Richard Beck on “Nondual” Thinking

Truth be told, it’s hard to pin down exactly what nondual thinking is. The various leaders in this area vary in their definitions and descriptions. That gives me pause. Sometimes nondual means avoiding crude, simplistic thinking. Sometimes it means not being ego-centric. Sometimes it means embracing mystery and unknowing. Sometimes it just means loving people. 

Here’s my concern. It’s often the case that a buzzword hits Christian culture. And when that buzzword hits what happens is that all things good and holy get grouped under that word, and all the bad stuff gets left out. I think the nondual conversation is tempted like this. Not that this is bad if people find it helpful, just that our previous language in describing such things still remains effective. 

link

The other issue (one I’m hoping he’ll address) is for nonduality as a concept to even exist, it requires dualistic thinking. I.e., there are dualist concepts and nondualist concepts. Unless I’m wrong (and I could be) the very foundation of nondual thinking breaks down the moment it’s defined. Similar to relativism as an ethical framework.

A Quick Note

Starting June 14, I’m going to be making cdbaca.org my primary online home again. Apparently June is when I start remembering I’m a human being again and not a commodity to be manipulated by social media and tech companies.

That means I’m off Facebook (hopefully for good). I’m considering leaving Instagram as well. Last time I quit social media, I quit Twitter. That one stuck. Hopefully leaving the ‘Gram and Facebook sticks this time too.

I’m still a believer that:

  1. Social media is bad for humans — both individually and collectively.
  2. Online, we should get as close as possible to owning our own turf.

This means I’m gonna give this whole “online home” thing another shot. If I want to post something, remember images, hoard knowledge, etc. etc. — I’m going to do it here. If you want to interact with me and you don’t have my phone number or email address, reach out here. I watch comments. Let’s connect in a more human way.

When Stories Compete

From yesterday’s post:

Explicit beliefs come after our pre-rational worldview and that worldview is encoded in stories we tell, the practices we engage in, and the symbols we use to remind ourselves of how we see the world.

We frequently disagree on our beliefs about things: ethics and morality, what things mean, etc. And when we do, our discourse often revolves around the beliefs themselves. We argue, we try to make points, and we quite often fail to persuade our opponents of the truth of our claim or the falsity of theirs (and vice versa — we are rarely persuaded to think differently).

What we fail to realize, however, is that this is not because our opponents are foolish, or irrational, or otherwise incapable of grasping the truth which we so clearly see. It is instead because we are often operating with competing stories about how the world works. And not just the particular stories about what happened or why it happened. It’s often down to the very root of our beliefs — the big Story and the little stories that form us.

Let’s take, for example, the matter of human sexuality. Within the church, there are lots of questions and arguments swirling around whether those who identify as LGBTQ+ ought to be affirmed in the full expression of their sexuality. But these arguments and conversation often miss the mark, because the very lenses through which we see the world are formed out of competing narratives.

Do we believe the story of God that the biblical narrative has given us? Do we reject all of that narrative in favor of another story? Do we only accept some of it? If so, which parts do we accept?

Until we can answer those questions and understand where those who differ from us stand, asking and answering these questions will likely only result in frustration. Without some fundamental, baseline agreement on what human beings are and what human beings are made for, ethical questions (like affirming/non-affirming LGBTQ+ identities and expression) will be difficult — if not impossible.

We Are “Storied” Creatures

In Part I of The New Testament and the People of God, N.T. Wright offers a great synopsis of his view of Scripture — especially the Jewish scriptures. To do this, he makes the argument, first, that humans are creatures that cannot help but see the world and our lives through story. Knowledge and worldviews, which we often see as the driving, fundamental forces of why we act the way we do, are consequences of the stories that we tell and hear:

Human life, then, can be seen as grounded in and constituted by the implicit or explicit stories which humans tell themselves and one another. This runs contrary to the popular belief that a story is there to ‘illustrate’ some point or other which can in principle be stated without recourse to the clumsy vehicle of a narrative… Stories are a basic constituent or human life; they are, in fact, one key element within the total construction of a worldview.

NTPG, 38

Human beings are the kinds of creatures that tell stories. Further, it is story that helps us to make sense of the world. This may run contrary to how we normally see things. We moderns like to think that the world is inherently material in nature, and we can understand the world primarily through a scientific lens. No “ultimate” story necessary, because the universe is fundamentally meaningless. The way to truly understand the world is through understanding how things really are, on a material level. Moderns like to think we can come to some basic beliefs about how the world works through rigorous empiricism and rationalism.

This ignores a fundamental fact of human existence, however, which is that how we see the world is inherently encoded in story (along with practice, symbols, and basic questions about what it means to be human). Beliefs do not come before our stories, but after them.

