Tag Archives: spirituality

Thanks, Twitter (2013 ed.)—Part 1

The people I’ve met on Twitter have been offering up 140-character jolts of wisdom, insight, and provocation all year long. I don’t follow all of them but they’ve intersected with my network and contributed to my thinking regardless.

I’ve broken down the compilation into 3 categories:

  1. Seeing the Real: on religion, spirituality, morality, and the big picture;
  2. Evolving Deliberately: on growing up, self-evaluating, improving, and moving beyond one’s personal status quo;
  3. Changing the World: on social development, justice, activism, politics, and progress.

Check out Part 2 and Part 3 as well, and bookmark them to review in your quiet time and affirm or argue with them then. I’ll be filing each compilation post on my Resources page.

Thanks, Twitter! And happy new year to you all.
—@mackenzian


1. Seeing The Real

5 Tweets On Wisdom Literature

If you’re in a church service with me (or a non-religious lecture otherwise), you might see me tapping on my phone. It’s not because I’m not paying attention, but because I am: I use a bible app, take digital notes, and if something’s well said, I’ll tweet it immediately. This is a few steps ahead of the pen and paper notes and illustrations I’ve made during presentations for most of my life.

Sometimes a sermon comment also triggers a thought series. So it was this morning.

Wisdom Tweet 1 of 5

1: “If you’re going to understand scripture, you basically have to journey into someone else’s mind.” — GP, @newhopefulton #humility

The minister made this point while sharing some background on the “lost sheep” parables in the Christian gospels. It wasn’t his main point, but it helped to frame the information he shared about shepherds that the original auditors may have been more familiar with. More importantly, it reminded the congregation that the bible was not written as a single book nor originally addressed to them.

Wisdom Tweet 2 of 5

2. Challenge w/ “journeying into someone else’s mind”: all those someones are long dead + there’s limited consensus on how they lived.

I didn’t grasp the legitimate controversies in biblical history, archaeology  anthropology, linguistics, and interpretation until I started reading on my own. Though this discussion does happen in many mainstream seminaries, in churches it’s much less likely. This is a loss, not just for the local congregation, but also for the broader religious fellowship and for the quality of conversations we can have together. Instead one might hear that pesky debates develop only because Those People, who are Wrong, are stupid, haven’t read the right books yet, or have been deceived by Satan. These rationalizations mean that there’s “debate,” but not debate: whatever information could challenge our presumptions is automatically devalued and so never merits review.

Of course no debate is possible if people aren’t working with the same fact base: failure to deal with data means defaulting on conversation about the data… no common sense can emerge. But once people have caught up, legitimate debate arises. And there’s no resolution because the data sources are no longer alive. The people who could’ve settled our questions about intentions, phrasing, explicit teachings and silences, and who could have fielded constructive criticism about their positions and those positions’ implications, are not here to speak for themselves or engage in a building dialogue with us. Traditions have also done a weak job of representing founders and their concepts without setting layers of cultural and institutional bias over those representations along the way.

Beyond what’s going on with the sources or the traditions, though, it’s the rarest of readers who isn’t infused with contemporary cultural or institutional bias in any way. I don’t know anyone who isn’t. I’m not myself: I know I’ve been shaped too. This knowing has consequences.

Wisdom Tweet 3 of 5

3. Often what we learn through archaeology and history doesn’t affirm our pet theories about the texts or the characters in it. 

When we read texts like the Christian bible, we can expect to read the framing stories that communities have found valuable over time. We can expect to trace the cultural and institutional biases that emerged, were reinforced, and were challenged over the same period. But we cannot expect a single story about humankind or our religion of choice, and should no more expect ideological coherence from the text than we’d expect it from a cable reality show.

Wisdom Tweet 4 of 5Wisdom Tweet 5 of 5

4. What saves scriptures and sacred texts for me is the premise that wisdom literature is not technical writing.
5. Treating technical writing like wisdom literature corrupts it. Treating wisdom literature like technical writing impoverishes it. 

Now, I love technical writing, and not just because I’ve studied technical communication. I love it because at its best, it’s a facilitation tool. It’s designed to ease users’ experience with a given technology, process, or interface. It’s a helpful way to become more smoothly accommodated to the world we’re in. Perhaps this fundamental purpose is why it’s not the sum of things.

With wisdom literature from several sources, from dualists and non-dualists, within and well beyond Christianity, I have a different type of reader experience than I do with technical writing. A story, poem, or reflection doesn’t derive its value to me from its usability, accessibility, or fact-to-fluff ratio. Its value is in its capacity to inspire, to illuminate an aspect of human life, to make an insight more vivid, to create a space for meditation, to highlight possibilities my linear mind has missed, to spark my creative and constructive imagination, to challenge me to flourish and to keep becoming.

No matter how precise or persuasive a piece of technical writing is, these simply aren’t outcomes it’s fitted for. And wisdom literature isn’t about how to choose your profession or customize your new phone.

Treat a thing as the thing it is, and it will never disappoint you.

The Cloud of Unknowing

Thanks to the Peck quote about humility, I’ve been reading a little from the 14th Century contemplative text, The Cloud of Unknowing [TCU]. Perhaps appropriately for a work written from the perspective of apophatic theology (the via negativa), the name of TCU’s author isn’t known today.

