Ben White's Adventures with softened hearts

Tag: sermon on the mount

Yo, Mountains Are Big, Even Bigger Than Me

A warped sense of scale and control

People who live most of their lives indoors have a warped sense of scale and control. We who live in cities and towns and spend much of our time outside traveling from one building to another have grown accustomed to an environment that is catered to the shape and size of a human person. Being in a building all the time shapes our minds in ways I don’t always consider. My friend Scott uttered this prophecy just this morning, and like most prophecy it deftly sparked the ready tinder in my own mind and heart. I was excited by this revelation as we sipped coffee on couches in a building on Haddon Ave in Collingswood — a very walkable avenue I’ll have you know — similarly proportioned for ease of use by a human body — prejudiced toward the bodies not encased in air conditioned boxes on wheels to boot.

From Logan Pass

Put simply again, we humans have created safe places in which to live and these places have shaped who we are and how we think. My friend Scott and I knew this to be true again because we were both recently on top of mountains. Scott was hiking Mount Katahdin’s Knife Edge Trail in Maine where at several points the passage is not quite 24 inches wide with shear cliffs on either side. I was on Going to the Sun Road in Glacier National Park which winds across the Continental Divide at Logan Pass in a dizzying feat of engineering. Scott is objectively cooler, but I had a five year old in my party, sooo…  Despite the difference in transport, our experience of scale was the same. We were acutely aware at the regular smallness of our usual existence when we found ourselves in wild places where sky and stone are indomitable. We wer resized in our own estimation by the magnitude of inhuman proportions.

We need to get smaller

Even our grandest buildings, museums, skyscrapers and cathedrals are dwarfed by the almost incomprehensible size of many of the mountains in Glacier National Park. This is not news to you, I know, but it is 100% forgettable and thus needs to be news every day in some way. It needs to be felt in your feet — in your lungs — in your eyes — and, I don’t know, in your inner ear. Vertiginous heights are corrective for any human body. We need to stand in the proximity of something really, really big again and again if we will escape the mental encasement residual of our literally sheltered status quo. We must  with some regularity return to the high places, or the wide places where our vision can expand sufficiently to recalibrate our scales.

We need to get smaller. It’s dangerous to be too big. It’s dangerous to live in a human scale mental landscape. The pilgrimage to the big places in my world is made for right sizing, which is to say diminishing me. The physical space of the impossible scale robs me of my illusion of control in a happy way. Tilting at the windmills of control in our hyper-complex, consistently desperate, unrelentingly demanding society burns me out.  The architecture of my life is under-girded by more than the commodious avenues and couches on which I walk and lounge; I am taught to be larger than life and fuller than Google with knowledge and wisdom.

A scrap of my native sky

Two ways to be overwhelmed

Ironically this demand also makes me feel small. It might make you feel smaller than you are. Being overwhelmed by the magnitude of a mountain is helpful because it is concrete enough to be definitive. The mountain requires nothing and our relationship is not debatable. It’s the vagueness of the demand of our societal myth-makers that is so uncomfortably overwhelming.  Living under the spell of my infinitely potential control is exhausting.  I cooperate with this story pretty actively I am discovering. I inadvertently end up consumed by my own power, simultaneously hoping and despairing in another kind of vertigo. But it’s hard to stand across the valley from Jackson Glacier and maintain my own personal aspirational magnitude. In an instant I remember, “No,  I really am small. And that’s okay. I’m small like a sparrow or the hair on my own head.” This incantation produces a momentary vacuum, left from my sudden shrinking, which inhales God’s love instantly. It’s the care of my Creator who made me this size that alone makes my tininess bearable.

Dear God! Look up!

When I can’t take the two week trek to the wilds of America’s west or the slightly closer drive up to the center of Maine for a jagged hike (which is now on my to-do list) I can always just look up. It takes some more concentration for the scraps of sky I always live by to achieve the desired result, but they do the trick. I take pictures to amplify their efficacy. Sharing my sights seems to extend them and with them my precious and ever receding smallness.