Worldviews, the grid through which humans perceive reality, emerge into explicit consciousness in terms of human beliefs and aims, which function as in principle debatable expressions of the worldviews. The stories which characterize the worldview itself are thus located, on the map of human knowing, at a more fundamental level than explicitly formed beliefs, including theological beliefs.

ibid.

Explicit beliefs come after our pre-rational worldview and that worldview is encoded in stories we tell, the practices we engage in, and the symbols we use to remind ourselves of how we see the world. This means that the stories we tell — from the grand one about where humans come from to the novels we read to the movies and shows we watch — are all continually forming us in particular ways. Ways that are “pre-critical” (i.e., that are shaping us often before we get a chance to see how they’re shaping us).

The Purpose of Authority

Rather, God’s authority vested in scripture is designed, as all God’s authority is designed, to liberate human beings, to judge and condemn evil and sin in the world in order to set people free to be fully human.  That’s what God is in the business of doing.  That is what his authority is there for. And when we use a shorthand phrase like ‘authority of scripture’ that is what we ought to be meaning.  It is an authority with this shape and character, this purpose and goal.

N.T. Wright – “How Can the Bible be Authoritative?”

Perhaps a small reason why I’m concerned with orthodoxy and authority is somewhat related to what N.T. Wright is getting at here.

  1. I can understand that it makes people squeamish to talk about “authority.” That runs into all sorts of other questions about power, by whose authority we live, how diversity and pluralism fit within that authority, etc.
  2. I can also understand that questions of orthodoxy and authority together make people concerned, because it can seem immediately like I (or others) are concerned with controlling others’ lives. That’s concerning for plenty of good reasons, not least of which is the abuse of power by ecclesial authorities over the last, well… forever.

But! Surely, there is some way in which Scripture and “proper” theology ought to guide us into deeper understandings of God, God’s character, and the telos of human beings.

In other words, let’s just assume a couple of things: God exists, God has revealed himself via nature, the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, and in incarnation.

If we assume such things to be true (big claims that need to be examined, I know), then it is reasonable to assume that human beings were created for a purpose. If that is true, then my goal as an individual human being ought to be to figure out how to discern God’s character (Is he capricious? Is he loving? Is he aloof?) and how to discern the purpose for which I am made.

Which brings us back to the original point. If we’re seeking these things, we’re trying to poke and prod at “orthodoxy” (right thinking). We’re trying to get closer and closer to the truth of things, to make sure that our understanding of reality and the world and God and humans is accurate. To my mind, that’s why looking at what the church historic has taught is vital — not because they were always right or always did it right or were not corrupt in all the ways human beings are corrupt. It’s vital because we need to take in the whole of the experience of the (very broken) church, to whom is given the task of carrying on the faith that has been passed down.

While it might make us squeamish to seek orthodoxy, we all already have a set of principles or stories we think give us the right way to view the world. And we tend to try to live accordingly. For my own faith, choosing historic orthodoxy — affirming the creeds and the authority of God via Scripture — is a method for discerning the human condition and how humans can and should be liberated. That’s the purpose of authority.

Good Friday, Holy Saturday, Easter Sunday

Holy Week culminates in a trifecta of days that encompass the spectrum of human experience.

On Good Friday, we remember the death and anguish of Jesus the Messiah, come to rescue us from sin and sentenced to death by humanity. What does this tell us about ourselves? When God brings his presence with us, we reject what he has to offer. Rather than accepting the benevolence, the kindness, the awful grace, we choose violence and scapegoating and selfish pride instead.

On Holy Saturday, we are offered a chance to reflect. With despair behind us and joy ahead of us, we are left with a messy middle. Can joy be found here? Sometimes. Can grief be found here? Yes. It is ours to decide what to do with it. We are given a life in which we must make decisions without the certainty a good outcome. We are invited, simply put, to trust.

On Easter Sunday, our sobriety gives way to joy. Utter relief. Contentedness with the world as it ought to be. We are asked now to participate. Jesus, on this day, is mistaken as the gardener in John’s Gospel. Why would he use this kind of literary device? If you’re immersed in the Jewish Scriptures, you already know. When was the last time we encountered a garden? It’s right there, on pages 1-2 of your Bible. God hovered over the chaos, and made a garden for us to dwell in. After the fallout of the human decision to choose right and wrong for ourselves, the garden lost its innocence, its essence was depleted of its purpose. But on Easter Sunday, this mysterious rabbi from Nazareth somehow defeats death, and becomes humanity’s new gardener. He makes space again for us to see where it is that heaven and earth touch.

So what’s our vocation now? To go out and cultivate gardens, bearing God’s image (ruling as God would have us rule) in a world that so desperately needs restoration.

