Posts filed under 'Essays'

The Problem of Modern Cosmology

moon-landing

A perfect picture of Modernity?

I was prompted by yesterday’s post about the anniversary of the moon landing to look again at something I wrote as part of my doctoral dissertation in theological cosmology. I used the Apollo 11 photo above to unearth some of the contradictions inherent in the idea of ‘modern cosmology’. I don’t know how much sense this excerpt will make out of the context of the original argument but here it is.

Defining the modern (and, hence, the pre- and postmodern) is notoriously problematic[1] but it is safe to say that, however the theory runs, Modernity has been obsessed with cosmology. Whether it is Galileo and his telescope, Copernicus and his orbits, Newton and his falling apple, or Columbus and his New World, Luther and his articles, Modernity has been wrestling with the question of cosmology—the nature of the heavens, the nature of the human being, and the way the whole of reality works. In this sense, to understand Modernity we must understand cosmology. The reverse, though, also seems to be true.

The very idea of cosmology has been reworked by Modernity in its own image. From its premodern origins, cosmology was, more than anything, a view of the whole and viewing the whole was understood to pose unique problems and offer a unique privilege. Where, for example, could you stand to have a view of all things? Granted such a vantage point, how could you ever know that “all things” form a whole, a cosmos, rather than just a collection of unrelated items?

Whatever cosmology has been in the past, in the modern age it has been whittled down to become one discipline among others, one science among others. Yet, as a science, cosmology claims as its domain the whole universe, its origin, evolution, composition, and behaviour. In this sense, cosmology is distinct from the physics, astronomy, and other sciences that are enlisted in its pursuit. It is also differs from the other sciences by having a unique object of study: this singular universe with its specific history. Can a natural science achieve this conjunction of maximal scope and particular method? How can a part of human understanding make the claim to encompass the whole? How can a specialization make the unique kind of claims, at once general and particular, which cosmology, even in its modern form, demands? It will become apparent, I hope, that, not only are “Modernity” and “cosmology” mutually defining, they are mutually deconstructing.

I want to pave the way for this claim by examining a striking image (above [2]) of an historic event in the human exploration of the cosmos. Even at face value, this photograph is both modern and cosmological. Here is the age-old dream of humankind ascended to the heavens. Here is the triumph of science and the soaring, human spirit expressed in practical skill.

But this is such a perfect picture of modern cosmology for deeper reasons. Here are portrayed such abstract notions, important to Modernity, as progress, exploration, and power, but also conquest, culture, and nationality. There are fracture lines just beneath the surface. Underneath the enormous, symbolic triumph of the endeavour, you have the extraordinary clash of two worlds: culture and nature; the human and the natural. What could be more emblematic of Modernity’s view of nature than the dead, mineral, airless, sterile face of the moon?[3] And what could better express the modern sense of humanity’s alienation from nature than this fragile, suited, and sealed human body relying on science and artifice to survive the moon’s unthinking hostility.The central vision of the modern era is of subject and object sundered; the knower and the known utterly unlike and only to be brought together by epistemological sleight of hand; mind and matter, one alive the other dead.[4] The fundamental construction of Modernity places the human outside the natural. By doing so it makes possible a certain kind of knowing of things as though all that were human could be left out of the picture. Errors of opinion are sidestepped, certainly—that is the intention of the great modern gamble—but also warmth, value, life. Now science, the official epistemology of the modern age, of course aims to include all such human characteristics eventually. Once the tractable, dead stuff of nature has been grasped and fashioned into building blocks it will be possible to construct life, the living, the human and so understand it in its turn. This is a strategy of delay—a diversionary tactic—and it has been remarkably successful. The aim is to deal with the simple questions first and leave the intractable ones until later. Here is another modern preoccupation, this time with method: if we only knew the proper method, we could understand the properties of all things. Method is born, with Descartes, in the struggle to evade doubt.

