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The untold significance of African American spirituals

June 6, 2011 14 comments

I was prompted to write this short reflection after reading two very rich and insightful posts written by Sonja and Katie, two of my friends over at Women In Theology: http://witheology.wordpress.com/2011/05/30/ethnic-hymns-in-white-churches/ and http://witheology.wordpress.com/2011/06/01/ethnic-hymns-in-white-churches-take-two/.  I recommend reading these, if you have a chance.

The question on the table was how to evaluate the singing of so-called “ethnic” music–and, particularly, the spiritual songs of the African-American tradition–in predominantly “white” churches.  On the one hand, both Sonja and Katie suggest that this practice is often well-intentioned (i.e., motivated by a desire to respect and cultivate diversity in the body of Christ).  On the other hand, however, both argue that, in various ways, this practice can also be problematic, precisely to the extent that it does not address (and may even  support) the regnant power dynamics which are constitutive of racism,  white privilege, and white supremacy.  The take-away points for me are these: (1) singing supposedly non-white songs in churches that are mostly white is to be recommended only when combined with a rigorous ecclesial struggle against racism and (2) in the absence of such a struggle, this performance of multi-cultural worship is likely to entrench what it superficially appears to resist. 

I agree with these points.  I would, however, like to take a step back and think about the songs themselves.  The crucial question to me seems to be whether we are supposed to understand them more fundamentally as ethnic music (i.e., music belonging to and expressing the core of a particular culture or people) or rather as prayerful music (i.e., as music which, even in its particularity, potentially discloses something about the meaning or the stakes of prayer as such). 

Of course, the spirituals are both.  However, it strikes me that, because they are always and everywhere classified as the former, they are seldom recognized fully as the latter.  Decisions are made about them largely on the basis of their ethnic status.  This is the case not only among those who would use this status as a justification for excluding them from “mainstream” worship, but also among those who want to include and celebrate them for the sake of diversity.  Even those (like Sonja and Katie) who powerfully deconstruct these first two possibilities discuss the spirituals as though the decisive factor has to do with ethnicity (or culture or race): that is, with the way particular groups of people have been organized in history.    

This is no doubt an important locus of conversation!  Don’t get me wrong.  But it doesn’t get to the heart of the spirituals, which, like the psalms, are deeply revelatory of the mystery of prayer as such–in its historicity, its physicality, its beauty, its hope, its sorrow, its urgency, its power.  James Cone’s Spirituals and the Blues brings out this essentially prayerful aspect of the spirituals, but I still think Cone prioritizes the ethnic or racial question in such a way that many readers are likely to overlook what they are actually saying.  It seems to me that those who first sang the spirituals were less interested in being black or in expressing their particular culture than they were in raising up their sufferings and their hopes to the almighty God.  I say this as someone who understands myself as black but also and more fundamentally as a human being who tries frequently (and sometimes unsucessfully) to pray.   

So let me propose that the first criterion for the use of the spirituals by anyone has to be a readiness for prayer. 

And yet, this is not the only important criterion.  Another criterion is certainly that racism must be resisted.  But I’m also inclined to assert that the power of racism takes root precisely in our society’s collective deafness to the more-than-ethnic significance of these songs.  It is as though, because people with darker skin first sung them, their meaning has to be defined thoroughly by the politics of skin color.  But this pervasive outlook implicitly takes something away from their ability to embody prayer in the fullest, most humanizing and most divinizing, sense.  Prayers which are worthy of the name will take place in a particular linguistic, social, bodily event of space and time, but they will also be able to mediate a posture of openness to God across the greatest geographical and temporal expanses.  They will be recognizable, translatable, always and everywhere pray-able.  Consider the psalms (again); consider Augustine’s Confessions (and let us not forget that this text was written by a north African); consider Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle; consider any great classic of prayer.  Consider the spirituals.  In order to resist racism, it is necessary to let the spirituals be received as an important part of a general canon of Christian witness and devotion.  The dignity of those who first sang these songs is denied if this tradition is restricted to the status of cultural property.

