My Phenomenological Turn

It’s been a while since I have written on my neglected blog site. Facebook and Pinterest have satisfied my needs for the kinds of “snack-sized” sharing and diverse idea hoarding that made up a lot of my old blog called Overflow. And life has been such that I have not been making time for the deeper kinds of thought required for more substantial writing.

Maybe that’s not fair to me. I do deep thinking all the time. But I rarely have my thoughts organized enough to write it down nowadays unless it’s for work, or a research project, or prep to teach a class. I don’t do much intellectual dallying nowadays. And, well, that’s a shame.

But now something has kindled both my intellectual and spiritual interest, with just enough of a fig leaf of practicality that I can  persuade my “responsible brain” to take time to organize and write my thoughts down.

I am becoming an indirect fan of French Catholic philosopher Jean-Luc Marion and the apparent revolution in theological and philosophical thought happening in France. It piqued my interest to hear that a student of Jacques Derrida has made theology “hip” in contemporary French philosophy, the “Theological Turn” in Phenomenology as it is called. What grabbed and held my attention is the provocative title of Marion’s seminal work, “God Without Being.”

God without being. That struck me and stuck with me. I have always said to myself and others unfortunate enough to ask me that I truly do not care whether God exists and find all such discussions basically useless to my faith and how I live it out. In fact, I have been wary all my life of concepts of God that seem so inherently limited that they can end up being roadblocks to faith, especially as we grow more mature.

And now , in what passes as “breaking news” in the seemingly glacial world of theology, it looked like there were some authoritative kindred spirits out there who could help me develop my own “phenomenological turn.”

So I longed to get my hands on that book. I had a peek once, I did, but two pages hurt my head. It was like staring at the sun and I couldn’t squint hard enough to make heads or tails of what I was looking at. I don’t have the intellect and the requisite background on Rene Descartes, French Phenomenology, Jacques Derrida and postmodern “deconstructionism” to approach his writing, yet alone gain insight from it.

Luckily, I found a way to approach Marion indirectly, letting others do the heavy lifting. I got a bunch of articles about Marion’s ideas from the EBSCO database at my library. I decided to approach the mountain by stomping around the foothills. I found other authors, like Bruce Ellis Benson, who could summarize for me Marion’s key concepts and help me interpret them.

So, article by article, I am reading Jean-Luc Marion indirectly. Even indirectly, Marion’s concepts of “idol,” “distance,” “saturated phenomenon,” and “givenness” defy my cranial capacity. So this blog is where I will set down my marginal crib notes, starting with Dr. Benson’s article, “Love is a Given.

The teaser idea so far. What excites me, draws me in, is that Catholic Jean-Luc Marion agrees with Nietzche’s proclamation that “God is dead.” And that, it turns out, is a good thing. A  God “without Being”  paradoxically enables us to be closer and more intimate with him where it really counts.

More later, I promise…

 

 

A Conversation with my Teen about Lunch, God, and Dinner

In adoration yesterday this conversation came to me. i know I need to have this very conversation with my kids as they start to transition into adulthood. I promised this conversation back in the letter I wrote a few years back about the deeper reality of Santa Claus. I get a lot of ideas in adoration. But I knew I just had to write this down. It’s only a start, but it’s a start.

In it I imagine Aaron coming home from school with a complaint.

Did you pack my lunch this morning Dad?

Yeah. What about it?

Really, Dad? Juice box? String cheese? Animal crackers? You even cut up my grapes.

You used to love that stuff.

Yeah, like when I was like four years old.

In fact you wouldn’t eat a whole lot else back then. What? This lunch not good enough for you anymore?

Dad, I’m older now and this just doesn’t cut it. I need meat. Bread. Something to fill me up. At least make me a sandwich. You don’t have to cut my food up for me.

Yeah I know that. I gave you that lunch to make a point.

I knew it. It’s never just lunch with you. Amiright?

You know me well.

So what’s the point?

You outgrew your lunch. What is your ideal lunch now?