By a “method” I mean reliable rules which are easy to apply, and such that if one follows them exactly, one will never take what is false to be true or fruitlessly expend one’s mental efforts, but will gradually and constantly increase one’s knowledge till one arrives at a true understanding of everything within one’s capacity.[5]

Modern method divides to conquer: fact is easier than value; matter easier than mind; nature than culture. In fact, so many familiar methods are made over in the modern image, taking a distinctively modern form: for example, the ancient meanings of science, culture, and cosmology are all changed. But can such diversionary tactics succeed? Can what has been divided and conquered ever be reconciled in a final unity? What does our photograph reveal about the relation between mind and matter in the modern cosmology?

The gap between the two worlds is palpable. Matter, here, threatens mind. It is inhospitable, alien. But mind, embodied as human, leaves its footprints, and they remain. Nothing erodes them except the slow fall of moon dust. The human mark on nature is indelible. Bacon’s dream of nature conquered and forced to yield up her secret treasures has become a familiar, if ambiguous, fact of modern life.[6] Moreover, it is the way that matter becomes assimilated to mind: how the world is best comprehended. You can wax eloquent about the beauty or grandeur of the lunar experience but, appalled or elated, one false step and matter will erase mind in an instant. Values, poetry, feeling are secondary in the standoff with nature.[7] But they do not vanish. Exiled from nature they set up their own realm—autonomous, insulated.

How does the human leave its mark on the natural? In a sense, anyway it likes! Those footprints are inscriptions on a blank slate. What do they mean? The can mean anything—or nothing—at all. Un-moored from nature, human interpretations of meaning are free to splinter. Are these footprints simple, neutral, marks in dust or the imprints of “one great step for mankind”? Nothing expresses the diversity of interpretation as well as Modernity’s idea of culture. Focus for a moment on that flag. What better statement of human culture with all its particularity and evanescence? A flag asserts both belonging and exclusion by marking the double-edged boundary of cultures. Here, on the moon, that assertion is at its starkest. Here is a claiming of space, of land, of territory. Here is a marking out of ownership. The conflictual quality is clear—in a way that territorial conquest or cultural imperialism never manages to be on earth. No home is being claimed with that flag. On earth, there is always the possibility of a transformation that makes space into place, into home, into oikos, the first step in an ecology that weaves humanity into nature however much we might theorize otherwise. Here, however, the claim staked in the flag is for nothing but against everyone else. This flag is about the exclusion of other flags, other cultures, and other humans. There is a triple crisis of signification here.

First, Modernity’s vision of the human is fragmentary with human relatedness looming problematic. With the cultural boundary envisioned as impermeable[8] other human beings are, in theory, either inside with us or outside in impenetrable darkness, either just like us or utterly alien. Human relations of difference cease to have real significance.[9]

Second, the chasm, which Modernity has constructed between the knower and known, makes any relation between humanity and nature problematic. The lunar flag stakes a claim on nature’s space to make it into a place of human significance. But how do you own dead space? How do you create a bond of relationship between the dead and the living? Above all, how do you do it without it being purely artificial and arbitrary—merely an expression of who has the bigger army or better lawyers? The relation of difference between the human and the natural ceases to have real significance.

Third, by bleaching the natural of all humane qualities the significance of nature’s internal relations is jeopardized. What do we mean by “nature’s internal relations”? Science views itself as finding the laws that, at least, describe the behaviour of natural things and, maybe in stronger interpretations, govern it. And in that “maybe” lies a problem: a problem of location and power. A problem of location: where does a law of nature “live” and of what is it made? Sciences’ laws are remarkably like ghosts.[10] Is a law “in” nature itself or “only” in the mind of the scientist (or the scientific community)? Either answer sits uneasily in a modern mind. If laws are in the world what and where are they—our cosmology doesn’t seem to have room for them—and if they are simply in the mind how is their truth to be guaranteed? A problem of power too: if a law describes the behaviour of things why can’t the things themselves behave differently? If laws are not causal powers[11] the internal relations between natural things seem to be arbitrary. Yet, modern cosmology has no place for such causal powers. The relations of difference within nature cease to have real significance.