No doubt, it is important to remember that those who composed and carried on the tradition of these beautiful lamentations and hymns have been treated for centuries as though they were less than human, as though they were unloved by God, and as–at best–a uniquely gifted but marginal (“ethnic,” “diverse,” “racial”) people.  In many ways, this unjust treatment continues today.  The awareness of these facts gives the spirituals additional poignancy and political significance, which more often than not probably goes unnoticed by many who, encountering them only rarely in the midst of a Sunday liturgy, are never prompted to stop and think about them in their original and contemporary contexts.  The solution to this, however, would seem to be to let their presence and their importance resound more powerfully and more frequently in the church as a whole.  The solution cannot be to lock them in a file to be used only when a certain percentage of blacks are around.  Such an approach merely underscores the status quo.  It devalues the spirituals.  It even invites African Americans to interpret the songs in a misleading way, as though they were to be valued as cultural elements existing alongside the catholic tradition rather than as integral features of it. 

If what so-called white churches need is a greater awareness of historical and ongoing racism, let us work to increase this; but what better place to start than by unpacking the significance of the spirituals (perhaps in a homily now and then . . .), and by incorporating them more robustly into mainstream liturgies everywhere? 

Do many people often feel awkward when singing these songs?  Yes.  But get over it.  Let it go.  Try to enter into the experience.  Put yourself in someone else’s shoes.  Step out of your comfort zone for a few seconds.  Use it as a chance to cultivate a greater sense of solidarity, not only with African Americans, but also with all those who, even though they pray, have not been respected in their humanity and have not been welcomed as the children of God that they are.  This will probably not come easy for some; it will be challenging.  But I see it as an indispensable part of our vocation as Christians: to allow ourselves to be enriched by prayers coming from all parts of the body of Christ.

Who has a right to sing these songs?  Only those who attempt to pray genuinely with them, to contemplate the depths of prayer which they vocalize, and–on the heels of this experience–seek greater justice and love in our still racially and ethnically torn world.

Marion on excess: why we need both saturation and distance

March 29, 2011 3 comments

Early in his career (Idol and Distance 1977), Marion speaks of distance as a positively determined (but not predicated) divine excess through and toward which we traverse, but which we never abolish, in our prayer and praise.  God is ever greater as  given but more fundamentally as not given.  The difference between traversing and abolishing distance is precisely the gap between the given and the not given.  It is a gap which is denied by predication but respected by prayer/praise.  This is what Marion learns from the mystical theology of Dionysius the Areopagite, but also from Nietzsche, Hoelderlin, Balthasar, and certain passages of Christian scripture.   

Later in his career (e.g., In Excess 2001), Marion shifts focus toward the eidetic possibility of revelation conceived as the “saturated phenomenon par excellence.”  Again, the Dionysian tradition is recalled, but this time divine excess is thought as saturation: i.e., the surplus of intuition over intentionality.  This is a complete inversion of the Kantian (but also Husserlian) understanding of transcendence, according to which intentionality exceeds intuition, the latter being impoverished.  In saturation, it is not that givenness falls short of our ability to grasp it; it is that givenness wildly oustrips our ability to grasp it.  But what warrants our attention for the moment is this: that which makes God ever greater in this revised phenomenological rubric remains, perplexingly, a kind of immanence: immanence, not in the sphere of intentionality, but in the sphere of givenness (for consciousness), which entails possibility, not actuality.  According to Marion, we can say with phenomenological certainty that already within what is given there is given the essential possibility of much more intuition of God than we are able to organize, interpret, or understand. 

Question: having noted the difference and similarity between the two, should one conclude that saturation (because its theorization comes later) supercedes distance?  No. 

