I offered a version of this post on our Men’s Retreat this year.
MFW I talk more about food than eat it
I’m not ready to make too big of a generalization out of this, but a lot of guys I know, myself included, want to sound smart and want to sound like they know what they are talking about. On the men’s retreat I was on, I ended up explaining to someone that the key to making moist scrambled eggs was letting the salt’s hygroscopic qualities come forth by letting the mixed, salted eggs to sit for ten minutes before sautéing them. That’s just one example.
I was at a coffee shop the other day and I was talking to Jonny, I think, and I mentioned that darker roast coffee has less caffeine in it by volume than lighter roast because the beans puff up a little bit and they take up more space. So I was just dropping random food knowledge, which I am known to do. BUT THEN, a random coffee worker interrupted us to tell us even more about coffee and I thought, “Damn we just love to explain shit, don’t we?”
And that’s kind of how so much of my faith has been. All about idea. But you know what? Ideas about God don’t get me closer to God. I think ideas are appealing to men in particular since we often like to talk about all the shit we know.
I was sitting in my Systematic Theology class and it dawned on me again. Why do we insist on making an image of God? Why do we need to figure out exactly who God is and how God acts? I pondered this as I sat in a session for a class whose expressed purpose was to figure out this question. And then I wondered what I was doing in seminary altogether.
“A comprehended god is no god.”—John Chrysostom
I actually went to seminary to learn more about God and how to be a pastor, so that I could be better equipped to serve all of you. And honestly, it worked. I did expand and grow. And one of the things I learned is that human beings love to be in control, and being in control of God is appealing to people that want to be in control.
A lot of the conceptualization and systematization of God happened in Europe when Christians were trying to stay relevant in an increasingly scientific and empirical time. So Christianity adapted to compete, to stay relevant, to survive, you might say.
And in a sense, that’s understandable. I’m sympathetic toward trying to figure out how to keep the church going in different eras. Of course, the issue comes into play when how we’ve adapted the Gospel in a circumstance becomes a principle we apply to the Gospel in perpetuity. So Christianity never loses its Enlightenment-era bias, for example.
And honestly, I’d love to keep talking about all this intellectual stuff, because the more I yammer on about God, the less vulnerable I have to be. You see my feelings turn into thoughts and that keeps them at a healthy distance from me, and so I don’t have to risk getting hurt.
The ironic thing is that I went to seminary to learn all about God and a main thing I learned was that the key to relating to God was not trying to “figure God out.” And that the more I tried to, the more I made myself the center of my experience with God. The more I made myself into what only God could be.
When I say “empire God,” that’s what I mean. A God I can control, and a God that burdens me with controlling the whole world. That sort of God is hard to relate to. Hard to connect with. Hard to be intimate with.
Contemplation leads to intimacy
I learned this on a retreat recently. Intimacy is created when we don’t principalize God, when we don’t make God into theology. Theology can be helpful for imagining God and placing God into a societal context. But personal intimacy is hardly created with “theology” at all, let alone bad theology. Intimacy is created with love.
The fourteenth-century author of the Cloud of Unknowing tells us that we don’t know God through our minds, but through love. They say, “God is forever beyond the reach of the first of these, the intellectual faculty; but by means of the second, the loving faculty, God can be fully grasped by each individual being.”—Cloud of Unknowing quoted in An Ocean of Light by Martin Laird
Resist conceptualizing God. Gregory of Nyssa tells us that “Concepts create idols; only wonder comprehends anything. People kill one another over idols. Wonder makes us fall to our knees.”
Too much theological certainty, or even the reduction of our connection with God to doctrine, can hurt the intimacy we can form with God. Our minds can sometimes block how we relate to each other. We think we’re just exchanging ideas, but there’s more going on beneath the surface.
That is the goal of a contemplative life. I started using contemplative prayer as a tool when I first became a pastor. And every time I confront it I realize how bad I am at it. But then a word from God came to me recently: stop checking your roots. Stop seeing if you’ve grown. I noticed this as I was walking in Fox Chase in the middle of the night. I looked at these big trees that felt like they were there forever. And I thought, “they don’t check on themselves,” or condemn themselves, or feel insecure about how little progress they made. They exist and are reaching out to God. I’ll do the same thing.
Contemplation is then as much about knowing that God is, and knowing that we are too. Our minds are full of thoughts about God, about ourselves, about everything else. The goal of contemplation is to empty the thoughts and be full of the Spirit of God which resides in you.
Laird says the basics are simple:
“The basics are simple. We sit down and assume a solid, erect posture. Saint Gregory of Sinai recommends sitting on ‘a seat about nine inches high.’ Nowadays, we call this a prayer bench, which we place over our calves and sit on with the back straight but not rigid. The bench is angled to facilitate the back’s natural s-curve and encourage a sturdy, alert posture. These prayer benches are fairly popular, quite googleable, and not especially expensive. Still others prefer a prayer cushion. But most prefer to sit in a chair. In any case the body’s solid, stable posture contributes to prayer by its stable, alert tripod solidity. The body’s physical stillness facilitates interior stillness, alertness, and calm.
Quietly repeat the prayer word united with the breath. If the prayer word is of more than one syllable or word (such as ‘Jesus,’ ‘Abba,’ or ‘Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me’), we might inhale on the first syllable (or group of words) and exhale on the second syllable (ideally for periods of about twenty minutes twice a day), we give our attention entirely to their quiet repetition. Whenever we become aware that we’ve become distracted, we bring our attention back to the prayer word united to the breath, ‘continually breathing Jesus Christ.’
The basic instruction in the practice of contemplation remains fundamentally the same throughout its seasons of practice: whenever we become aware that our attention has been stolen, we bring it back to the prayer word united with the breath” (Martin Laird, A Sunlit Absence, p. 15-16).
The goal of contemplation is to find God within yourself. It deepens our connection to God and makes us aware of God around us. It is a disciplined practice that we exercise over years. And while I love the universality of the contemplatives, I think because they are self-emptying, their discipline sometimes lacks the vibrancy and particularity that many of us desire, and that is also plain in the scripture.
Particularity demands worship; we name God to worship God
Too often, we’ve made this particularly into doctrine. The particularity of God is found in the person of Jesus Christ. And we’ve spent centuries systematically describing Jesus, and even codifying his ontology in creeds and sacraments. Those theological formulations are only valuable insofar as they aid our worship of God. They name God. And the name of God is Jesus Christ.
God develops intimacy with God’s people by giving them a name by which to address him. You can see the particularist intimacy that occurs between God and Israel, when God tells Moses, “I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” The name means something. The name sets I AM above the other gods around God.
Jesus adopts the same name for himself in John 8:58, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” Here, rather explicitly, Jesus says he is the same particular God that was in the burning bush. It’s a radical moment in the Gospel and will lead to his death.
But the point I want to make is that naming God breeds intimacy. And the name of Jesus is powerful to Jesus-followers. It particularizes that sort of universal God you become one with as you empty yourself in contemplation. But it isn’t just thoughts about Jesus that breeds intimacy, but more importantly worship.
Worshiping the name of Jesus gives us intimacy. We worship Jesus in our weekly meetings and liturgy, at the communion table, and in our cells. We worship him by naming him as the author of our mission and by naming him as Lord above lords, as ruler above rulers. We worship him by serving him and not other “gods” that compete with him: be it the state, the market, or even our families.
Loving God is how to know God and how we build intimacy with God. We don’t do this through the intellectual faculty. We love God through prayer and worship. Contemplation brings us oneness with God, worship allows to express our a particular devotion to the universal God that is the ground of all being. It gives us a chance to relate, and connect. This is why the name of Jesus is powerful.