I’ve been pondering the Incarnation and what it says about the God who became incarnate. I’ve been realising that in my gut I have a deep-seated sense that it is somehow natural that God should take human form. As if God were in some sense already human-shaped and just needed pouring into a particular womb, there to be at home.
Theologically, I know God has no shape in that sense, that God is no more human than God is a wasp.
On that note, I’ve been watching David Attenborough’s BBC documentary Life in the Undergrowth and, by God, don’t the wasps seem to be the villains! As a species they seem to have come up with more nasty schemes for ensuring their youngs’ survival at the expense of other creatures, than any other. Surely God is less wasp-shaped than human.
The God I know in prayer speaks like one of us, nary a buzz to upset me, but I wonder what the Incarnation might mean to wasp-kind too — or to ET.
I have to constantly remind myself of the possibility that God is to other creatures (even insects!) what he is to us, incarnation and all 🙂
I agree, there is a rightness in God becoming incarnate as a human. Out of all God’s creation, only humans were made in God’s image.
So if something in us is the image of God, then surely something in God must be like us?
This is off subject, but a question about the discernment of spirits …
A friend said –
If there were intelligent and ill intentioned spiritual beings continually at work then any kind of free, trustful experimental spirituality would become impossible. It would be like sitting down for dinner with friends but never being sure that the food isn’t poisoned.
I didn’t know how to snswer him, mostly because I myself worry about the “reality” of a bad spirit, yet I don’t want to discount the possibility. Any thoughts?
Talmida: As I’m sure you know there’s a looooong exegetical history of wondering just what it means to be made in God’s image and likeness. I’d love to hear some Hebrew reflections from you on the subject…
Crystal: I share your friends unease when it comes to the existence of ‘intelligent and ill-intentioned spiritual beings’ imagined along the lines of some of the more fundamentalist or charismatic branches of Christianity. It may be that my unease has different roots though–I think that explanatory appeal to devils and demons does away with the need for real discernment of spirits. Your friend seem to lean the other direction. It’s not that you friends may be trying to poison you — which does suggest a paranoid spirituality — but that you need to know who your friends are and who it is appropriate to distrust. And I don’t think you do that on a priori grounds but by experiment, experience which you discern.
Discernment thrives in an interesting hermeneutical atmosphere. Blanket distrust of one’s own experience makes discernment impossible. Wholesale acceptance also bypasses discernment, equally (?) harmfully. Discernment takes an attitude of basic trust in experience — giving it chance to develop and become discernible — coupled with a capacity to learn where trust has been wisely given and where not. An Ignatian approach to discernment is about discovering what aspects of your experience are truly friendly (to savour, encourage and develop them) and which are not (to perform damage limitation).
That make any sense? Or am I misconstruing your friend?
I think he sees the spiritual realm as purely positive, or at least sees the possible negative as something to be embraced and understood as part of the whole rather than worried about … that wholesale acceptance you mentioned. I’m not sure how discernment works in that case and it’s hard to disagree with it without sounding paranoid :-). Thanks.
I guess a lot depends on what we are talking about as “the spiritual realm”. The traditional answer — not only in Christianity but in other (all?) religions great and small — is to talk about angels and demons or something similar. Making angels and demons too anthropomorphic in their goodness and badness and their agency in the world runs into one kind of danger but to go the opposite direction and believe only in angels, as it were, seems equally foolhardy.
I can understand if someone doesn’t believe there is a spiritual component to the cosmos, or if someone considers the spiritual realm a purely psychological phenomenon. There are some ‘spiritual’ approaches to psychology that divide up the psyche in such a way that the spiritual element is, almost by definition, wholly positive. And their are also psychological systems that see a spiritual benefit in integrating what appear to be ‘darker’ aspects of one’s psyche.
What is harder for me to understand is a belief in a spiritual realm that is wholly positive where the spiritual realm is meant in some strong cosmological sense.
In practical terms, to be able to ‘do discernment’ it is enough to be able to notice and differentiate the aspects of one’s experience of the world into those which lead to life and those which diminish it. In that sense discernment can work phenomenologically without getting into discussions of metaphysics. But to look at how discernment works I think requires at least the belief that the spiritual realm is polarised. Some commentators parse that polarity as between God or the Holy Spirit working in the person as one ‘spirit’ and anything that opposes it as the other. Others stick to a more psychological interpretation in terms of God’s desire that human beings should be fully alive. My own belief is that speaking about spirit as part of the real world makes the most sense but it isn’t absolutely necessary to the practice of discernment.
Sorry … long-winded!
Whether one sees life as having a spiritual component or not, there is still the question of “badness” (feeling far from God?) It can be objectified as a bad spirit or seen instead as psychological – apathy, fear, malice, etc.