Pizza, burgers, cheese sticks, tacos. You, know. Real food.

Yeah I thought so. I was like that when I was your age. Look where that got me.

Oh no, is this a nutrition lecture? I think I have some studying to do…

No, no. Just pointing out that you will outgrow your current ideal lunch like you outgrew the one you loved when you were five.

I don’t think so.

I sure hope so. If you eat like that until you’re my age that diet will straight up kill you. It’s developmentally appropriate for you to like that food right now.

But you don’t let me have it that often. So…

So… I know that you’re there, but I also know you can’t stay there. You need to learn the grown up versions of things. You can’t always eat what’s easy, what’s most pleasurable. You can’t always eat for yourself. When you are older, you eat for others’ sake as well.

(blank stare)

You know how I told you that when you are an adult your job is to live for others in some way. You need to eat to be healthy and strong so you can be around for others. When you have children you will need to eat as an example for them. You’ll need to eat for your wife to show her that you’re serious about sticking around to love her and not abandon her. You eat for a lot of reasons besides, “Mmmm… that looks yummy.”

You’re not making adulthood seem very appealing.

Well, it’s not developmentally appropriate for you to think so yet. That’s okay. But as your father I have to nudge you along.

So this is a nudge? So you’re trying to get me to eat more salad or something?

Nope, I want you to get to know God better.

That was random. I thought we were talking about eating healthy and stuff.

We were. Do you know what the word “segue” means?

Nope.

It means to make a smooth transition from one context or subject to another. No segue for you. Stay with me. Do you believe in God?

Um… yeah, I guess. I’m supposed to, right?

It’s okay to say no.

I didn’t expect you to say that. I want to say no because I just don’t see how something like God can exist in the real world.

Then say no.

No. I guess I don’t believe in God.

You know what I hear when you say that?

What? That I’m grounded?

You’ve outgrown your five-year-old lunch.

You’ve lost me.

The God you thought you knew. The God described to you in bible stories when you were in preschool. The wise bearded superman in the sky. That’s not God. That’s more like Zeus. A primitive image. That’s an image of God that you’re supposed to outgrow. It was appropriate to describe God that way to you because that’s an image of benevolent, powerful authority that you could relate to. Something that looked like a parent, which at the time was pretty much your whole world. We weren’t lying to you then about God. We were just cutting God up into pieces before we served him to you.

I see what you did there. Like the lunch, right?

You always were a clever one. Here’s the first thing any adult has to understand about God. You can’t understand God. Anything you say about him is imperfect. Any God that fits tidily in your brain is a rather sad, limited kind of God. God is bigger than that.

Okay, so you’re going to get to the part where you tell me what God is?

Patience, grasshopper.

Grasshopper?

Sorry. I’m old. Remind me to see if we can find “Kung Fu” on Netflix. Anyway, any image of God is limited and imperfect. But some images of God have benefits that exceed their limitations. They help you develop your faith at a certain stages in your progress. You are supposed to outgrow them. Use them to seek him, but don’t cling to them. Do you know what “idolatry” means?

Worshipping statues and stuff?

It means confusing the symbol with what is symbolized. Worshipping the image that points to some aspect of God instead of God. Any mature Catholic should at least be partially agnostic because he knows his understanding of God is woefully inadequate. That there is way more he cannot say about God than what he can say.

Well, if God can’t be known, why bother?

I didn’t say God can’t be known. There are images of God we can know are true. And those images can be very helpful. But – remember this well – when you find yourself questioning your belief in God it means that the limitations of your concept of God have outweighed the benefits for you. Part of that image is still probably true, but you’ve outgrown it.

So I don’t believe in God like I did when I was five? And I need to change my image of God?

Yeah. Kinda.

So anyone can choose any image of God they want? Just what feels good? That doesn’t seem right.

Well, you sure can do that. Too many people do. They select a God that fits in a convenient box and keep him there. But no, that’s not right as I, and the Church, see it. We hold in common that there are some things that the Church says are definitely true about God. Then there are some things the Church says are definitely not true about God. But there’s way more that no one can say about God.