The flag signals other problems too. Traditionally, what has bound human beings together, the natural world into a whole, and the one to the other, has been a web of relations. The threefold disaster of difference spelled out above spells the failure of mediating relations. The notion of the in-between has been emptied. What stands in-between human beings giving significance to their mutual relation? What lies in-between the things of the world giving them pattern and order? And what connection can there be in-between the human and the natural worlds? We struggle to find categories offer significance to human relatedness, natural laws are of uncertain force, and between the human and the natural lies a self-created chasm. But it was not always so. In premodern times, all three kinds of relation were considered real enough to carry significance. Human society was bound together by relations that constituted a hierarchy—a sacred order. The relations of natural phenomena were governed by active causal powers or by their own inner entelechy. Moreover, the two realms were united in complex relations of real signification weaving together the microcosm of the human body and the macrocosm of the world.[12] Now to the modern mind, the premodern form of each of these realms of relation is distinctly distasteful. We distrust hierarchy, despise teleology, and fear superstition. We should be happy that the advent of Modernity banished these embarrassing ghosts. What was lost in the process, however, was any belief in the reality of relation, the quality of connection, or the chance of cosmic wholeness. How can we regain what has been lost without becoming haunted again by ancestral ghosts? What kind of cosmic connectedness will do justice to old and new?

Perhaps the central, if silent, symbol of the premodern web of real relations was the imagination. Lauded or despised, it still stood in between the worlds.[13] Between mind and matter, it was the glue uniting the knower with the known. Between natural and cultural, it was the complex medium of culture’s natural history. But there is nothing natural about our modern moon flag. Notice how it proclaims its own artifice. This flag flies where there is no breeze, can never be a breeze, by being made to appear to fly, to flap, in an imaginary wind that will never come. It pretends its own reality by imitating its own artifice. Here is the unravelling of the imagination, its death by parody, and the death of the signifying imagination is significant since without it there can be no wholeness, no cosmos.

 

[1] Perry Anderson, The Origins of Postmodernity (London New York: Verso, 1998) Roland Barthes, Sade, Fourier, Loyola (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989) Richard J. Bernstein, Beyond Objectivism and Relativism: Science, Hermeneutics, and Praxis (Oxford: B. Blackwell, 1983) Albert Borgmann, Crossing the Postmodern Divide (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992) John D. Caputo and Michael J. Scanlon, eds., God, the Gift, and Postmodernism, The Indiana Series in the Philosophy of Religion, ed. Merold Westphal (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1999) Deely, New Beginnings John N. Deely, Four Ages of Understanding: The First Postmodern Survey of Philosophy from Ancient Times to the Turn of the Twenty-First Century, Toronto Studies in Semiotics (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001) Dupré, Passage to Modernity Terry Eagleton, The Illusions of Postmodernism (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1996) Michael Paul Gallagher, Clashing Symbols: An Introduction to Faith and Culture (New York: Paulist Press, 1998) García-Rivera, “Cosmic Frontier.” Richard Kearney, The Wake of Imagination: Toward a Postmodern Culture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988) Lakeland, Postmodernity Levin, The Philosopher’s Gaze Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Explained: Correspondence, 1982-1985, afterword by Wlad Godzich, trans. Don Barry, et al., ed. Julian Pefanis and Morgan Thomas, North American ed. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993) Merchant, The Death of Nature John Milbank, The Word Made Strange: Theology, Language, Culture (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1997) Nancey C. Murphy, Anglo-American Postmodernity: Philosophical Perspectives on Science, Religion, and Ethics (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1997) Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word Margaret A. Rose, The Post-Modern and the Post-Industrial: A Critical Analysis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991) Toulmin, Cosmopolis Stephen Toulmin, Return to Reason (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001) Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, trans. Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, ed. Joseph Fessio and John Kenneth Riches (San Francisco New York: Ignatius Press, 1983) Ken Wilber, The Marriage of Sense and Soul: Integrating Science and Religion (New York: Random House, 1998).

