The Love Triangle
The Love Triangle, or, the meaning of life.
The other day, I was sitting on Takapuna beach, taking a moment between two appointments to be still and reflect. And walking along the beach were two young women, probably in their late teens or very early 20s. One of them looked strikingly like an older version of Cara Maplesden-Adler, and I had a moment of feeling like I'd time warped, and was sitting in the future.
It got me thinking. Wondering...what, out of all the things that will happen between now and then, would have lasting importance? Looking at this older Cara, I asked myself, what can we be and do now, that will help our children grow up well in this world? And then, what contribution will I, or any of us, have made to the planet in ten to fifteen years time? What out of all my actions will I still think of as significant, valuable, or beautiful, looking back after that time period? What may have made a difference, and what will have faded into obscurity? Which of our whizzy projects will time judge as yet more stressful activity yielding nothing of value? Ultimately, is anything of value? What is the meaning of life? Is there any meaning in life? You can see that it's not good for me to sit on a beach too often.
I realised that there are two answers I might once have given to those questions, that I now can't.
One - I can't say that it is enough to have prepared souls for the afterlife,
and Two - it's no longer compelling for me to seek social transformation in the here and now for its own sake.
The religiously conservative impulse to evangelise and save others has nothing to say about what is worthwhile about being in this world as we live in it here and now. And focusing simply on issues of social well-being and justice leads so often from idealism to burn out, or simply a whole lot of effort in multiple directions without ultimate achievement.
And, Three - a combo of these things - doesn't quite work for me either, mostly because it doesn't seem to offer a rich enough sense of human life - is there anything other than evangelism and activism that makes living a worthwhile and beautiful thing? Let's assume that everyone was 'saved', and living in a relatively just environment...what then would be the point of it all?
As I've mulled over these questions, a diagram emerged, one that is beginning to provide for me a sense of 'what it's all about.' Okay, so it's not a definitive answer to the meaning of existence, nor do I make any claim that it will still be how I'm thinking ten minutes from now, let alone ten years. But it's helping for the moment...
I'm going to try to share some of it with you this morning.
For me at the moment, this triangle represents what it means to be a person of faith, what it means to live as a Christian in this world.
Here we have three interconnected dimensions of living. Nothing of them functions fully or truly without the others. I think, though, that the one that I've put at the bottom - Spiritual Practice - is foundational, and the other two emerge out of it.
So, I'll begin there. Spiritual practice is to do with how we move deeper into relationship with God. It's about the ways in which we can choose to come face to face with God, increasingly stripping away the things that blind and delude us about who we are and who God is. Sometimes that stripping away involves removing all the things we thought we knew about God and self. And from that place, we can have true relationships with others - where conflict and self-centredness diminishes, and honesty and real intimacy grows.
Spiritual practice includes things we do on our own, such as contemplative prayer, and meditation on Scripture, or nature. And it includes those outward looking, or communal practices such as worship, mindful work, hospitality, forgiveness and healing that I've talked about in the past.
The reason why spiritual practice is so important, more important than getting the head stuff right, is that ultimately our relationship with God involves much more of our selves than what we think. Here's a story from Cynthia Bourgeault's book 'The Wisdom Way of Knowing'
'A young man came to [Russian Orthodox archbishop Anthony Bloom], angry and distressed because he couldn't make any sense out of his Christianity. The dogma and theology seemed like so much bunk, and the creeds frequently made him furious. He yearned for a life of faith, but it all seemed like a huge wall without handholds...The archbishop listened intently and then made a rather surprising suggestion: that the young man simply go home and make one hundred full prostrations a day for a month. [which means going flat out on the floor, face down, arms outstretched, for an in-out breath, and then getting up] The young man, puzzled but intrigued, carried out Father Anthony's program diligently. When he returned a month later his eyes were glowing with faith, and the creeds no longer made him angry. The reason, as the archbishop knew full well, is that through the deep, rhythmic gestures of bowing and emptying himself, the man came to understand something that could not be found by the mind. It lived in his body. In connecting with his body, he reconnected with the wellsprings of his faith.'
You may have thought chanting the psalms was weird. Just wait. We can get weirder.