That’s if I believe the Church’s version of God, right?

Right. I hope, eventually, you will.

Why?

Because I am your father and I want you to grow up and be a fulfilled, happy person.

I do not see how a concept of God will do that for me.

It won’t. God. The real, living God. The God of the Catholic Church and the Judeo-Christian tradition will help you do that. Everyone has a “God” whether they call it that or not. The one you choose to follow makes a big difference in your life.

Even atheists have a “God?”

More or less. But it would be very impolite for you to say that to their faces. Their connotations of the word “God” tend to be negative. Probably because they’ve obviously outgrown whatever image of God they had as children. Somebody either crammed it down their throat for too long or they did not get help in finding their next understanding of God. Imagine your parents insisting that you eat string cheese and animal crackers for lunch your whole life. “God” to them is a lot like the limited, sad God I mentioned earlier. I don’t blame them for not believing in God. But they still have something that functions for them as “God.” We all do.

So what kind of God does an atheist believe in?

Remember, that’s not polite to say. But everybody has some context that guides the “Why” and the meaning of life. Science can tell us lots of facts about the world. But meaning has to come from somewhere else. People have to answer questions like, “What is the purpose of life?” “Why am I here?” “What is my best life?” When they are presented with the findings of Science – I am a big believer in science and reason – something provides the “So what?” There are lots of ways to answer those questions. Some are somewhat helpful, some help you coast aimlessly through life, and some are downright disastrous. Everyone chooses something that defines their context and meaning.

What if they refuse to choose?

They can’t. Saying that life has no meaning, that we are pointless, that everything is random is still a choice just like deciding that Love is the guiding purpose and meaning of existence. At some point you choose. Even those who just go through life following their biological urges, instincts, and desires are choosing with their actions if not their conscious minds. My first hope for you is that you make a conscious, reasoned choice, whatever you decide.

And so you want me to believe in your God.

Will all my heart. Actually I think you already do. I think your mind just has to catch up with your heart. You have a lot of love in your heart. I can see it through your actions. I am confident you have a lot of experience with God.

Okay, so catch my head up. Explain to me how I’ve experienced this God I don’t know how to believe in with my head.

I will, but not all at one time. We’d be here forever. But I can give you a few short things to think about until we have time to talk again.

And I bet that will be soon.

Because we’re on a roll.

Is that what you call it? Fine.

Well, to start, the name “Yahweh” in the Old Testament translates roughly into “That which holds all things in existence.” You do exist, right?

As far as I know.

Me too. And I am grateful for that fact. There is a famous theologian who said, “God is not a being. God is Being.” About sums it up.

God is Being? That’s it?

Imperfect image, remember. One of the oldest, least incorrect ones. But still an image. But, to me, it’s the most basic experience of God. I am. That’s what God told Moses to say who God is, remember? “I am.”

Pretty basic.

But here’s the next thing. The book of Genesis also tells us that God created the world from nothing. That means at some point there was nothing, and there was something. Creation “Ex Nihilo.”

So who created God?

God is not a being, remember. God does not do time. God just is. God is Being.

So you say.

So the bible says. And we have to decide that we’ll believe that.

Why should I?

Because, well, think about the implications of creation “ex nihilo,” out of nothing. At the beginning, God was God. Perfectly cool with being God. He did not need to make some little followers to adore him that he could boss around. God does not need anything. God is just God. So that means that, if creation wasn’t for him, it was for us. Creation is a gift. And then after he created, he pronounced it to be “very good.” We are very good. A gift from God.

So I should just believe that because the bible says it? We know the world wasn’t created like that.

Sure. Genesis is not a scientific document. It’s a theological document. The creation story communicates truth, not scientific fact.

So why should I believe that everything is a gift and my existence is “very good?” Why shouldn’t I believe everything is just random or that life has no meaning?