[2] “Astronaut Edwin E. Aldrin Jr., lunar module pilot, poses for a photograph beside the deployed United States flag during Apollo 11 extravehicular activity on the lunar surface. The Lunar Module “Eagle” is on the left. The footprints of the astronauts are clearly visible in the soil of the moon. This picture was taken by Astronaut Neil A. Armstrong, commander, with a 70 mm lunar surface camera.” NASA Photo ID: AS11-40-5875 File Name: 10075262.jpg Film Type: 70 mm Date Taken: 07/20/69.

[3] Merchant, The Death of Nature;

[4] Levin, The Philosopher’s Gaze

[5] René Descartes, “Rules for the Direction of the Mind,” 1628, trans. Dugald Murdoch, in The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, ed. John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff and Dugald Murdoch, vol. 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 16.

[6]

[7] See, e.g., “The human mind is a device for survival and reproduction, and reason is just one of its various techniques. … The intellect was not constructed to understand atoms or even to understand itself but to promote the survival of human genes. … Aesthetic judgment and religious beliefs must have arisen by the same mechanistic process.” Edward O. Wilson, On Human Nature (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1978), 2.

[8] Tanner, Theories of Culture

[9] A relation of infinite possibility and signification is reduced to the binary categories of “same” and “other.”

[10] Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values (New York: Morrow, 1974).

[11] Rom Harré and E. H. Madden, Causal Powers: A Theory of Natural Necessity (Oxford: Blackwell, 1975); Brian D. Ellis, The Philosophy of Nature: A Guide to the New Essentialism (Chesham: Acumen, 2002).

[12]

[13] Kearney, The Wake of Imagination.

Add comment July 23rd, 2014

Teaching Spirituality?

Ignatius, looking up

Ignatius, looking up

I am sitting here fruitlessly trying to write something for The Way. The October issue is to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the founding of Heythrop College by focusing on the teaching of spirituality. That’s something I have spent a lot of time doing and thinking about but I am struggling to find a way in right now — something specific rather than rambling. So in the good spirit of procrastination (or maybe I am seeking inspiration) I’ve been looking over some of the things I have written for The Way before. The first thing I wrote, ten years ago, is in some sense foundational for me: Looking at God Looking at You. In a way, all I believe about teaching spirituality is built on the insight of Ignatius that all spiritual exercises are best begun with a moment asking how God is actually looking at me, then and there — and the confidence that an answer is to be expected — which says something about God and something about human being.

I suppose I believe that the teaching of spirituality is an experiential affair and that God is the best teacher. One phrase became a sort of mantra for me during my theology studies in Berkeley: how would we do this if we believed God were real? By ‘this’ I mean do theology, do spiritual direction, give the Exercises, teach spirituality, be a Jesuit — anything. And by ‘real’ I mean here, present, available for real interaction, really real.. More than that — initiating, acting, relating, desiring, responding — pick your verb.

There’s a kind of teaching of spirituality that deliberately takes a distanced stance — in theory you could study spirituality in this way as an atheist — and I can see its necessity. But I suppose what interests me is studying spirituality from the inside and teaching from that place. There’s a nest of activities that sort of stack together and influence one another. There’s spiritual accompaniment in all its range from giving the full Exercises to chatting at the bus stop with the central focus on exploring that question ‘how is God here, now, with me?’. That focus imposes a congruence between way one ‘learns’ and the way another ‘teaches’ — because both are listening and looking for the signs of God getting in there first. Half the things I have written for The Way have explored that focus and its relationship to the text and practise of the Spiritual Exercises.