Illuminating Christianity

By this phrase “armed neutrality,” especially as I explain it more and more precisely, I think I am able to characterize the position I intend to take and have taken in throwing light on Christianity or what Christianity is or, more accurately, what is involved in being a Christian…. But what I have wanted and want to achieve through my work, what I also regard as the most important, is first of all to make clear what is involved in being a Christian, to present the picture of a Christian in all its ideal, that is, true form, worked out to every true limit, submitting myself even before any other to be judged by this picture…

This is my idea of the judgment which I believe is going to fall upon Christendom; not that I or any single individual shall judge others, but the ideal picture of what it is to be a Christian will judge me and everyone who permits himself to be judged.

Kierkegaard – Armed Neutrality

Many of Kierkegaard’s writings, especially in the “second half” portion of his authorship, can be explained by these words here. He was a man swimming in a sea of Christendom, wherein everyone claimed the label Christian, and yet none (including himself) could truly identify what it meant to be a Christian.

So what was his task? To illuminate Christianity, both for himself and for others. Taking on that task is dangerous because:

  1. To illuminate Christianity to a culture that calls itself “Christian” is to call into question the moral foundation of the entire culture around you. One must look into others’ faces and say: based on this set of beliefs, values, and practices, your (the collective “your”, the crowd, groupthink) beliefs do not align with Christianity as such.
  2. Taking on this task runs the risk of making it seem as if Kierkegaard was some kind of super-Christian, a Christian among Christians, self-righteous, truly pious, etc.

We have these same problems today, but exponentially moreso. At the time of Kierkegaard’s authorship, he was writing to a fairly homogenous culture. The Danish state and the Lutheran church walked hand-in-hand. Every citizen was baptized as an infant, and therefore everyone was a Christian (in their view). He could therefore speak a single theological “language” — albeit through various pseudonyms — to his own culture.

Now, we have competing factions of Christianity across the West, and especially in America. In some cases, we have the problem of white, American, Evangelicalism. While I want to avoid painting too broad of a brush, this version of Christianity often uses Christianity as a means to gain political power and win a moral war, to protect specific freedoms (bearing arms in particular, though there are others), to justify soft versions of racism, and so on.

In other cases, however, we have the version of Christianity more often found in urban/cosmopolitan environments. These versions that I have personally encountered find it easier to be oriented towards social justice but are more unwilling to hold theological boundaries. There is often an openness in these spaces to alternative worldviews and spiritualities, even if those worldviews are logically incompatible with affirming the Apostles’ Creed and the authority of Scripture in determining right practice and belief. This would include political stances, economic stances, and an openness to alternative religions as if they “lead to the same place.” (I will be writing a short blog post on this idea about religions “leading to the same place” soon.)

The swaths of different “Christianities” in America make this particularly challenging, because everyone thinks their version of Christianity is the right one. The one that will lead to more human flourishing, the one that is more open or beautiful or true.

Our challenge — no, my challenge, via Kierkeagaard — is to illuminate Christianity in such a way that the picture of it judges all of us. Not because I am somehow a better Christian than everyone else. But because I have a picture of Christianity that does not align with any of us. Illuminating Christianity means we ought to be aware that, when we do, we will all be judged and found wanting. Thank God for grace.

Holding Tension between Charity and Clarity

Charity is a value I hold dear. In 2020, I spent a large portion of time thinking, writing, and preaching about the virtues of charitable thinking. Take this sermon/interview with Will Richy and Alejandro Perez:

Thinking charitably is a virtue we could all stand to gain a little more of. This is especially true as we come out of a season of heavy vitriol, where we define and label people based on ideology and political stance rather than on their dignity as human beings.

However

I find myself thinking this week of the ways in which this can go wrong. In my mind, charitable thinking is something I often am required to hold in tension with clarified thinking. When I am charitable, I am trying to train myself to think of all the ways I could be wrong and another person could be right. I am looking for places where my foundation differs from another person’s, and I’m searching for legitimate reasons why someone might think differently than me.

The danger here, in theory, is my own thinking becoming muddled and unclear. In other words, if I am thinking charitably, does it also mean that I must relinquish the foundation upon which I stand? Sometimes. But perhaps there ought to be times when I can think charitably or generously while also remaining firm in my own conviction.

This is an uncomfortable spot for me. My own inclination is to fly high, get a birds’-eye view of things, and enjoy the landscape. I want to see where everyone is coming from and remain neutral in the process. This doesn’t require clarity of me — only charity.

But when we come across incompatibilities — morally, theologically, philosophically — these are the times when we may be required to hone in on what it is exactly that we believe, and why. And if we’re very practiced in thinking charitably, clarity can feel uncharitable.

Charity and clarity are in tension.

