The Taser's Edge

Tuesday Reading Roundup

Just Kids by Patti Smith
(Ecco, 2010)

I can’t say I love love love Patti Smith (because I don’t know her like that), but I can say that I have long known how brilliant an album 1975’s Horses is.  Last year, her memoir, which focuses on being young and in love with Robert Mapplethorpe (someone about whom I sadly admit all I know is his reputation, which does not involve being in love with Smith or any other woman), won the National Book Award among other biggies.  It was a book that I really looked forward to reading, but knew that I wouldn’t because it would be impossible to get from the public library for months, and then something else would come along.  Thankfully, C to the rescue.  Currently it’s my read-right-before-bed book (a mistake?) because I made the dumb commitment – which I don’t regret – for the first three months of the year to read 45 minutes of theology and also blog every day, and I run out of time (what with honoring my non-commitment to finish watching 30 Rock: Season Four on Netflix streaming and then restarting the series with the first season again).

Reading it does make me want to check out a couple interviews I missed last year around the book’s publication.  Patti Smith is right in the spot (white, 55+) where Terry Gross can actually do a great interview.  (In Gross’ defense, even her nervous-laughter-filled Jay-Z interview from last year is great in transcript form.)

Radical Optimism: Practical Optimism in an Uncertain World
by Beatrice Bruteau

At this point, I’m working hard at finishing this book so I can return it to its owner, having a hard time thinking through the non-Christian theology (not an accusation, as I think the author would agree that it’s not Christian in any traditional sense), having an even harder time not seeing the book’s shortcomings when compared to Merton (again, I don’t think Bruteau would disagree with that comment), but still…getting a lot out of this book.  It’s good to hear good questions, even when you don’t agree totally with the questioner’s questions.  This might be such a case, even though I think it really is a very good book.

Zen and the Birds of Appetite
by Thomas Merton

As you can tell from Sunday’s post, Merton is reminding me why I love him so.  This is seriously one of those books that you would miss everything if you just buzzed through it (like the terrible thing that happened in Church History at Duke when I was assigned Teresa’s Interior Castle).  My rule of thumb for knowing I really love a poem is that on first reading it, I get to the end, pause, and then read it again (and again and again and again); something in a good poem just says ‘Stop! Pay attention!’, and I do, and I am rewarded.  That is the experience of reading this book.  You cannot read it too slowly.  You cannot read a page too many times.  I will finish this book, and I will be back for seconds.  That must be the birds of appetite Merton’s on about.  (And now I really hope that the 75% of the book I have already read doesn’t have me eating these virtual letters.)

Merton on Christian “Experience”

The following is a wonderful passage, but it’s also incredibly dense, and most people who read my blog (I think) get turned off by that.  So to set it up for you, Thomas Merton is writing about the ways in which Christianity and Zen (or Buddhism in general, or other religions in general) can be usefully compared.  He has already talked about revelation as central to Christianity, and now he is talking about what Christian experience of that revelation looks like, before he gets to comparing the experience of Zen with the experience of Christianity.

As you’ll see, his description of the false understanding “For example…What shall such experience be?” sounds a lot like many definitions of Christianity, or many ways that Christianity has been practiced.  Likewise with “but rather a sense of security in one’s own correctness” and following.  You and I have seen (and–gulp–lived, for those of us who are Christians) all those versions of Christianity.  But thankfully, there in the middle is the gold, a beautiful if very limited essential definition: Christian experience is “a living theological experience of the presence of God in the world and in mankind through the mystery of Christ.”