Then there’s another level to the stack: how would we teach spiritual accompaniment if we believed God were real? Again the focus invites a congruence or exposes its lack. We start with inviting trainees to be always looking for God looking at them — and not just notionally but in spiritual exercises, then in demonstrations of spiritual accompaniment, and in observed practice. There is of course some theorising too, some looking at texts, some model-guided thinking — but the core skill we ‘teach’ is that of recognising God looking back when you gaze at God — and sniffing that out when the same thing is going on in others. In our way of seeing things that is the core Ignatian skill too — discernment of spirits.

Discernment of spirits — and getting better at it — also forms the focus of supervision as we see it. There are approaches to supervision that are agnostic about the kind of practice being supervised — therapy, direction, ministry, pastoral care, etc. But I believe in congruence — supervision of spiritual accompaniment best applies the focus of spiritual accompaniment to the practice itself. God doesn’t disappear when we move to a meta-level. We use discernment to bring discernment to the focus and see how God is acting in our accompaniment. And when we teach supervision too, the same congruence imposes itself.

Now, of course, we do not live in a society or culture particularly prone to respecting the possibility or worth of that central question. Indeed that initial paper for The Way was mainly spent exploring four ways that modernity leads us to ‘mind-blindness’ about God and how Ignatius, in this practice, resists each. Ultimately, it is experience that convinces. The spiritual director’s part (or the supervisor’s or the trainer’s) is to make some space — experiential and maybe theoretical — so that they can discover the real God looking back when they look God-ward. In this sense discernment is epistemologically basic, being its own way of ‘knowing’.

Why do I trust this focus myself? For three reasons (like the Spanish Inquisition the number keeps rising!). First, because I had a spiritual director who kept asking me the question and expecting me to be able to answer. At first I thought she was nuts but then surprised myself by being able to grope towards an answer, which she was able to teach me to trust and follow. Secondly by then using my theology studies to understand how what I could experience was possible! Thirdly by trying to articulate both those experiences to a groups of practitioners and trainers and finding it effective and teachable.

I guess I have found something to say, however cursorily. I wonder.

Add comment July 15th, 2014

Creation and Redemption

A number of writers have been posting about atonement recently and Crystal challenged me to post something on the topic. It made me think of a paper I wrote a good few years ago on the relationship between creation and redemption–in particular exploring some of the implications of a theological aesthetics. Along the way it winds back and forth among some of the issues of a theology of atonement–perhaps denying such a thing is possible. For any who are interested here it is as a pdf file. Beware though if you are in a Holy Week mood as it focuses on Easter.

10 comments April 4th, 2007

Discipleship

The following talk was given to a weekend retreat group. I begin by referring to a session the previous evening where I’d shown a couple of clips from the film American Beauty in which the central character, at the point of death, reflects on his life and finds himself moved by gratitude and beauty. I asked the group to do their own reflection:

  • What would you like to flash before your eyes in that last second, that ocean of time?
  • What are you grateful for–really, spontaneously grateful for?
  • Where is the beauty in your life and where is it leading you?

Called to Discipleship

I deliberately didn’t pretend last night that I knew what was meant by ‘Called to Discipleship’—it could mean all sorts of things—in general or specifically for this group or individually for me or for any one of you. I deliberately started of our working with the topic last night from what seems to me a particularly Ignatian angle. You start with experience, with life, with memory, with imagination and you let God show Godself there—in beauty, in gifts given, in attraction felt, in desires that grow and deepen.

In a section of the Spiritual Exercises that deals with making discipleship decisions one of the questions St. Ignatius asks—or one of the imaginative exercises he presents—is the one from last night: he says tersely, ‘consider, if you were at the point of death, what procedure and guide you will at that time wish you had used in this present decision’.

You’ll see I’ve already taken a position on our title: being called to discipleship is—at least in part—about making decisions. But before I go any further I want to get your sense of what might fit under our theme this weekend, both in general and for this group specifically.