Some gems:

Go after experience rather than knowledge. On account of pride, knowledge may often deceive you, but this gentle, loving affection will not deceive you. Knowledge tends to breed conceit, but love builds. Knowledge is full of labor, but love, full of rest.

Meekness in itself is nothing else than a true knowing and feeling of a man’s self as he is.

The active life is such that it begins and ends on earth. The contemplative life, however, may indeed begin on earth but it will continue without end into eternity.

If the phrasing doesn’t sound very medieval here, that’s because it isn’t: I’m looking at William Johnston’s translation (1973). There are older English translations including the Evelyn Underhill edition (1922), which is available online.

I’ve been looking for a new text to study in the same way I read two different translations of the Tao Te Ching devotionally 4 years ago. TCU might be it.

After Dissenting, Designing

I think of recovery from religion like peeling layers off of an onion. Dissenting intellectually from teachings or doctrines you learned as an adult is like peeling off one of the outer layers. But if you keep going, you find scripts that got laid down earlier—attitudes, emotional conditioning, ideas you were taught before you had the capacity to question them. And some of these are tremendously harmful from a psychological standpoint.

I once was speaking to a group of Hindus who wanted to understand evangelical Christianity, because rampant proselytizing was dividing their villages and splitting families down the middle. After the talk, a woman named Mohini came up to me. She asked, ‘Is what you told us really true—that Christians believe children are born evil?’ I explained again the doctrine of original sin. She was horrified. She said, ‘When babies are born into Hindu families, we whisper to them: “You are perfect. You are a spark of the divine.”‘ — Valerie Tarico

In my last few years with different religious and non-religious groups, this has proven to be one of the pivot issues: people don’t seem to stay in a healthy place if they’re still battling the questions of core value (including worthiness and acceptance of self and acceptance of others) and core integrity (including wholeness rather than partial or complete self-rejection).

I have memory grooves from my first few congregations of “born in sin and shapen in iniquity,” “like sheep, gone astray,” and similar phrases heard frequently in sermon, prayer, and casual conversation. I didn’t encounter alternative messaging like “before you were born, I consecrated you” until I was baptized, received my “grown-up” bible, and read the whole book on my own. Even later I realized that the pre-birth consecration message was an affirmation of a single prophet (Jeremiah), whereas “all we like sheep” and other passages made sweeping claims about every other soul. From text and context, the presumed defaults were clear.

When I first discussed Tarico’s article with friends last spring, one shared his path moving out of Christianity and later returning to it because of his scientific studies (he researches genetics). But the article doesn’t account for stories like his. That’s because the Left-The-Church theme doesn’t. Whether articles are written from within the fold like James Martin’s pitiful piece in the HuffPo or outside of evangelicalism like Tarico’s, so many articles presume there’s a definitive one-way trajectory… a “bat out of hell” escape from religion rather than a more organic, winding, and even recursive journey of deeper self-knowledge and sounder relationships regardless of affiliation. After all, it’s also possible for people to journey in place, without “leaving” at all.

Tarico’s post still reads to me as a story of growing out of early tribal models and developing adult ones in their stead. It was our early tribes’ job to give us those models, and it’s our job as adults to re-engage them. I’d love to see more religious and social groups set up to support the adult re-engagement process in a healthy way. But when communities respond to questions as if they were viral attacks and treat changing participants like a survival threat, healthy support can’t happen.

This failure to support adult re-engagement isn’t necessarily about communities’ deliberate ill will (though I’ve heard enough deliberate abuse stories for a lifetime). It’s about the lived impact of design and custom: if the outcomes of support and affirmation that many of us seek do not match a community’s structure, values, habits, and participant strengths, we won’t receive the outcomes we’re looking for. We can’t receive them in that community: the precipitants for them aren’t embedded, so the outcomes can’t emerge in a coherent way.

I’ve worked with open communities before; it’s beautiful. I’ve also tried to draw closed groups into new structures beyond their capacity. This doesn’t work, and it’s also obnoxious! Like people, groups have a receptivity threshold. They can accept a degree of variation in others, and a degree of adaptation in themselves, but beyond that threshold, proposed change meets with significant resistance, rejection, or contrary over-corrections. Working within the limits of the group you’re in means being able to support and participate in more sustainable expansion. Creating new spaces outside of that group, pouring new wine into new wineskins, is another option.

Some people find these strategies to be mutually exclusive, but I’ve long found it healthy to interface with several groups at a time, sharing with each some of what I learn with the others. This practice forces me out of a surface knowledge of my groups. As I navigate among them, I have to learn where their boundaries are, which values are core and which are peripheral. In order to know what to bring back and how to share it, I have to understand what they already have and what barriers have stopped them from from uncovering a given thing already.

This has worked for me so far. What about you? If you’re one of those people who wants different outcomes from your community relationships, have you reflected on what those outcomes are or what they might look like off the page and flowing live among people? Would you recognize alternative precipitants if you experienced them? A safe space to process, to explore, to learn, to practice, to root, to refresh, and to grow—what would that look like to you? How could you contribute to it?

After you’ve dissented, what will you design?