Friday, May 23, 2014

Buber, Sufjan, Coupland: What is a REAL Relationship?

During Wednesday’s lunch discussion, we talked about this perplexing statement from one of Andrew Fellow’s lectures: “The now, the present, is the only place where Reality exists.” Fellows is making a strong claim—that reality is found in the midst of relationship- and that Real reality must be experienced in the present. As you can imagine, it took us the full 1.5 hour lunch discussion time to attempt to unravel this.

Fellows’ excellent lecture focuses on the distinctions that philosopher Martin Buber makes between “I-Thou” relationships and “I-It” relationships. An “I-It” relationship is a relationship in which we relate to another person based solely on what they can do for us, for how they make us feel. An “I-Thou” relationship is one in which we appreciate, listen to, and live in a perpetual state of wonder as we encounter another person’s “otherness.” In a sense, an “I-It” relationship is viewing and relating to another according to his/her use value, whereas an “I-Thou” relationship is viewing and relating to another based on a deep conviction that the other is inherently valuable (not just valuable because of what he/she can do for you). “I-Thou” relationships are hard, so we slip in between these two modes of relating. We often objectify those who “serve” us in society (waiters, janitors, cashiers) according to an “I-It” way of relating. We see them merely as people put in place to make our lives function smoothly, to help us get what we want. How hard would it be to take a moment to actually stop, look into the other’s eyes, speak directly to them, acknowledging their humanity?Even these fleeting interactions can move from the realm of “I-it” to “I-Thou.” But we are culturally trained to focus merely on getting what we want, and getting it is quickly as possible.

The “I-It” relationship model is not practiced simply in consumer transactions; sometimes, a supposedly “deep” or “real” interpersonal relationship becomes an act of consumption. We see the other as someone to complete us, to fulfill our needs, to “fix us” (as the annoying Coldplay song about codependence says). The other person’s importance solely lies in what he/she can give us. In this sense, our supposed friend or beloved becomes an object whose purpose is to please us, to give us pleasure. An “I-Thou” relationship is not without pleasure—but the pleasure it engenders is from finding joy in the other person’s being—and even finding joy in serving the other person—as opposed to looking to the other as a means to the end of our individual happiness.

Another way that relationships can easily slip into an “I-It” model is when we attempt to create the object of our supposed friendship or love in our own image. We can easily project our own image onto theirs and supposedly love them because they fit our needs to exactly. Of course, projections that deludes us into believing another looks and behaves like us does not meet our true needs (which are to be sharpened and challenged, among other things) but lead us to deeper narcissism. Sufjan Stevens’ complex album The Age of Adz is the story of such an “I-It” relationship. The album begins with Stevens proclaiming “I do love you” multiple times. What follows is a jagged, chaotic, frenzied and beautiful mess that reflects the mind of the lover as he navigates the relationship. The album ends with the following confession that this relationship was not love, but objectification and narcissism:

“I never meant to cause you pain
My burden is the weight of a feather
I never meant to lead you on
I only meant to please me, however

And then you tell me, boy, we can do much more
Boy, we can do much more
Boy, we can do much more together
Boy, we can do much more together

I'm nothing but a selfish man
I'm nothing but a privileged peddler
And did you think I'd stay the night?
And did you think I'd love you forever?
And then you tell me, boy, we can do much more

I got to tell you, girl, I want nothing less
Girl, I want nothing less
Girl, I want nothing less than pleasure
Girl, I want nothing less than pleasure

I got to tell you, boy, we made such a mess
Boy, we made such a mess
Boy, we made such a mess together
Boy, we made such a mess together

Interestingly, Stevens' album tells a parallel story of the inner world of schizophrenic folk artist Royal Robertson. The “love” relationship that Stevens depicts becomes a kind of delusional schizophrenia as he projects his own reality onto his lover.