So for a moment think or re-think about that:

  • What does discipleship mean?
  • What would it mean to be a disciple today?
  • What about the calling part—what is it to be called?
  • And what do these two terms leave out that also feels important?

We did some exchange of experiences and ideas at this point…

I hope we’ll get into most of your concerns and ideas in one way or another this weekend… For now I want to keep going with looking at how discipleship is handled in the Spiritual Exercises. I’ve already spoken about one of Ignatius’ major orientations: discipleship is about making a decision—or about continually making decisions. But what kind of decisions and how are we supposed to make them?

If we took his death-bed perspective—or did another thing he suggests and imagine ourselves before God on Judgement Day—if we took that vantage point on our decisions it could feel like we have a tough and threatening God looking over our shoulder ready to ruin us if we get it all wrong. But that isn’t how Ignatius wants us to go about it. The very first time he raises that question of choice he does so in the context of gratitude and of grace. What are you grateful for in your life? How do you feel you have been gifted—even among the pains and problems of life—how do you feel the thread of grace running though your days? It’s in that context—the context of redemption—that Ignatius asks us what kind of response we want to make: what will I do for Christ who has saved me and continues to save me?

Discipleship only makes sense out of an encounter with grace and an experience of real and spontaneous gratitude. And discipleship as a response of gratitude only makes sense if it is freely entered into.

So alongside decision we have to add gratitude and grace. Ignatius’ next word is probably attraction…
There’s an imaginative exercise he entitles the Call of the King—it all gets a bit Lord of the Rings here—the call of the king. He asks you to imagine a king—bring it forward 500 years and make it any kind of person who has a vision and a dream—imagine the kind of person who could inspire you to respond generously, even heroically. Imagine what kind of vision or dream would be worthy of you. What kind of project could catch your imagination? And more—what kind of person could catch your imagination and get you to reshape your life so you can help them do what they are burning to do? Ignatius wants you to do this imaginatively and not just abstractly: what would he or she look like, their manner, their clothing, their look? What would their friends be like? What, in fact, could so attract you about someone that you’d change your life for them?

Got any ideas? … Ignatius does a ‘bait and switch’ at this point and says ‘well how much more worthy and attractive is Jesus and his living out of God’s vision and dream’. Discipleship is about letting ourselves be attracted, letting ourselves desire and need to be disciples—not just in some abstract sense but disciples of this man with his crazy dream for this personal corner of the world. Attraction and desire awake in us a need, a need to be alongside this man—a desire and a need that go beyond the practical. Not just sharing the same project, or putting my money in the same pot, or casting my vote as he would vote, but taking up the same lifestyle: doing what he does, eating what he eats, sharing his hardships, enjoying his victories, mourning his setbacks. ‘What would it take to make you a hero?’ is the discipleship question. Who would it take?

Ignatius roots discipleship in relationship—and relationship that is mutual. Most people praying this exercise only experience an inkling of attraction in a dark and tangled mass of ifs and buts and doubtful maybes but insofar as they feel any desire they discover their vulnerability. I might desire to be with this man but he might not desire to have me with him. We have to be chosen, called. There’s an agonising echo of that schoolyard moment of picking teams— pick me, pick me, pick me, pick me, pick me. We need the call. Not just abstractly—we need to feel our desire met and kindled. Discipleship is only grown in the dance of mutual desire. God and I desiring together.

OK the list is growing: decision, gratitude, grace, attraction, desire, relationship and call.

Ignatius’ next move is to switch viewpoint—or viewpoints—he goes all split screen. He asks us to imagine three scenes. First of all imagine the Trinity in heaven having a conversation… Give it a try … What are they talking about? You have to follow their gaze to find out. They are looking at the face of this round world. So imagine scene two: the world. What do the Trinity see? They see people, they see people in all their diversity, their sorrows and joys. They see us loving and laughing; they see us hurting and hating. They see violence and they see tenderness; care and callousness. They see discrimination and oppression and misery. They see all we see when we open the newspaper or turn on the TV: AIDS and Iraq and climate change and polonium 210. What do you imagine they see, they hear, they feel? What moves the Trinity when they see this planet’s condition?