But what are you supposed to do with it? If it’s just psychological, it seems the healthy thing to do would be to acknowledge it, accept it, delve into it, learn from it. But if it’s a bad spirit’s influence, should you turn away from it or ignore it?
When I notice things in myself that could be called bad, I usually want to stay away from God becaue I feel ashamed. So maybe polarizing things into good and bad keeps one from God? Sorry – the more I think about this, the more confused I get.
I wouldn’t want to do an either/or on whether an experience of ‘badness’ is psychological or spiritual — it seems to me it is both and physical too. Experience is experience.
The question of what you do with an experience might be different depending on where you place the emphasis. For example, some feelings of badness respond best to antacid, others to therapy, etc.
In the example you give of finding something in yourself that could be called bad where, in the ‘spiritual’ way of thinking is the bad spirit. I would say that looking at the bad spirit as the cause of whatever trait you’ve noticed doesn’t help much — who knows what blend of nature, nurture, grace and freedom bring you to be who you are? But maybe the bad spirit is clearly visible in the strand of your experience that is ashamed and wants you to stay away from God. If that’s true what do you do with that feeling of shame and that impulse to keep your distance? Well, I’d be looking for what else is going on in your experience that might be from ‘the good spirit’ that carries feelings more creative than shame, opinions more life-giving than deadly, and desires rather than fears. Ignatius’ basic principle is that the bad spirit is a liar and a bully (and a coward). When you can make out where the bad spirit is taking you (shame and self-loathing and distance from God) you can take a bet that the other direction would be better, truer, and more life-giving.
The way ‘you’ see God is also at stake in discernment like this. Follow the shame and God seems fearsome and judgemental and hardly worth risking a relationship with. But who’s the God behind the other spirit, the other movement — whatever it might be for you — toward life, truth, goodness? I’d wager that God is worth getting close to.
Any clearer or am I making the waters muddier?
It is clearer, thanks. So you think God wants to be with people, no matter what? Sometimes I’m convinced he’d rather I take a hike. And I guess you’re assumng everyone fits into that category of persons who are going from good to better? The rules seem to turn upside down if one is going from bad to worse (me?) :- )
I remember reading a book on Ignatian spirituality – Inner Compass by Margaret Silf (very worthwhile) – that said each person has a deep, basic inner desire to be one with God. But, there are various things that prevent us from fulfilling that desire – basic human nature, psychological wounds and scars, fear, etc. This feels connected to discernment of spirits, good vs bad and so on…. recognizing our true inner desire vs. the false desires.
That’s one thing I like about Ignatian spirituality – it has, it seems to me – a basic positive, optimistic view of people and their relationship with God. We’re basically good, instead of basically bad.
Crystal: Even if you ‘turn the rules upside down” for someone “going from bad to worse” the same principle is at work — God wants to be with people, God wants a real relationship with each of us.
Ignatius is holding open a space for God’s action (“the good spirit”) in someone being a shaking out of complacency, or a sting of conscience, etc. At such times the bad spirit would be the one trying to keep things smooth and easy and on an even keel. BUT the mark of both dynamics (“upside down” or usual) is that God is doing all God can to be there and in relationship with each of us AND that relationship is the answer to our deepest heart’s desire. Because God answers the echo of our deepest desires we can have the trust and experience that walking in the way of God’s desire is something we deeply want ourselves and feels natural to us, right, in some deep sense comfortable.
Steve: Margaret is a great communicator of Ignatian spirituality — anything by her is worth a look.
I think you are dead right about the basic optimism of Ignatian spirituality. I remember reading something by Matthew Fox claiming Ignatius was obsessed by sin and the hard work of atonement but i don’t think you could find a mystic with a greater confidence in our human openness under grace to be with God and for God. That optimism extends to the whole world too as a place where God happens and anyone can join in.
One of the members of my scripture study group likes Matthew Fox and his idea ofthe cosmic christ and creation spirituality … she sees it as a positive kind of pantheism or panenteism. From what I’ve read, he sees mysticism almost as gnosticism and adverse to “empire building” christianity. But Ignatius seems very like a mystic to me with his emphasis on experience.
I have an ambivalence to Matthew Fox. He is incredibly creative and brave but sometimes his view of the forest fells a few of the trees. I’m sure he is right to insist that at our origins there is blessing and not sin. His recovery of aspects of the tradition that have ossified is wonderful; and great fun. And of all the books on angels I’ve found the most interesting is the one he wrote with Rupert Sheldrake, The Physics of Angels. Indeed i like his constant approach to God through creation.
On the other hand, I attended a couple of his Techno Cosmic Masses while I was in Oakland and found them overwhelmingly distracting multimedia experiences with a feeling of everything and the kitchen sink thrown in un the hope that something interesting might happen in the mix. A bit over the top to be useful to me … but certainly fascinating and creative.
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