When talking about this song with a good friend several years ago, he made a poignant, thought provoking remark: “Don’t Christians do that with Jesus? Project themselves onto Him?” I do not remember the exact words—but the gist was that perhaps Christians were projecting their own image onto God. Objectifying Him. This insightful and honest question came from a friend who is agnostic—so the question is perhaps, on a deeper level, whether there is a real Jesus or if He is a complex web of our projections.

I do believe that Jesus is real, that He existed as a historical human being, God incarnate entering our time-constricted history. But I also believe that we often project our image on Him, make the relationship into an “I-It” one rather than an “I-Thou” one. And of course, the relationship between humanity and God is THE ultimate “I-Thou” relationship; without this relationship to nourish us, is it even possible to move past “I-It” relationships?

Douglas Coupland’s collection of short stories Life After God asks this very question as it tells the fractured stories of those who have been unable to have Real relationships, who resort to irony as a protective coating to prevent any more pain. Coupland shows us that in this postreligious culture, even some who call themselves “Christians” do just what my friend suggested: project their needs onto Jesus, using him as an object to meet their present need instead of recognizing the mystery, power, and reality of His brilliant Otherness.

I think it is clear that it is a human tendency to objectify and consume the other, whether the other is another human being or God. But I also believe that we were made for relationships. In our lunch discussion we emphasized that the trinity is relational, the three parts of the Godhead are constantly relating to one another. And if we are made in the image of God, then we are inherently relational; this is both our model and our nature. But our nature is also fallen—so we so often turn the wonderful complexity and mystery of the other into an object to be consumed.

This takes us back to Fellows’ quote from “What is a Relationship:” “The now, the present, is the only place where reality exists.”

What does this have to do with either the “I-It” or “I-Thou” models? I have also heard Fellows mention in his lectures that “The present is where we meet God.” Of course, scripture tells us to “Be still and know that I am God.” But what does Fellows mean by the notion that “Reality exists” in the present?

A lengthy section in Pascal’s Pensees is perhaps helpful in this regard:

“We never keep to the present. We recall the past; we anticipate the future as if we found it too slow in coming and were trying to hurry it up, or we recall the past as if to stay its too rapid flight. We are so unwise that we wander about in times that do not belong to us, and do not think of the only one that does, so vain that we dream of times that are not and blindly flee the only one that is. The fact is that the present usually hurts.

Pascal’s claim that we have a hard time keeping to the present, that the present “hurts,” relates very much to his idea that we need to sit alone in a room, to be still, in order to really think about our condition. We will soon find that it is “wretched,” and that we need God (these are all Pascal’s ideas). We meet God in the present moment. It is frightening because if we focus on the here and now we see our own brokenness and need and incompleteness.

But how does this relate to the “I-Thou” and “I-It” categories? I have gone over this in my mind and realized that when we live in the past or future, both God and others are objects within our minds; they are not living, dynamic Others. The present is unpredictable. Buber claims that anytime we have a true “I-Thou” encounter, we are changed. And this must happen in the present because we cannot control it. If we live in the past or future, we are shaping things into our own image—our romanticized notions of the past, our desires for the futures.

I still find Fellows’ comment a challenging, complex notion. But one worth chewing on: “The now, the present, is the only place where Reality exists.”

**I recommend listening to two of Andrew Fellows' excellent lectures if this topic interests you: "What is a Relationship" (quoted here) and "The Sacrament of the Present Moment."
Both can be found for free download here.

Lunch Table Discussions: the Heart of L'Abri

I have a post up here at Relief Journal about some things that have really struck me this go round about L'Abri's philosophy and practice. The rest of this post is a more specific example of the kind of conversation that reflects this philosophy (as is the post on Buber/Sufjan that follows it).
This Tuesday’s lunch discussion is a beautiful example of the vulnerability, humility, and trust it takes to ask an honest question. A young Korean student—someone who has been very shy and quiet thus far in the term—spoke up almost immediately after the worker asked if anyone had a question.