Back to scene 1. The Trinity is moved to come to our aid. ‘Let us work redemption’, is what Ignatius puts into God’s metaphorical mouth. Which brings us to scene 3: Mary in Nazareth and the mutual risky endeavour entered into by one person and their God. That’s discipleship for Ignatius—both what transpires between Mary and God—the ‘let it be to me as you say’—the asking and the answering—but also what happens ‘before’. The Trinity sees need and chooses to respond. Discipleship always arises from the choice to answer concrete need. Discipleship is always a response to reality, the way something will punch us in the guts with its injustice, its wrongness, its need that things be different. The gospels are always saying Jesus ‘took pity’ on someone or other. It’s a bad translation of a Greek word that also gets rendered as ‘felt anger’, ‘had compassion, etc. But it’s a word to do with spleen. It means feeling that churning in your guts at the wrongness of things that won’t let you rest until you do something even if it’s only weep or rage. The first disciple in the Spiritual Exercises is God, the Trinity. Or from another angle it is Jesus.

Jesus offers an easier way to study the discipleship of God—and to learn our own discipleship. Ignatius urges the person praying to ask, day after day, for a particular gift: to know Jesus better. To know him with the kind of knowledge that is very like falling in love. To know him better, to love him more, and out of all that to follow him. To know, to love, to follow. There’s discipleship.

How’s our list looking? Decision, gratitude, grace, attraction, desire, and call. But also: need and spleen. And, finally, the following, what used to be called the imitation of Christ. This imitation is more than mechanical reproduction, or following a set of maxims, or espousing certain values. It’s not quite ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ But it is about knowing Jesus. It is about knowing Jesus in a way that transforms us—that simultaneously makes us more like Jesus and more like ourselves. That’s discipleship: falling in love with God, with Jesus, so that we can respond to the planet’s need the way he did and does and would do through us.

Pedro Arrupe, the General Superior of the Jesuits before the present one, used to speak about us having a planet to heal. Grand, that! But it’s true. He had another favourite topic too: falling in love and the difference it makes to our lives. Both are about the call to discipleship.

7 comments December 2nd, 2006

Eros, Attraction, Beauty, Desire

The “October” issue of The Way has just been published including my article on the Spiritual Exercises, “Id Quod Volo: The Erotic Grace of the Second Week”. I wrote briefly about the core idea a little while ago and if you are interested you can access the full version free, gratis, and for nothing at The Way online.

3 comments November 29th, 2006

‘Firefly’ and Finding God’s Will

I used the following reflection on story and discernment a few weeks ago with a group trying to reflect on their own life and ministry together and discern a possible way forward. I’m posting a slightly edited version here…

A little while ago I was given the DVDs of a science fiction show I’d wanted to see but missed called ‘Firefly’ — think Cowboys and Indians in spaceships — and it’s a lot of fun, and very well written, with 8 or 9 well-drawn characters that over the short series grow and take shape and show their stories and change each other in all sorts of ways and hint at secrets and stories yet to be told. Because it was a series that was cancelled part way through. A story with no ending. With loose ends. A dozen stories still waiting to be told. And my intense curiosity about each character and what they still had left to tell, and about the group, the whole, and their collective story which seemed to be going … somewhere, having some significance. I hate not knowing what happens to Inara. I really want to know who Shepherd Book really is and where Simon and his sister are headed. And I never will. Unless I make it up myself. And that doesn’t really work. Because half the pleasure is not in making up, but in appreciating the reality of the characters and the sense that behind them there is an author with a hope.