 

 

 

Nobody Wants to Deny the Flesh: Audre Lorde and Jesus on the Erotic

Learning new things at Uncle Bobbie’s Coffee and Books

I went to a book reading at Uncle Bobbie’s Coffee and Books in Germantown, Philadelphia last month. Adrienne Maree Brown was reading from her new book Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good.  It was a fascinating time with a very diverse crowd of people. I kind of stumbled into the crowd, having not planned on going to the event, but I’m very glad I went because I have been stimulated by it ever since. Brown attributed the thesis of her book to Audre Lorde’s paper presented at the Fourth Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, Mount Holyoke College, August 25, 1978 that was later published as a chapter in Sister Outsider, 1984 Audre Lorde and The Crossing Press. Brown got permission to reprint the entirety of the essay as the prologue to her book. Her book is essentially a creative elaboration on Lorde’s thesis in a series of essays.

In many ways (though not exclusively), Lorde and Brown  work to deconstruct the religious hold on sexual expression in American society. This deconstruction is what culture warriors who dominate Evangelical Christian discourse have been defending against since the sexual revolution began in the sixties (and maybe before). Today, the established sexual norms and mores of one hundred years ago and earlier have almost completely lost their potency. Many Evangelicals and other traditionalists (often labeled “Conservative” by themselves or others) lament this loss. I can see why they might lament, but I am not interested in the power they had or perceived to have, which allows me to consider this shift with a little less subjectivity.

Audre Lorde and the erotic

I have a different subject. I am looking for the Holy Spirit’s movement in all things and can see it in this loss of power. Getting the Christian  Church of the hook of morality policing is a potential opportunity for us who would share the Good News with a post Christian world. Audre Lorde is helping me see a better way to continue our conversation about human sexuality that departs from much of how the conversation has been framed. Her words resonate deeply with my experience of my self, my life, my art and my relationship with God (something I wish I could talk to her about because I have a feeling she might have objections. Alas, she died in 1992.) Her observation that the slanderous conflation of the “erotic” and the “pornographic” was a ploy of the domination system designed to relegate an inherently feminine power to the realm of the obscene was like a lightbulb in a dark room for me. Lorde defines pornography as “a direct denial of the power of the erotic, for it represents the suppression of true feeling. Pornography emphasizes sensation without feeling.” Yes! Uncovering the good that has been subsumed by bad is resurrection. There is life in these words even if I don’t follow Lorde to all of her conclusions.

Lorde further defines the erotic as “a resource within each of us that lies in a deeply female and spiritual plane, firmly rooted in the power of our unexpressed or unrecognized feeling. In order to perpetuate itself, every oppression must corrupt or distort those various source of power within the culture of the oppressed that can provide energy for change. ” This is true. She doesn’t need my affirmation, but I give it. She was speaking to a group of women but I believe this is true for men as well. I may not be able to access the same female plane she describes, but it makes sense to me that the overlapping space of the sensual and the spiritual is at the heart of all human flourishing. And, yes, that space she calls the erotic, has been erroneously buried under another source of knowing and power that is much more male, intellectual and sterile (as in not fruitful, not fecund, not capable of creating life or speaking to the deepest parts of life).

Again, Lorde writes “we have attempted to separate the spiritual and the erotic, thereby reducing the spiritual to a world of flattened affect, a world of the ascetic who aspires to feel nothing. But nothing is farther from the truth. For the ascetic position is one of the highest fear, the gravest immobility. The severe abstinence of the ascetic becomes the ruling obsession. And it is one not of self discipline but of self-abnegation.” This distinction between self discipline and self abnegation is what shines brightest for me in Lorde’s paper and brings me to Jesus. who had some things to say about self discipline and self abnegation.

What should we cut off? What should we grow back?