If everyone has to choose the way they see the world anyway, I want to see it in a way that makes the world more fulfilling and meaningful for me. I want to choose a worldview that is consistent with the stirrings and yearnings of my heart. I love and want to be loved. I have passion. I am grateful when I receive a gift. I am relieved when somebody forgives me and we’re cool again. I experience God in my heart. I want my head to keep up.

Okay…

And I want my actions to be guided by this way of looking at the world. Because I know that my experience of the world is better when I choose to love others and when others choose to love me. God is love. And that sets the agenda for everything. If you let it.

I thought God was Being?

Limited image, remember? The next least incorrect way to think of God is that God is a special kind of love. A love that gives itself for the sake of the beloved. “Self-gift,” if you will. Remember when I said that everything is a gift? That’s God pouring himself out. Emptying himself out for our sake. Everything in the world is oriented to that kind of love. It holds all things in being. We can work with that or we can work against it. Our choice. My job as your father is to convince you that working with it is the best choice.

Or I could choose to see the world some other way.

You could. Many people do. Some people don’t see why they should give themselves away in love. They think that’s a sucker’s bet. There are many people who go through life looking out for “numero uno” and that’s it. It’s just that, I don’t think that’s truly what’s in their hearts. They’re just confused, lost, or hurt. I don’t want to believe anybody is just plain selfish by nature, even when they are habitually selfish. Creation is fundamentally good, right?

That you say.

So which world do you want to live in? The one where people love each other and look out for each other, even if it means sacrificing for one another? Or the world where everyone has to earn their right to live? Where might makes right? Where everyone looks out for only themselves?

You make that second choice sound like a bad thing. Kidding.

Well it’s not my choice. You can live in that world if you wish. Many do. I choose love. Love isn’t magic. It doesn’t make the hurts and sufferings of this world go away. It does not magically shield you from bad things. It just is a way of approaching the world that makes the most out of suffering and hurts. It is a way of life that reaches out and helps others get through the hard times. You live this paradox where, to truly live, you give up your life. To lead, you have to serve. To gain, you have to give everything away.

Again, you’re not making it sound attractive.

Well, let me put it this way. Without God, you would not be here. In this famiy I mean. If mom and I were just looking out for ourselves, if we were not looking for ways to pour out our lives as a gift to others, as God does, do you think we would have adopted you? Every payday we’d have been like, “Woohoo! Let’s go party and buy stuff!” If we didn’t believe in God’s brand of Love, we’d never spend thousands of the dollars we earn on you. We’d keep it for ourselves. We’d be a lot richer right now. But we’d also be miserable and wretched. Because selfishness is not the path to any kind of happiness or fulfillment. To me, living as if the God of Love, who created the world as a gift and judged it to be very good, is the best way to align my life so that my life is fulfilling and has a meaning that transcends my little span of time on earth.

So, it’s time for dinner….

Provided by God, aka Love, in the form of your Mother who used her time after work to do more work so that you could be fed. She could have just plopped down and watched TV, you know. So that stroganoff you’re about..

Stroganoff! Yes!

That Stroganoff you’re about to eat is yummy. Not the healthiest choice, maybe, but a tangible experience of God’s Love. Brought to you by a woman who is devoted to that kind of Love. So that’s why we pray before dinner. And your responsibility is to receive that love, be grateful, and respond by giving yourself as a gift in kind.

You’re hinting that I should offer to clear the table.

That’s a start. Also I want you to think about God as Love. Creation as a gift that is very good. And what kind of world you want to live in. I also want you to know more about who God is. To be cool with the idea that the “superfriend in the sky” does not exist, you need a better idea of who, what, whatever, God is.

But… we don’t have time for that because we’re about to eat…

Stroganoff, yes. But here’s something to think about. God is a relationship. Not a person. A relationship.

Um, okay.

That’s what we mean by the Holy Trinity. But that’s another day. My brain is full and my stomach is empty.

I’d say that it looks like the reverse is true but that would not be very loving of me.

I’ll show you love. Come here and let me smack you.

To be continued. (No, I don’t smack my kid. Very hard. In front of people.)