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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.

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.

Alan Jacobs on Forgiveness

Forgiveness, one may say, is the fundamental core of Christianity. Love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, kindness, and so on are fruits of the Spirit.

But Christianity’s uniqueness comes from its relentless — relentless — insistence on forgiving when it is not deserved. Alan Jacobs puts it better than I can:

If you start talking about grace people will seize it, cheaply; hell, they might not only accept forgiveness but demand it. They will abuse the gift — but that’s because that’s what we sinners do, we abuse gifts. Our God hands them out anyway. Again: Jesus asked the Father to forgive those who were hanging him on a cross. Had they asked for it? Did they even want it? Had they undergone a lengthy process of truth and reconciliation in order to deserve it? Everything about the demand for earned forgiveness makes total human sense. But it’s not the Gospel of Jesus Christ. “Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” It’s not an ambiguous statement. 

I think most of our projects of reconciliation, when they exist at all, have it backwards. They want a long penitence at the end of which the offended parties may or may not forgive. I think the Christian account says that forgiveness given and accepted is where reconciliation begins. So if we say we are Christians and want reconciliation but do not put grace, mercy, and forgiveness front and center in our public statements, then we’re operating as the world operates, not as the ekklesia is commanded to. 

It feels impossible, in our current moment, to pursue a Christianity with such blatant, awful forgiveness and grace. It feels wrong. We ought to ask ourselves why.

Christianity is Art

When I was young, Christianity was a science.

A + B = C

My belief + God’s forgiveness = ETERNAL SALVATION

But let’s just say we meet a someone who’s a new believer. Someone who is introduced to a church community for the first time, who becomes interested in the life that these people are sharing. They decide, “Yeah, I’d like to follow this rabbi from the Ancient Near East who said he was literal-God-in-the-literal-flesh.”

They’ve taken the leap. And then… what next?

Well, the logical thing to do is probably to crack open that old Bible. This becoming a Christian thing is often simply explained to people. You’ve heard the big, common image:

God’s over there somewhere. We’re over here, and we don’t really have a way to get to God. But God has done something remarkable. God decided God loved us enough to come and be with us. And God has done so through a person, Jesus of Nazareth.

But that’s just the beginning of the journey. The next step is that big, scary Bible we’ve got in front of us. This huge book that we’ve avoided or read parts of and didn’t understand, or were frustrated by as kids.

You’d think, wouldn’t you, that you could just open up to page one, read straight through, get the picture of who God is, what God is doing, and what we should do.

But we don’t. We quickly find that this isn’t A + B = C territory. Instead, we’re inserted into a Tolkien-esque world. The first thing we read is a poem:

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth

Now the earth was formless and empty

Darkness was over the surface of the deep

And the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”

Hm. Well, that’s not as… simple… as we made it out to be.

Ok, so we read on. And we read all these ancient stories. This mixed bag where sometimes people are awful. Occasionally we get someone who’s a mixed bag that God seems interested in being with.

We keep reading, and half the time the things we hear about God are really just lies from men named Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. We read about liberation and oppression. We read about a kingdom that fails in its faithfulness. We read poetry and ancient wisdom literature. We read more poetry about downfall and death and coming back to life again.

And finally, we get to the Jesus story! Yes! Maybe now we’ll get some answers. Mark seems to be the shortest and simplest, so let’s start there. The good news — the Gospel — that I have been told about should be straightforward. Let’s see what it says:

The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet:

“I will send my messenger ahead of you,
    who will prepare your way”
“a voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
    make straight paths for him.’”

….Interesting. Why is this good news?

Then we read letters written mostly by one guy named Paul who seems kind of upset sometimes, and a little persnickety about a few moral issues, to the point of seeming legalistic and barbaric.

And finally, we get to some really weird writing that sounds a lot like myth and fantasy — again, straight out of some Tolkien-esque world.

We’re given a story. A story that meanders and goes back and forth. A story where God is the protagonist, and generations and generations of humans are trying to figure out what this strange God wants with us.

Christianity isn’t A + B = C, because the book(s) that our faith is based in aren’t science. They are art.

