Thursday, January 24, 2013

Blue sapphire

Something different this morning. Doug Christie was kind enough to respond to my posts of the past few days. Since the topic is central to this blog, I thought I would share his remarks, with his permission of course. Doug is Professor of Theological Studies at Loyola Marymount University in California.



Thanks so much for your comments on The Blue Sapphire of the Mind. How interesting to hear you engaging my work in this way, almost in real time. And how happy I am to have warmed (or at least not cooled) your skeptic's heart. It means a lot to me to know that you could read this book with both feeling and regard and to recognize some of your own cherished values in its pages. I know we have traveled different paths. But I feel (and felt from our first meeting all those years ago in Boston) that there is something kindred in our sensibilities. Your feeling for the Christian mystical tradition, for example, and your sense that this tradition has everything to do with the kind of wonder we feel in the face of the great mystery of existence. For starters. Anyway, I appreciate so much your attention to the book and your thoughtful response to it.

I am delighted and challenged by what you have written. It is appreciative, honest, and open to the questions raised by the book. What more can an writer ask for? And there is also this: I do not really know what I have wrought in this book. It emerged over such a long period of time and came together so intuitively that when all is said and done I cannot really say (at least not very clearly) what it amounts to. So it is very interesting to me to hear you say what it amounts to for YOU, at least in these initial remarks. And the fact that you find it meaningful amidst your hard won skepticism (that is also laced, I might add, with a kind of faith of its own) is heartening to me. Of course, you are going to read the book through your own ideas and sense of things and perhaps tease out questions or notice implications that could not have done myself. This is all to the good.

I wanted to respond to a couple of things you mention in these posts. One has to do with how we speak of faith at all (often juxtaposed—and too simplistically--with reason, rationality, or science). The other has to do with your sense of how central the idea of the Word is to the book.

On the first note, I appreciate so much your sensitivity to the way I use apophatic language (unknowing; darkness etc.) to acknowledge the way faith can exist and become deepened in a more or less constant condition of uncertainty. This, I think, is one of the great contributions to the apophatic spiritual traditions: the reminder that we can sense and affirm presence even in absence. Sometimes nowhere more powerfully than in absence. And that the presence need not be named, perhaps can never be named, at least not fully. This is part of the beauty of this tradition also. Yes, it is true, often there is an intuition of God of the divine at the heart of such experience. But if you probe the accounts carefully, you often begin to realize that the sense of the divine expressed there is so encompassing and so mysterious that it can absorb almost everything. It is not the over-determined God of so much contemporary theological or religious discourse. Or the God that enables us (or so we think) to explain everything or justify everything. It is rather the great silence or darkness into which we humbly enter in a spirit of awe and gratitude.

All of this you seem to appreciate on your own terms (which is no surprise to me really). At the same time, I noticed how in a couple of places you distinguished what you imagined might be our two different responses to encounters with the 'sacred' or 'numinous' in the natural world.

In one place you say: "I would gladly accompany Doug to a monastic retreat. While he would –- on the evidence of his book -– hope to catch a glimmer of the Divine or a whisper of the eternal Word, I would be content with the darkness and silence itself, as qualities facilitating attention to the here and now. I suspect we would not be so far apart."

In another place you say: "Doug hears the voice of the Word. I hear a moth beating against the curtain. I'm not sure the difference is as important as the hearing –- for us and for the moth."

Now this is fascinating to me. Here I sense you articulating both what you feel to be our kinship (or shared sensibility) and perhaps our differences. I am listening for a 'whisper of the eternal Word'; you for 'darkness and silence itself.' In looking at the moth, I 'hear the voice of the Word'; you 'hear the moth beating against the curtain.' In both cases, you note: we seem not so far apart. Or there seems not to be so much difference between these responses. I believe you and agree with you (mostly). But I also sense (correct me if I am wrong) that you DO see important differences between us, mostly due to my hunger for the ‘Word’ (a theologically specific way of understanding experience) and your willingness to reside in darkness. This may be. But what I would say about my own experience is this: I am myself as often as not 'content with the darkness and silence itself.' And I too am listening to the 'moth beating against the curtain.' Or the White-Crowned Sparrow. Period. Its not that I preclude the possibility of this experience being woven into a larger sense of the sacred in the midst of things. Not at all. But neither do I rush to do so. Part of my own contemplative practice is to let things be what they are. Out of respect for the particular life of things. My reticence to assign meaning (theological or otherwise) is in part born of that fundamental respect. It is part of my own practice of apophasis. Still, it is true, when I move from those moments sitting on the cliffs along the Lost Coast listening to the White-Crowned Sparrow to the experience of sitting in Redwoods Monastery chapel listening to the silence or the chanting of the Psalms (sometimes this happens in the same day), it is increasingly difficult for me to separate these experiences, these practices of attention and listening. They have become woven into a single continuous fabric for me.

So: when I hear you make these distinctions, one response is to say: no, I am not sure we really are so far apart.

Which leads me to the second idea, your sense of the centrality of the Word to the book as a whole. Now this is interesting to me. Honestly, I have not considered that this notion (and the chapter devoted to it) might turn out to be the linchpin of the book. Certainly it is important. But more important than 'topos' or 'eros' or 'kenosis' or some of the other main thematic questions of the book? I am not sure. My reflections on Kenosis in particular (chapter eight) lead me to an awareness of an emptiness and silence so radical that it becomes difficult to imagine any word ever having been spoken. So, for me, this has to be taken into account in any attempt to ask what Word might be spoken in and through the world. And in any effort to consider how to reconcile that sense of the beautiful ‘song of the world’ (Jean Giono’s wonderful image) with our experience of its seemingly inscrutable silence. If I have left you with the impression that everything in the living world must be apprehended first and foremost through the Word, well that is fascinating to me. And I must surely reflect on that further. But for me it will always be important to honor the silence, the unknown, the darkness as fundamental parts of our experience of the world.

How different would our experience of a monastic retreat or an encounter with a moth really be? I wonder.

So, there are some ruminations of my own in response to your probing thoughts on The Blue Sapphire of the Mind.

Thank you Chet.