“If anyone wishes to come after me, they must deny themselves, and take up their cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24) What does Jesus mean by “deny yourself”?  I think it has something to do with what Lorde describes as the proper use of erotic power. “The erotic functions for me in several ways, and the first is in providing the power which comes from sharing deeply any pursuit with another person. The sharing of joy, whether physical, emotional, psychic, or intellectual, forms a bridge between the sharers which can be the basis for understanding much of what is not shared between them, and lessens the threat of their difference. ..[And it underlines] my capacity for joy.” She later adds, “To share the power of each other’s feelings is different from using another’s feelings as we would use a kleenex. When we look the other way from our experience, erotic or otherwise, we use rather than share the feelings of those others who participate in the experience with us. ” Jesus might say that it is that type of using that needs to be denied. The self that cannot be shared because it belongs too much to its owner is only capable of using and thus incapable of the real joy God made us for. Listening to Audre Lorde or Adrienne Maree Brown I felt like they had accessed some of that joy.  And that joy is very attractive.

Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.”  (Matthew 5:29-30) This is not as attractive to modern readers. Jesus was serious about mastering our sin. And we who follow him cannot just  embrace all of our desires as if they are good by nature of them being our desires (I think this might be Brown’s perspective and the new orthodoxy of American society). The tension between satisfaction and denial of our desires needs to be more active than it is. It seems their are two poles of action: deny the flesh and all the joy it might bring or embrace it as the best source of meaning in a Godless world. Neither option is satisfactory but the seeming dichotomy comes from this denial of the erotic which Lorde so well defines. But we have poorly defined sin and cut off a part of our humanity in the imposition of the bad definition.

All that is erotic has been defined as sinful, probably because not enough men gouged out their eyes or cut off their members. Instead they controlled women and denied the potential erotic in themselves because it came less naturally and because it was harder to share the feeling and not just use others. St. Augustine of Hippo will go down in history as the reformed womanizer whose personal process of self abnegation became cosmological fact and defined hundreds of years of theology and subsequent societal views on the erotic. He was awesome in a lot of ways, if only he hadn’t been so influential in this regard! Disastrous!

The erotic within us can be redeemed and this is not just a matter of sexual ethics. Again, Audre Lorde: “the erotic is so feared, and so often relegated to the bedroom alone… [because] once we begin to feel deeply all the aspects of our lives, we begin to demand from ourselves and from our life-pursuits that they feel in accordance with that joy which we know ourselves to be capable of. Our erotic knowledge empowers us, becomes a lens through which we scrutinize all aspects of our existence, forcing us to evaluate those aspects honestly in terms of their relative meaning within our lives. And this is a grave responsibility, projected from within each of us, not to settle for the convenient, the shoddy, the conventionally expected, nor the merely safe.” This sounds a lot like picking up your cross and following Jesus to me.  We must deny the part of ourselves that is so hell bent on using others. But we do not need to deny the erotic itself. Previous generations, in their zeal, cut it off, but it can grow back.

Free to consider the erotic with Jesus

I think we need to listen to Adrienne Maree Brown and Audre Lorde because they are excavating a part of us that we need for the abundant life Jesus offers us. But I don’t want to follow them where they lead. I think Adrienne Maree Brown exercises another kind of imprudent zeal in her pendulum swing away from the erotic’s encasement in traditional sexual morality and the power structures that enforced it.  I am not cutting off sexual morality as if it were a member or an eye that caused me to stumble. I want to follow Jesus .When Paul says in Galatians 5:24 “they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts” I can’t believe he means all pleasure, but I can’t deny that he means some pleasure. Not all desires are good.  And not all good is always good. But the source of good, the Father of Jesus Christ gives good gifts to those who ask.

With the door to the erotic, which had been slammed shut and bolted, successfully propped open, we can consider our potential for shared feeling and joy it affords. I think we need to evaluate our desires more in line with this rubric of sharing joy that Audre Lorde describes than with legislation, religious or governmental.  This requires the Holy Spirit in community. We say in Circle of Hope, “How we relate sexually is a spiritual, communal matter and can’t be reduced purely to a discussion of private expression or individual rights.”  This is a needed addition to Lorde’s rubric, but not a negation of her beautiful reflection on what it means to be a human being. Jesus’ project is to make us become fully human as he was. And yes, Jesus was erotic, even if not sexually. We are being made perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect. All parts of us are subject to that perfection if we allow them to be. So smell a flower, write a poem, make something, make love (to your spouse!) — enjoy what God is giving you and practice sharing that joy in community.