Merton says it better:

Christian experience itself will be profoundly affected by the idea of revelation that the Christian himself will entertain.  For example, if revelation is regarded simply as a system of truths about God and an explanation of how the universe came into existence, what will eventually happen to it, what is the purpose of Christian life, what are its moral norms, what will be the rewards of the virtuous, and so on, then Christianity is in effect reduced to a world view, at times a religious philosophy and little more, sustained by a more or less elaborate cult, by a moral discipline and a strict code of Law.  “Experience” of the inner meaning of Christian revelation will necessarily be distorted and diminished in such a theological setting.  What will such experience be?  Not so much a living theological experience of the presence of God in the world and in mankind through the mystery of Christ, but rather a sense of security in one’s own correctness: a feeling of confidence that one has been saved, a confidence which is based on the reflex awareness that one holds the correct view of the creation and purpose of the world and that one’s behavior is of a kind to be rewarded in the next life.  Or, perhaps, since few can attain this level of self-assurance, then the Christian experience becomes one of anxious hope – a struggle with occasional doubt of the “right answers,” a painful and constant effort to meet the severe demands of morality and law, and a somewhat desperate recourse to the sacraments which are there to help the weak who must constantly fall and rise again.

Some things I would say, however…
1.) I would like a more explicit acknowledgement of the work of the Holy Spirit in this experience, even if that’s not Merton’s concern right here.

2.)  What does ‘experience’ mean for Christianity and for Zen?  If it is something that we actually know about (in some way sense) when it happens, then it is something at least precious and likely rare in both cases.  What does it mean for such an experience to both be utterly important and incredibly rare, even fleeting?

3.) What does it matter that God is “in the world and in mankind through the mystery of Christ?”  It’s important to notice that Merton assumes that the Christian experience does something.  The revelation matters because it does something.  Actually, it may do everything.

Tuesday Reading Roundup

by John Cassian

This will become clearer below (as I talk about Bruteau), but I think I read Cassian in a different way than I once would have.  This week, in one section he began talking about God’s abandonment.  His conception is that God is always for our growth.  Sometimes that means God is incredibly, tangibly present, and sometimes God is absent.

I’m thinking through this even as I write this, as I once would have instantly accepted it.  And yet, now I think more in terms of God being open to us and God being hidden.  That is, we feel God’s absence, yes, but it doesn’t mean that God has left us.  My question–does God draw back in reality or in tangibility?  For me, Jesus going to the grave and Hell for us says that God doesn’t draw back in reality (not to mention Psalm 139).

My spiritual director has helped me find useful the Ignatian (whether the man‘s or his followers’, I do not know) language of consolation and desolation to describe the two realities of being ‘abandoned’ and of being swept into God’s arms.  I would think that Ignatius knows Cassian, knows the experience of ‘abandonment’, and then perhaps is describing the same experience with the word ‘desolation,’ which to me is a more useful and accurate word.

Clear as dirt?  Moving on…

Radical Optimism: Practical Spirituality in an Uncertain World
by Beatrice Bruteau

Last week, I wrote the word ‘froofy’ several times while writing about my apprehensions about this book.  This week, Bruteau’s thoughts are all through my thoughts (including at least two blog posts).  While she and I have many differences in our understanding of the world (theology, metaphysics, the nature of evil, for three), I find that I can learn a lot from her if I hold those things at arm’s length for a bit.  Here’s one wonderful nugget (from p. 54):

Meditation is not a duty to be performed; it is not just a learning device whereby we get ideas; it is not a soothing routine whereby we put ourselves into an altered state of consciousness, or a way of eliciting material from the subconscious so that we can know our empirical personality better.  Meditation is a way of meeting God.  It is not a matter of thinking about someone who is absent.  It is engaging someone who is present, indeed supremely present.  It is the realization of this presence that is the main point of meditation.

Although I like and have found personally helpful the school of mindfulness meditation put forth by Kabat-Zinn and others, and while I got a lot out of David Lynch’s (yes, that one) book on Transcendental Meditation, Catching the Big Fish, Bruteau is right, and they are wrong.

For this reason, when I did a scant handful of worship services at Duke Hospital, we always started with the heading “Becoming Present to God’s Presence.”

But to mention one thing that gets under my skin, Bruteau is concerned with people finding out who they truly are, without all the external descriptors.  Yet here is a problem within Christianity, as opposed to much of Buddhism and Hinduism: in Christianity, we are not ultimately defined by those external factors, and yet our true reality is also as individuals, not as collective or oneness.  How you find the right balance in describing what that means is beyond me, but Bruteau (to me) punts on the whole issue of what individuality means.