The emphasis has to be placed on distance, though not to the exclusion of saturation.  The earlier formulation must be prioritized.  Why?  Because the claim that God is ever greater cannot be translated adequately by a theory of immanence or givenness, however expansive and inverted.  If one thinks divine excess in terms of saturation alone, this suggests a never realizable potential for full understanding already within our consciousness.  It suggests that God is (qua eidetic possibility) already totally given.  It seems necessary to maintain, on the contrary, that however much the givenness of God already exceeds our ability to grasp it, that which is not given of God exceeds it all the more.  In short, the excess of distance exceeds (but does not render meaningless) the excess of saturation. 

Phenomenology perhaps cannot think this thought.  For this one perhaps needs prayer/praise, which, moreover, makes no pretense of bracketing the actuality of God.

Univocity of being–a cliche?

August 22, 2010 1 comment

For those who have taken to heart the works of Jean-Luc Marion–or Martin Heidegger, for that matter–it goes without saying that the history of the concept of being, particularly of the univocal concept of being which begins to gain prominence after Scotus, has been detrimental to theology.  I do not dispute this claim.  But I do wonder to what extent it has, over the years, become a cliche.  At least, it strikes me that more time could be spent thinking about why this claim might be true than simply reiterating it as something obvious. 

It bears remembering, for instance, that for Scotus and Suarez, to say that being is, at least in one respect, univocal is not to imply that God and creatures are the same.  God’s being is infinite, simple, absolute, necessary; ours is finite, composite, relative, contingent.  But the fact that we use the word “being” in each case suggests that something unites these radically dissimilar . . . . what can one even call them?–realities?  beings?–language breaks down here.  But in order to go on speaking, a provision will have to be made, and the concept of being could be read precisely as such a provision. 

But if God and creatures are not the same, then has not God been reduced to an element within a larger horizon, and thereby dethroned?  This objection would also be hard to sustain for Scotus and Suarez, insofar as God is nothing other than the simple fullness of being, upon which all other beings depend.  The same question, moreover, could be repeated with respect to any alternative name that is used theologically: e.g., love, beauty, goodness, grace, holiness, power.  Any divine name comes with the risk of subordinating God to a concept, but this is certainly not Scotus’ or Suarez’s intention, even though they have recourse to concepts. 

Is the problem, then, that scholastic writing in general is not overtly prayerful?  Is it that scholastic theology is divorced from spirituality?  Perhaps.  And yet, how can we be sure that the appearance of such a divorce does not stem from a failure of interpretation on our part?  After all, Suarez was a devout Jesuit; Scotus was a faithful Franciscan.  Arguably, their religiously vowed lives indicate the influence of an admirable spiritual practice.  Who is to say that their theological systems did not emerge out of  daily participation in the liturgy of the hours or (at least in Suarez’s case) the practice of the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius? 

I, myself, have a preference for speaking of being in more explicitly analogical terms, because I think that this preserves the God-creature difference more effectively.  And yet, I cannot help but wonder whether a relatively uninformed prejudice has started to inform our assessment of the great representatives of scholasticism.

Contemplative clouds: a site of solitude or subjectivity?

July 31, 2010 Leave a comment

The anonymous 14th century author of the Cloud of Unknowing asserts that his work depends on Dionysius “from beginning to end” (ch. 70).  The influence is obvious, but perhaps not as complete as the Cloud author suggests.  As much as it draws on the patristic tradition of mystical theology, this text already seems to be moving away from it, toward a more proto-modern mode of mysticism and the isolated or buffered subject of modernity which such mysticism foretells. 

Not yet at the extreme of Descartes’ methodological doubt or Husserl’s phenomenological epoche, the contemplative prayer advocated by this English mystic nevertheless involves a certain bracketing.  On the one hand, God is to be sought exclusively through the “cloud of unknowing,” which is a barrier to knowledge that is nevertheless permeable by divine love, or grace.  On the other hand, there is the “cloud of forgetting,” which detaches the contemplative from all sensations, images, and thoughts of people or things existing in the created world (ch. 5).  Now, clouds are not walls.  There is a certain degree of porousness implied by the metaphor.  And yet, the image of these clouds does encourage the prayerful soul to cultivate a profound sense of isolation from concrete reality in order to draw nearer to the God who nevertheless remains ever distant, thinkable only as “nothing” or “all,” approachable only from “nowhere” (chs. 68-9).  The clouds act like buffers, leaving the self prayerful but abstracted.  Soon, the prayers will cease but the abstraction will remain. 