The quicker we invite people into an artful Christianity, the less likely people will be to leave the faith when A + B no longer equals C.

Forgetting What We Once Knew

I’m seeing a lot of people, these days, following Denethor’s example: forgetting what they once knew about their neighbors and fellow citizens, practicing the fear of change and difference, responding to that fear by building fascist architecture of their own design.

Alan Jacobs, continuing the work of seeing LOTR everywhere

Wendell Berry on the Renewal of Christianity

But there are an enormous number of people — and I am one of them — whose native religion, for better or worse, is Christianity. We were born to it; we began to learn about it before we became conscious; it is, whatever we think of it, an intimate belonging of our being; it informs our consciousness, our language, and our dreams. We can turn away from it or against it, but that will only bind us tightly to a reduced version of it. A better possibility is that this, our native religion, should survive and renew itself so that it may become as largely and truly instructive as we need it to be.

Wendell Berry, “Christianity and the Survival of Creation”

This gets at what is often my final argument when it comes to why I remain, stubbornly, in the Christian faith. The reality is that I have experienced something — something-that-I-cannot-name — that gives me some indication that the material is not simply all that there is. Life seems to me to be too mysterious for that. And further, I have never spoken to a single individual who does not have some inclination that there are ultimate goods (and, therefore, ultimate evils). This points to a reality that transcends the material plane in which we experience life.

But I often don’t have an amazing answer for why Christianity and not Buddhism or Islam or some other form of religion. My best and final answer, really, is Berry’s. I was born in it — it’s the story I have been given, and no other story makes sense of the world for me the way Christianity does. I don’t deny that I think it makes more sense of the world than those other religions. But, like I’ve said previously, this is where we hit the “brick wall.” I simply take the world to be a certain way, for a mixture of rational and non-rational reasons. The basic Christian assumptions about the world are how I “take” the world to be before I start reasoning about the world and ethics and knowledge.

A Good World

I keep turning this problem — the problem of climate change — over and over in my head. The problem, for me specifically, is two-fold:

First, it’s so easy to fall into despair. The problem feels so big, and I am a single individual. My actions, on their own, make no perceptible difference one way or the other. Act or don’t act, and it will make no difference. It all feels very Kierkegaardian:

Laugh at the world’s follies, you will regret it; weep over them, you will also regret it; if you laugh at the world’s follies or if you weep over them, you will regret both; whether you laugh at the world’s follies or you weep over them, you will regret both.

Either/Or

Second, I live in a place where people often find the rhetoric around climate change to be hogwash at best, and a government/liberal conspiracy to take away individual freedoms at worst. This means that the discussion quickly devolves from discussing the scientific consensus that the earth’s environment is changing to non-rational arguments that lead to increased polarization and anger.

What is the solution to this problem? I still think it’s simply this: a better story. We’re in an interesting time right now in the West. There are good, amazing things happening — poverty and violence and crime are all, in general, on the decline. We are also in a radical transition — no shared values, shared culture, shared maps of meaning. We need to find some way to gain a baseline together, and that baseline must have something to do with who we are, what the world is, and where we want to go. I have hope that such a thing is possible, but it requires us all to sort of “let go” of our need to be right in conversation with our neighbors, and a willingness to be charitable about where others are at and what they

Elaine is actually pretty far ahead of me on this. A few weeks ago, she and a friend were conversing when the topic of the environment came up. I’m paraphrasing here, but the conversation went something like this:

Friend: Wait, you’re not one of those people that believes in climate change, are you?

Elaine: Actually, I don’t view our decisions as being related to climate change at all. It’s not really about that for me, it’s about taking care of the world that we have been given, treating it like a gift, and being good stewards of creation.

Friend: …Huh. I never really thought of it that way

I can tell you this — my response would not have been as wise or calm as Elaine’s. Because I’m so heavily invested in the reality of what climate change could mean for our very near future, I’m rarely willing to give ground on this conversation. But the reality is, for people like our friend, they may never be interested in “saving the climate.” What may convince them instead is an expanded imagination about what our responsibility as humans towards this gift is.