Part of what gets developed through spiritual practice is a capacity to experience wonder, awe and delight. A capacity to be 'present' to all that speaks of God in this world, to see the grandeur of even a tiny moment, or a grain of sand. I was at a wedding recently where one of the people giving a speech encouraged the couple not to lose their ability to have their spirits uplifted and moved by things that money can't buy - things like rain, and birds landing in the garden. I thought this was great advice.
Then, when I was sitting on the beach, having these reflections about the meaning of all things, a bird that wasn't a seagull - some kind of long necked waterbird - flew from one end of the beach to the other, across the water, nearly hitting the water with the downbeat of its wings, but not quite. Smooth, gracious, miraculous. I was briefly taken out of myself, and found myself able to say 'that's enough, that's all the meaning there needs to be.' There's something about awe that makes other questions less important.
Some people think that contemplative practice is self-indulgent, or involves withdrawal from the world. This can be true for a time. But I would argue that real contemplation always leads back out again, into the hurting world, with insight and compassion, and a clarity of understanding that can bring genuine light to the problems we face. Hence, I see ethics as an essential, even inevitable outworking of spiritual practice. Someone like Thomas Merton is an example of this - he disappeared into a monastery as a young man, but later got himself into all sorts of trouble for his civil rights activism and writing against the Vietnam war.
I've defined ethics as love and justice. Probably, only love is needed, because when we really love, it becomes blindingly obvious where justice is missing, and compassion provides the right kind of energy to act well to bring change. Ethics, then, is not theoretical, nor particularly tied to social moral norms - except when it's isolated from its true source - the love that comes from connection to God. That is, when we 'do justice' or activism or morality without any spiritual core. Probably many of us have been involved in protest groups or social change networks where there's a lot of righteous indignation, anger and conviction. These groups often turn into the monster that they're trying to fight, by adopting tactics of aggression or exclusion. Actions of love and justice that come from a source of spiritual practice, however, are more likely to be humble, and generous minded, as spiritual practice makes us aware that our greatest enemy lies not outside ourselves, but in our own hearts.
If ethics without spiritual practice becomes moralism or angry activism, ethics without imagination is a weak and pointless ethics, that's trapped by the prevailing social or intellectual powers. That is, without a fresh vision, without perspective or prophecy, our ethic is dictated to us by the technology we use, the compulsion to profit or consume, the overarching narrative of scientific truth and progress, and purely rational discourse...or whatever strong system we're in. This takes us to the third point of the triangle - imagination.
I was listening to a lecture on the radio the other day about the quest to find a common ethical language in our pluralist society that's a mix of secularism and multiple religions. The lecturer talked of our need for a 'moral imagination' and suggested that poetic language will serve us far better than scientific language in trying to remind ourselves of what it means to be good humans in this fast changing world. Without poetic truth, we are reduced to scientific, or legal, or literal facts. For facts to become truth, they need to be enlarged by poetry...by which I don't mean rhyming verses, but images, beauty, metaphor, story. We need to release traditional and new myths and stories and art into our minds and hearts as cultures, in order to determine what will help us find our way. And I would argue, based on my interconnecting triangle, that not only a poetic imagination, but a spiritually informed poetic imagination, will do this for us with greater depth and effectiveness.
I've defined imagination as more than creativity, or the production or engagement with those things we call artistic. It also involves vision and prophecy. That is, our ability to see beyond the status quo, our ability to be moved and motivated by a new thing that hasn't happened yet. Or to see what lies under the surface of those realities that present themselves to us as 'just the way things are', whether their impact on us is positive or negative. Prophecy in the fullest sense is seeing with God's eyes into our world, and catching a glimpse of both what's wrong, and what could be right with it...hence the strong connection to ethics.
And hence the link between imagination and spiritual practice. When we are in connection with God, we receive, and then are able to express, a way of seeing life and speaking about the world that draws from more than our rational minds. Relating to God and others is essentially intuitive, visionary, and creative. The beauty of living rests in those things that make life more than functional. Through imagination, we can communicate the moments of awe and delight that come from spiritual presence and awareness. This is quite different from a spirituality that is reduced to mere argument, or to the repetition of agreed doctrine. So much of what passes for Christian thought in our day and age is woefully unpoetic. I'd go so far as to say it's ugly. Ugly in ideas, and ugly in expression.