That having been said, modern subjectivity having been identified for the problematic and contingent occurrence that it is, an open question remains concerning the potential value of this sort of spiritual practice.  The theme of solitude, more positive in connotation, could be developed here.  And it could be pointed out that such cloudily enclosed contemplation is meant to attract others to the grace of God, through the change in spiritual and physical appearance which it brings about in the practioner (ch. 54).  Ultimately, this contemplative prayer is, in its effects, both social and bodily–two qualities which we postmoderns demand.  And yet, ought not these qualities condition prayer itself, and not only its outcomes?  Or ought they not (at least not in the heights of contemplation)?  This question, to me, seems as important and perplexing today, as ever.  Must there be aloneness with the Alone, or is this precisely that which a prayerful encounter with the living God seeks to subvert?

God of My Life

July 17, 2010 2 comments

Often readers of Rahner turn first to Foundations of Christian Faith, then maybe to Hearer of the Word and some of the Theological Investigations, and, if their really adventurous, to Spirit in the World. In my view, Hearer and various essays in TI are great places to start. Recently, however, I have been reading through Rahner’s short book Encounters with Silence and I am struck by how nicely it introduces Rahner’s thought. Published in 1938 (a year before Spirit in the World), it is a series of ten mediations on the Christian life written as prayers to God. The first is entitled “God of My Life” and it gives a great glimpse into the heart of Rahner’s early works:

Suppose I tried to be satisfied with what so many today profess to be the purpose of their lives. Suppose I defiantly determined to admit my finiteness, and glory in it alone. I could only begin to recognize this finiteness and accept it as my sole destiny, because I had previously so often stared out into the vast reaches of limitless space, to those hazy horizons where Your Endless Life is just beginning.

Without You, I should founder helplessly in my own dull and groping narrowness. I could never feel the pain of longing, not even deliberately resign myself to being content with this world, had not my mind again and again soared out over its own limitations into the hushed reaches which are filled by You alone, the Silent Infinite. Where should I flee before You, when all my yearning for the unbounded, even my bold trust in my littleness, is really confession of you?

What else is there that I can tell You about Yourself, except that You are the One without whom I cannot exist, the Eternal God from whom alone I, a creature of time, can draw strength to live, the Infinity who gives meaning to my finiteness. Ane when I tell You all this, then I have given myself my true name, the name I ever repeat when I pray in David’s Psalter, ‘Tuus sum ego.’ I am the one who belongs not to himself, but to You. I know no more than this about myself, nor about You, O God of my life, Infinity of my finiteness.

What a poor creature You have made me, O God! All I know about You and about myself is that You are the eternal mystery of my life. Lord, what a frightful puzzle man is! He belongs to You, and You are Incomprehensible – Incomprehensible in Your Being, and even more so in Your ways and judgments. For if all Your dealings with me are acts of Your freedom, quite unmerited gifts of Your grace which knows no ‘why,’ if my creation and my whole life hang absolutely on Your free decision, if all my paths are, after all, Your paths and, therefore, unsearchable, then, Lord, no amount of questioning will ever fathom Your depths – You will still be the Incomprehensible, even when I see You face to face…

But I am rambling on like a fool – excuse me, O God. You have told me through Your Son that You are the God of my love, and You have commanded me to love You. Your commands are often hard because they enjoin the opposite of what my own inclinations would lead me to do, but when You bid me love You, You are ordering something that my own inclinations would never even dare to suggest: to love You, to come intimately close to You, to love Your very life. You ask me to lose myself in You, knowing that You will take me to Your Heart, where I may speak on loving, familiar terms with You, the incomprehensible mystery of my life. And all this because You are Love Itself.