Zen and the Birds of Appetite
by Thomas Merton

Merton is one of my favorite authors.  He apparently personally came to dislike his still-bestselling spiritual autobiography, Seven Storey Mountain, but when I first read it, it was the best book I’d read for about two years (and I’ll give you a copy if you know me).  In the early 1960s Merton became well-known for his support for peace activism and the civil rights movement, and for his opposition to the Vietnam War.  And in the final years of his life, he began connecting with Asian contemplatives such as Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama.  Zen and the Birds of Appetite comes out of those connections, and was one of the final things he wrote, published in 1968, the year of his death.

Thus far, Merton is looking at Zen as something beyond Buddhism or Christianity, as the direct experience beyond words (or comprehension), and he is particularly drawing on the Christian mystic Meister Eckhart.

I will say that it’s very helpful to read Merton and Bruteau side-by-side.  Merton tends to be one of those who (like Bonhoeffer, Lewis, and much longer ago, Augustine, as well as Jesus, too) is claimed by certain spiritual/theological/religious/moral camps to the exclusion of others.  On the one hand, Merton is not an American evangelical Protestant.  And on the other hand, he is not a non-particular spiritual seeker.  (To a great extent, this is to say that he is neither a conservative Protestant nor a liberal Protestant, which makes sense because he was not a Protestant at all.)  I am certain Bruteau has read more Merton than I, yet it is still helpful to read Merton in Merton’s own words while reading another spiritual teacher who stands in Merton’s shadow.

Book Haul!

That is, Birthday Haul! (Don’t feel the need to make yourself watch the entire awful thing):

For Bridge Day, the day which falls between Holly’s and my birthday, we headed to Chapel Hill for lunch and to hit a couple stores.  I rarely buy a book.  That is, they come by the many.

From the excellent The Bookshop (and thanks to my excellent Mom, who got me a gift certificate there)

  • The Angry Christian by Andrew LesterI’ve heard good things about this book for a long time, and one of my chaplain supervisors at Duke knew the author while living in Dallas
  • The Lord by Romano Guardini–Ratzinger/Benedict XVI likes Guardini a lot (Ratzinger’s Spirit of the Liturgy is titled in an homage to Guardini’s book of the same name), and this looked fantastic
  • Practicing Theology: Beliefs and Practices in Christian Life, edited by Miroslav Volf and Dorothy C. Bass–I’ve been looking for this book for several years, both because of everything, and because one of my favorite (now former) Duke profs, Tammy Williams, submitted a chapter
  • Zen and the Birds of Appetite by Thomas Merton–From late in Merton’s life, continuing inter-religious dialogues with the East

And from the excellent resale shop connected to an even better cause, Pennies for Change:

  • An Actor Prepares by Constantin Stanislavski–I’ve been interested in the book for a long time out of curiosity, then out of practical questions of the connections between preaching and performing, then because performance and Christian ethics is now a hot topic (including Stanislavski)
  • The Challenges of the Disciplined Life: Christian Reflections on Money, Sex & Power by Richard J. FosterYou would think that I should read Celebration of Discipline first, but no
  • The Crosswicks Journal, Book 3: The Irrational Season by Madeleine L’Engle–I have yet to read much of her non-fiction
  • The Confusions of Young Törless by Robert Musil–from the back of the book, “Like his contemporary and rival Sigmund Freud, Robert Musil boldly explored the dark, irrational undercurrents beneath the calm surface of bourgeois life…”
  • Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain–Not normally my genre for reading, but a new movie version is out as an HBO series starring Kate Winslet and directed by Todd Haynes
  • The Myth of the Eternal Return, or, Cosmos and History by Mircea Eliade–Who’s not interested in the eternal return?
  • The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays by E.P. Thompson–Thompson’s most famous book is The Making of the English Working Class (not well-regarded by at least once Wesley historian at Duke), and his second may be this
  • Virgin Time: In Search of the Contemplative Life by Patricia Hampl–Interesting-looking book by a well-respected author?  Yes, please.