits. We are (to borrow once more from C.S. Lewis) amphibious beings of both body and spirit. The impetus to deny the body can easily become a state of discontent, a state of explaining to God that we were not made as the right sort of being.

And lest you think this understanding of the way of affirmation is unique to the high church and somehow excludes the reformation, let me share an utterly "way of affirmation" poem by the 18th century reformed preacher Ralph Erskine:
PART I


This Indian weed now wither'd quite,
'Tho' green at noon, cut down at night, 
            Shows thy decay; 
            All flesh is hay. 
      Thus think, and smoke tobacco.


The pipe so lily-like and weak, 

Does thus thy mortal state bespeak. 
            Thou art ev'n such, 
            Gone with a touch. 
      Thus think, and smoke tobacco.


And when the smoke ascends on high, 
Then thou behold'st the vanity 
            Of worldly stuff, 
            Gone with a puff. 
      Thus think, and smoke tobacco.


And when the pipe grows foul within, 
Think on thy soul defil'd with sin; 
            For then the fire, 
            It does require. 
      Thus think, and smoke tobacco.


And seest the ashes cast away; 
Then to thyself thou mayest say 
            That to the dust 
            Return thou must. 
      Thus think, and smoke tobacco.


PART II.
Was this small plant for thee cut down? 
So was the plant of great renown; 
            Which mercy sends 
            For nobler ends. 
      Thus think, and smoke tobacco.


Doth juice medicinal proceed 
From such a naughty foreign weed? 
            Then what's the pow'r 
            Of Jesse's flow'r? 
      Thus think, and smoke tobacco.


The promise, like the pipe, inlays, 
And by the mouth of faith conveys 
            What virtue flows 
            From Sharon's rose. 
      Thus think, and smoke tobacco.


In vain th' unlighted pipe you blow; 
Your pains in inward means are so, 
            'Till heav'nly fire 
            Thy heart inspire. 
      Thus think, and smoke tobacco.


The smoke, like burning incense tow'rs 
So should a praying heart of yours, 
            With ardent cries, 
            Surmount the skies. 
      Thus think, and smoke tobacco.



For all my love of C.S. Lewis, I believe that one critical mistake he made throughout his eschatology is an over acceptance of neo-Platonism. In neo-Platonic thinking, the only utterly "real" absolute is God (or "The Good") and everything else is an "emanation" from God, with all things becoming less real the further they have "emanated" from the center. This view has a lot to recommend it (you will see echoes of it in the writings of Augustine as well). It has given rise to the whole understanding of heaven as another land, better (more real) than the state of being we currently inhabit and to which we will one day go. The problem is that, at the end of the day, it is not a fundamentally Christian view. The promise Jesus made to us is not that there is a Kingdom of God which we will one day get to go to, it is that there is a Kingdom of God which is, even now, breaking into our own existence. As such, following the way of Jesus does not mean distancing oneself from the world, but growing into people who can first imagine, then partner with God in bringing a greater real-ness, a fuller goodness, to this world. That the old world is passing away and that a new world is being formed, does not mean that we will be transplanted. That new kingdom is being formed under our feet. It is breaking through now. It has been breaking through for two thousand years and will continue to break through until it is fully here and nothing of the old, drab, evil, sinful, broken world is left (I am going to refrain from commenting on the the question of whether there will be one final great push before the Kingdom of God fully comes or whether the entire process will sneak in gradually).

And this is why I believe that delight is a spiritual discipline, one which is far too much ignored and even despised by the western church. The innocent enjoyment of the good world God has made—we cannot forget that even the drab "old world" is shot through with resonant images of the vibrant Kingdom—is a training course in seeing the Kingdom God has made us partners in effecting. To feast, to love, to celebrate, to gaze at the sky in wonder, are all acts of spiritual insight. They are all disciplines. Good sex is as holy—and for many as necessary—as a rigorous fast and laughter is no less godly than lament. In the latter we are reminded that we live in a broken world; in the former, that the broken world is being healed.


It has been observed recently that we need a theology of lament, of loss, that too often our theology is entirely about propositions or about ethical duties—a theology for computers and enlightenment philosophes—too rarely is it about being. I agree with this critique, we do need a theology of lament and loss. We need a theology rooted in Ecclesiastes, Job and the Good Friday. That would give us one critical part of a theology of they way of affirmation. A theology of lament is critical to our capacity to honestly, richly, greet the very real world of which we are a part. But we also need a theology of delight. We need a theology of dancing till we collapse on a hot summer night; a theology of the third beer; of laughing under a string of lights because tomorrow has no hold on us tonight. We need a theology of thick time in thin spaces, a theology of the presence of divine joy in every street lamp and blade of grass. We need a theology of the tinny speaker and the spontaneous sing-along to an 80's anthem, a theology of bluegrass and crickets, a theology of lighting bugs. As much as we need a theology of lament, we need a theology of the eternal moment and the laughing earth, for human flourishing is thing of both laughter and tears.

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