She said: “How do we eliminate prejudice from our hearts?”. After asking this, and giving several examples from her experience, she said that seeking an answer to this question was the main reason she has come to L’Abri (she will be here for the entire three month term). We then ended up spending a good amount of time discussing what the student meant by the use of the term “prejudice”--we often spend a lot of time at table discussions defining terms—and I have learned that this is a way to begin to truly hear another person rather than assume that I know what he/she means. Our discussion ended up focusing more on the idea of judging another person because of his/her behavior as opposed to holding prejudice towards a different race, nationality, or class.

The worker at the head of the table made an interesting distinction between the necessary act of judging actions and the problematic/unhelpful/sinful embracing of “judgementalism” as a worldview. There was a consensus that we must judge actions if we believe in justice; as another worker said “We must have judgements. Without judgement, there is no forgiveness.” In other words, if we never judge, then we do not recognize either evil or goodness. But this is also tricky when encountering another person and, if practiced non-relationally—as simply following a set of rules, it can so easily lead to an attitude of self-righteousness. It can also prevent us from truly seeing that other person. When we take the time to truly hear someone else’s story and begin to understand the motives and reasons for their actions, we often see that it is not such a simple binary  (black/white) issue. The question I was left with was this: Although I agree that we need to judge whether an action is right or wrong (but even that is hard because sometimes we do not have enough information and might judge incorrectly), I wonder if it is right to actually judge a person as a good person or a bad person. I am inclined to say no; I believe that only God can really know this. And that the “line of good and evil” (as both Dostoevsky and NT Wright call it) runs right through the heart of each human being. The practice of capital punishment implies that we can judge a person’s worth fully and say when they have become so inhuman that they deserve to no longer live. But where is the hope for redemption? The acknowledgement that God’s image is in each individual?

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Finding Comfort in "Carrion Comfort"

Students in my Humanities survey class had to write three short essays at the end of the semester. In the third--and the one always the most fascinating to read--they are asked to select a few works from the semester and explain how these works have challenged, affirmed, or even altered their world views (keep in mind that they have been reading Marx, Darwin, Nietzsche, O’Connor, Sartre, Coupland, Spiegelman, etc). Although this is a more reflective essay (the first two are more traditionally academic), I find that it is very important for students to have the opportunity to think in writing about how these works of philosophy and literature CAN become a part of their own spiritual formation (by the way, I provide another essay option if anyone does not want to write on something that can be so personal). I want them to think through how what we are reading in the classroom is not cloistered off from the world outside the classroom --or from their internal worlds.

I am often humbled when reading these essays, especially in seeing some revelations that I certainly had not planned or anticipated (thus indicating that what I am teaching and what the students read is not really under my control, but that the Holy Spirit does things far beyond my own imagination). One example (and there are many) has just really struck me as a perfect example of this. One student wrote about "Carrion Comfort," one of Gerard Manley Hopkins' "Terrible Sonnets," poems about spiritual depression and doubt. Of course, Hopkins, a devout Jesuit, is more known for his beautiful praise poems such as "God's Grandeur" and "Pied Beauty" (and I spent much more time on these, actually).

But this student says that this one line from "Carrion Comfort" has "changed my life": "I wretch lay wrestling with (My God!) my God."

I barely spent any time on this line in class--but it was used to transform this student's thinking. Several students were moved by Hopkins' poetry which helped them to be honest about their own doubts and struggles. And several felt a sense of freedom and encouragement in recognizing that this devout believer could both earnestly and beautifully praise God, yet also have dark nights of the soul. The seemingly contrasting poems actually interrogate a sometimes false binary of doubt/faith--and express that perhaps doubt and honest admission of struggle can be a part of faith (an honest, complex faith) rather than a denial of it.

"Carrion Comfort" by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Not, I'll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist — slack they may be — these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones? and fan,
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?

Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.
Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,
Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, chéer.
Cheer whom though? the hero whose heaven-handling flung me, fóot tród
Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one? That night, that year

Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.