The New Internet is Forced Cannibalization

The saddest part of the internet right now, to me, is not necessarily its being smothered in algorithms that drive what we pay attention to all day everyday. That is a tragedy and something that we need to deal with or perish (mentally, anyway).

What I am most sad about when I look at the state of the internet is that its identity has fundamentally changed. When I was younger (probably even younger than a teenager) the internet was this wild frontier. Anything went, but you had to know where to find stuff. Links led to other links, and on and on down the rabbit hole.

Was it perfect back in the blogosphere days, or earlier? No. Take Alan Jacobs’s post today.

When Grandpa wrote against the blogosphere, that kind of site is what he had in mind: a constant stream of hot takes, some of which had to be walked back later because they were offered before, and instead of, reflective consideration. You’d therefore have a better sense of what I meant in that much-quoted line if you replaced “blogosphere” with “Twitter.”

blogging and the blogosphere”

Note — the blogosphere, at one point, was not great. It was the equivalent of today’s Twitter, a stream of non-reflective takes everyday. It probably brought on the constant news cycle that we all pretty much hate now.

But! There was also some beauty there, and this is what Alan gets at in the meat of this post. Blogging can be that rabbit-hole, linky version of the internet that many of us grew up with. More from the post:

I post a thought; later, I return to it with an update; someone responds and I incorporate their thoughts into a new post that links to them and to the original – basically, what I am doing right now. Note also that blogging, when done in this fashion and in this spirit, is also seriously dialogical, and I think there is a close connection between a dialogue-friendly medium and a forgiving medium. 

The incorporation, the back-and-forth, the dialogue is what makes blogging beautiful. And it’s what made the non-blog part of the internet before 2008 so fun too. We weren’t being force fed new content all the time from what essentially amounts to non-democratic, institutionalized, whitewashed, walled gardens.

Think about it. Where do you go when you get on the internet? You go to one of, I’m guessing 5-10 websites. Facebook/Instagram, Twitter, Youtube, Reddit, a news source……. can you even think of anymore?

It reminds me of that scene in Snowpiercer (SPOILER ALERT) where the people on the back of the train are given those gross gel bar things to eat, only to find out that those are made of their own dead. All the infighting and vitriol that happens on barely a handful of websites is essentially forced cannibalization while that handful of corporations makes billions of dollars off of our hatred.

That’s just sad to me. I miss the old internet.

Update: As a coda to this post, I’m gonna do what AJ suggests, and link to the Robin Sloan post he mentions. Here’s Robin:

One is that I want to say again: the High Blogging Era might be behind us, but there is still blogging to be done, and it is so easy and so rewarding to dip a toe in, start to follow a few of these feeds, and experience a different kind of network.

“Many Subtle Channels”

It strikes me, too, that in its purest form, blogging is just a sheer beautiful way to write and engage with the world. I accessed all of these words freely. It cost me nothing (besides a machine and an internet connection) to see these words, to think about them and what they have to say about technology and connection and culture. What a delight the internet was… perhaps what a delight it could still be.

No One Likes Orthodoxy

I’m thinking a lot right now about (small-o) orthodoxy and creedal Christianity. Perhaps it has always been this way, but it seems a like orthodoxy — real orthodoxy (i.e., affirming the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds to the fullest possible extent) — is out of fashion. Not just with the progressive branch of American Christianity either. I mean across the board.

Today I listened to last week’s Holy Post podcast where Skye Jethani interviewed Russell Moore, the president of the ERLC within the Southern Baptist Convention. When asked what he thought posed the biggest threat to the gospel in America right now, without hesitation, he said “useful Christianity.” In other words, means-to-an-end Christianity. Christianity adhered to for political and cultural power.

Without a doubt, he was speaking to his own camp. We just witnessed plenty of this nonsense over the last (at least) four years with the rise of Donald Trump and the consistent support of Trumpism within the Republican party by those who identify as Evangelicals. Moore was speaking to and about his own camp, calling out error in his own theological family.

But the truth is, this is a problem everywhere. It’s the same exact problem on the American theological left, where we cannot imagine a scenario where Christianity might mean more than social justice. Social justice certainly must be an outworking of Christian faith.. But we on the progressive side (I’d consider myself a blue-ish purple if I had to name it) are hesitant to affirm theological truth that butts up against our scientific and progressive and modern sensibilities. We’re also hesitant to affirm the parts of Scripture and tradition that make us squeamish because of the modern moral compass we have been handed.

This is what I mean when I say I’m thinking about orthodoxy. It’s not fun for anyone. No one likes the implications of it. Following Christ is either too hard for our brains, or it’s too hard for our hearts.

Perhaps we need a renewal. Or, dare I say, a REVIVAL — of a new people, ready to believe what it is that the Master Jesus says, and also DO what that might require of us.

That’s awful Pentecostal of me, and a little bit scary for me to write.