Our post-reformation Christian context hasn't been particularly strong on the imagination - in fact it's tended to be quite suspicious of it. Art has been relegated to being the illustration of 'gospel truths', and our Biblical text interpreted often with a tedious literalism. But to my mind, without the imagination - creativity, beauty, prophecy and vision - we're left with a religion with no God in it, no mystery, and no relationship. Only humans arguing about whose version of God is the correct one.
To return to my triangle. Each connection path has a verse from Scripture - not so much as a proof text, but as an illustration of the way these things are linked within the picture of life with God as the Bible describes it. I could have chosen other texts. But with these ones, we see that walking with God is linked with justice and kindness. When we are in connection with God, we perceive the 'new thing' that God is doing, and turn it into 'song' and newness in the world. And this in turn informs our ethics - how do we know what justice is? How do we intuit what the demands of kindness are in a given situation? By way of the dreams and visions whereby our ethics are sourced in prophetic imagination.
The question that is maybe springing to your minds is, this is all very well, but
what is Christian about this diagram? Where is the reference to Jesus, and salvation, redemption and eternal life? Surely these things are what we need to know about to live as Christians in the world. Surely they are all the meaning we need? And why 'spiritual practice,' and not 'Christian truth'? All religions have spiritual practice. Don't we need something more distinctively Christian as the foundation for living?
One part of me mischievously responds to those questions by saying, yes, its plurality is part of the appeal for me. I refuse to say that someone who's not a Christian can only have a meaningless, valueless existence. With this triangle, significance is not contained in only one religion, though it does insist on a spiritual dimension, on the reality of God. Therefore we can have shared practice and shared action and shared understandings with others, even when we have different starting places.
But having said that, for me, this 'love triangle' is deeply Christ centred. It's just that the Christianity is assumed, because I am a Christian, and that's the story I live in. My worship and my prayer, the cycle of the church year, the texts I use for meditation, and the form of the spiritual practice I choose these are all based in my Christian faith. My ethics, the way I interpret what kindness and justice are, and my imagination, these are immersed in the story of Jesus and his Way. It's just that we don't need to always talk about Jesus and repentance and atonement and eternal life in order to be saying something authentically Christian.
I have deliberately left any explicit statement of belief or doctrinal content out of this triangle. To insist that Christian living consists of repeating Christian affirmations or convictions very quickly becomes dry and narrow. When the stuff that's meant to be the starting point of a new life becomes the totality of the new life, it dies. Here's a little quoted text from the book of Hebrews: 'Therefore let us go on toward maturity, leaving behind the basic teaching about Christ, and not laying again the foundation: repentance from dead works and faith toward God, instruction about baptisms, laying on of hands, resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgement. And we will do this, if God permits.'
Our Bible includes the Hebrew Scriptures. Reading them gives us a glimpse into a way of 'assuming God' as the basis of all things, without always being explicit about that. To be Israelite was to love God, and live accordingly. In their ritual they repeated their history, what God had done for them in taking them out of Egypt and bringing them to a new land, but much of the First Testament illustrates the process of going on from there, and working out what it meant to live day by day in the world - hence the prophets and the wisdom literature, and books that don't even refer to God, such as the book of Esther, and Song of Songs.
As C.S. Lewis said - 'Do not write about the light, but what the light allows you to see.' Jesus is the light of the world. When we align our lives with him, our orientation oughtn't to be always to stand there pointing at Jesus, but to turn to stand beside him, going into the world alongside him and living as he did. It's a balance of meditating on
Jesus - spiritual practice - and being Jesus for our world now - practical love, and prophetic imagination. Christ, who is our light, is also our way of seeing - our way of 'being in God' and looking at everything else by means of his light. And this 'everything else' - this is what we speak about, this is our call and our message and our vision.
This might all sound quite complicated. But really, I think it's very simple. Look after the spiritual practice, engage with the bottom of the triangle, and everything else will take care of itself. When we look into the face of God, we learn to meet God in everything. When we are mindful of wonder, and engage our hearts, minds and physical selves in acts of worship and contemplation, then what we do and become in the world will most likely express itself in love, and be beautiful. And, maybe, even meaningful.