Continue Reading 8 comments June 21st, 2006

Spiritual Direction: Finding a Way

Just published in the January 2006 edition of The Way is an article of mine “Receiving and Rejecting: On Finding a Way in Spiritual Direction”. Thanks to the publisher it is available for download at no charge. Have a look if you are interested.

It is a reflection on how we, as spiritual directors, navigate: what we look for, what we pay attention to, what we receive and what we reject. And on what lies at the heart of the art of spiritual direction.

I was sitting with my spiritual director a while back, bemoaning the recent drabness of my spiritual landscape, when she asked a question that split me in two: ‘If God were here now, what would you say?’

Two spontaneous responses rose to the surface more or less together. One was ‘Pull your socks up!’–a slightly irritated demand to God to tidy up my life and fix some of the health problems that have been besetting me. The second was ‘Hey, buddy!’ Now, I’ve called God many things in my life, including friend and lover, but this was the first time I’d used buddy, and I felt rather embarrassed by it.

I narrate this because it illustrates a question that is both practical and theological: to which of two spontaneous movements should a spiritual director give more attention? Which thread should they follow?

The issue often surfaces for directors once they have mastered the art of attentive listening. So much arises in a spiritual direction session and offers itself for exploration. The knack that we all struggle to acquire is that of winnowing the wheat from the chaff. How do we, during a session, encourage and develop those strands of a directee’s experience that are leading somewhere good, and how do we let go of those that aren’t? In this case, which way to go: socks or buddy? Do we have a rule of thumb? And do we have a rationale for our instruction and practice?

Download as a PDF file.

2 comments December 9th, 2005

Looking at God Looking at You: Ignatius’ Third Addition

I’ve just been wrapping up an article for the British Jesuit’s spirituality journal The Way. The paper is about spiritual direction and the choices a director makes to follow one thread and set aside others. It should appear in January 2006.

Some time back (October 2004) I published another paper in The Way, this time on a relatively neglected suggestion found in The Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius Loyola. The suggestion in question is this:

A step or two in front of the place where I am to contemplate or meditate, I will stand for the length of an Our Father, raising my mind above and considering how God our Lord is looking at me, etc., and make an act of reverence or humility.

I try to show that buried in this rather dry injunction is a rich spirituality of personal relationship with God. You can download a PDF version or read on…

Continue Reading 2 comments November 6th, 2005

Angels, Ecology, & Virtual Reality

Some time ago I began to be interested in the interface between theology and spirituality and, in particular, the place they meet in cosmology. Theological cosmology, as i think of it, is not in the mainstream of theological study but I believe it deserves to be as it holds the clues to a fresh approach to some common theological impasses.

The paper which follows was written out of a striking experience of ‘spirit of place’. Everyone I’ve asked has their own experiences when a place and time become unexpectedly sacred for them. This is the phenomenon that provoked me to begin to explore what kind of ‘spirit’ makes sense of such experience. I rapidly found it is a conception of spirit that sends roots in two directions: into our theories of the world and into our theories of God. Hence theological cosmology.

Theology is often ridiculed by invoking the mythical question ‘how many angels can dance on the head of a pin’ but i believe there’s an unintended profundity here. It asks how spirit and place are related. That’s a question of intense ecological significance.

If you are interested read on…

Continue Reading 3 comments August 23rd, 2005

Theology and Experience @ Liverpool Living Theology

This end-of the-day slot and its title, ‘Talk on Theology and Experience’, poses a bit of a problem: isn’t there something contradictory or at least a bit disjointed about ‘talk’ and ‘experience. We talk before an experience and we talk after it but when our experience is underway we are somehow too busy to be talking about it–we are doing it, being it, living it. If we keep stopping to analyze our experience we never get to have any. But if we never talk about our experience we never really understand it, we never grasp its significance, or let its significance shape our lives.
Anyway, it’s my task to introduce the sessions that will follow on the other afternoons this week by saying something today to get you thinking and talking about theology and experience and the relationship between the two…

Continue Reading 7 comments July 25th, 2005


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