Encounters with Silence, 6-8

Aquinas: prayer, reason, and desire

May 24, 2010 2 comments

1.) Thomas describes prayer as rational.  What modern would dare say this?  Today one may easily get the impression that a choice has to be made: either adopt a romantic critique of the limits of reason, in order to make room for a more passionate, beautiful, fully embodied understanding of human existence, including spirituality; or embrace rationality as universally necessary and sufficient, but with the result that things like prayer and devotion are ignored or treated with great suspicion.  Given the fault lines of our culture, it seems reasonable to ask, “What was Aquinas thinking?”  But to him, the connection probably seemed obvious: “prayer (oratio) is spoken reason (oris ratio).”  Moreover, when we pray, we are not just feeling a certain way but rather asking that something (namely, our lives, our world) be set in order, and it is our reason which enables us to apprehend such an order (ST II-II, 83.1.c).  I think Aquinas has a point.  Listen to people pray.  The words are not mere feelings exteriorized but rather articulate visions of the way things could be, should be, in a reasonable universe.  Prayers are the mind making sense out of an apparently senseless world. 

2.) Aquinas speaks of prayer as the “interpreter of desire” (83.1.c and 83.9.c).  If prayer is rational, it is also erotic, desirous, full of longing.  Prayer translates our restless depths into rational discourse.  The key, however, is that, as Augustine says, “it is lawful to pray for what it is lawful to desire,” and for nothing more (83.6.c).  Prayer, then, ought to interpret desires which are properly ordered not only to our own good but also to the good of others, for “this is essential to the love which we owe to our neighbor” (83.7.c).  Although this may include certain necessary temporal goods (ibid.), it ultimately amounts to willing that all may fully enjoy the glory of God (83.9.c).  The desire which prayer speaks is necessarily, therefore, equivalent to love. 

Let us not, then, be too quick to accuse Aquinas of being a rationalist when it comes to prayer, for, in a sense, he is also a romantic.  And yet, he may also provide an important corrective to the erotic excesses of romantic spiritualities which are not reasonably ordered toward the good of humanity and the praise which is due to God alone.

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Teaching Anselm’s Proslogion

February 12, 2010 16 comments

Reading Brian’s last post brought Anselm of Canterbury to mind.  He’s a medieval who has often been read as a philosopher.  He is the supposed inventor of the “ontological argument” for the existence of God: an argument which would later be polished up by Descartes and spawn centuries of debate regarding its logical validity (see Alvin Plantinga’s helpful little book on The Ontological Argument).  More recently Anselm has been approached as a spiritual writer: a person of prayer and deep existential faith.  Karl Barth’s book on Anselm, Fides quaerens intellectum, can perhaps be given some credit for getting the ball rolling on this more pious line of interpretation.

And yet, the question remains open: How are we supposed to teach Anselm now?  As rigorous philosopher or pious monk?  I faced this problem directly last semester, when given the opportunity to lecture on Anselm to a group of undergraduate theology majors.  I tried to strike a balance, but I think I ultimately slid more toward the pious reading.  In retrospect, I’m not sure this was ideal.  A real balance seems important, if only as a way of being honest about what’s in the text.  Yes, most of it is composed as a prayer, an address to God as “You.”  But the second and third chapters are an argument, in which God is not “You” but “something than which nothing greater can be thought.”

In the future, I might try something like this: Anselm’s argument is a real argument.  He thinks you should be able to know with certainty that God exists provided that you understand that God is something than which nothing greater can be thought.  But we won’t be able to judge the validity of Anselm’s logic unless we grasp that this understanding is a lofty goal.  It’s not enough to have the words in your mind.  You’ve got to understand, deeply, what they mean–and what it means in particular for something to be “greater” than something else.  Anselm seeks this depth of understanding through his contemplative and petitionary prayer, in which he allows scripture and his own experience to shed light on the contours of human desire, which both reveal and conceal our intuition of greatness.  In this way prayer–or something like the contemplation it enables–is necessary for us to test the validity of the argument.

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