Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Way of Subtraction

I don't know if the story is factual or apocryphal; it's been told so many times and with so many variations. It involves how to catch a monkey (or, in another version, a raccoon). My favorite version goes like this: You take an empty bottle and tie a short length of rope around the neck and attach the other end of the rope to a stake in the ground. Then you put a piece of candy in the bottle. A monkey smells the candy and comes in for a closer look. He sees the brightly colored treat inside the bottle, reaches in and grabs it. At this point he is caught. As long as he has the candy in his fist, his paw won't fit back through the opening of the bottle. All he has to do is let go of the candy and his hand will slip right out. But he won't let go. All that's left now is for the person who set the trap to come out from their hiding place, cudgel in hand, and it's monkey stew tonight.

The point of the story, of course, is that things which we hold on to also have a hold on us. I've come to the conclusion that following Jesus is mostly about letting go of things. It is a life-long process. I think this is what Jesus meant when He said, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self?" (Luke 9:23-25)

Here in the U.S., we have built a culture around consumption. We cry "more, more, more!" (and not just in the midnight hour!). Our politicians have just voted to "give" us all a refund in order to "stimulate the economy", despite the fact that our national budget is in deficit. It's the equivalent of taking out a Payday Loan even though our credit card is maxxed. As stupid as the whole idea seems, it's really just another indicator of the zeitgeist in 21st century U.S.A.

And so it's no surprise that "cultural-Christianity" (that most common form of Christianity, which mirrors the popular culture's values and behaviors) tends to be consumer oriented. The emphasis is on acquiring more. More teaching. More manifestations of the Holy Spirit. More keys to spiritual fulfillment. More prosperity ("Cuz Gawd wants yee-oo to prosper!"). More credentials ($40K for an M.Div.?). More books (guilty!). More square footage for the church building. More sound, more lights, more technology! More Sunday morning attendees (did you know when pastors get together they compare the size of their congregations?). More influence. More love, more power, more of You in my life.

I find myself drawn to a counter-cultural form of Christianity. I too want more of Him, but realize that there is an exchange involved: More of Him means less of me. One of the most powerful "sermons" in the entire Bible was given by John the Baptist. Here it is: "He must increase, but I must decrease" (Jn. 3:30). To put it another way, I need to vacate the throne at the center of my life so that He can occupy it. Only when I reorient my life so that He is at the center (not me), do I find joy, meaning and purpose. This is a life-long process. It is a daily taking up of the cross and dying to self. It is the way of subtraction. That is the mathematics of discipleship.

The high-falootin' theological term for this is apophasis, which means in Greek "the negative way". Quaker author Lloyd Lee Wilson describes it thusly: "One approaches God by subtracting from one's consciousness, from one's entire life, everything that is not God." The apophatic approach to spirituality is very common in the East (Jesus, of course, was one o' them Easterners). In Christianity, it is sometimes seen in Greek Orthodox theology and praxis, when the mystery of God is embraced. Quakerism is also very apophatic in its approach, though George Fox surely never heard the term and seemed to stumble upon the approach purely through the leading of the Holy Spirit.

The opposite of apophasis is kataphasis, which tends to be emphasized in the West. Lloyd Lee Wilson describes kataphasis this way: "On this spiritual path, one seeks a deeper understanding of and relationship with God through positive images, symbols, and ideas: singing a hymn, preaching and hearing messages about God and God's works in the world, responsive readings and vocal prayer in unison, and similar activities. It is the most common form of spirituality throughout the Christian church (Roman, Orthodox, and Protestant). Younger people typically start with a kataphatic spirituality, even if later in life they are drawn to an apophatic path." As Gerald May puts it, "...we naturally seek the least threatening ways of trying to satisfy our longing for God, ways that protect our sense of personal power and require the least sacrifice. Even when we know that our hunger is for God alone, we will still be looking for loopholes--ways of having our cake and eating it too, ways of maintaining our attachments to things and people while simultaneously trying to deepen our intimacy with God. We seek compromise not because we are evil or conniving, but because of the way we are made; we naturally look for the least painful ways of living. From the standpoint of basic human common sense, this is perfectly reasonable. We look for our ultimate satisfaction in God's palpable and definable creations instead of looking through them to the hidden, loving face of their Creator."

An apophatic approach is not to be confused with asceticism. Such a confusion can occur out of an overzealous approach. May writes, "When we first reclaim our spiritual longing, we usually do not know that the journey homeward will involve such relinquishment, that the homecoming process will be so painful. Perhaps this is just as well. Not that such knowledge would cause us to choose against God; on the contrary, I think the greater danger is that those who think they understand the process are likely to try to make it happen on their own by engaging in false austerities and love-denying self-deprivations. They will not wait for God's timing,; they will rush ahead of grace. I have seen it happen when ascetic practices have become overinstitutionalized, and I have engaged in it myself when I thought I could engineer my own salvation. It does not work. Once we begin to experience the authentic homeward process, however, the implications of withdrawal become increasingly clear. If we allow grace to guide our responses, we will realize what we need to know as we need to know it."

Nor is the way of subtraction to be confused with inertia. I spent years as a Evangelical Charismatic Christian hearing sermons and prophetic words about a great revival/outpouring that was always just over the horizon. We talked about it, prayed about it, sang songs about it, attended conferences about it, shaped our lives around the expectation, but didn't actually do much in terms of rolling up our sleeves and getting down to the business of Jesus, which is caring for the poor, the orphan, the elderly, the inmate, the oppressed, the marginalized. I find that as I let go of all my expectations and agendas and just commune with God, I become motivated to engage in what God is doing in the world here and now. As Lloyd Lee Wilson writes, "If we really experience the direct communion with God proclaimed by George Fox and multitudes of other Friends for 350 years, then we can't help but share God's concern for the poor and oppressed, God's preferred location among them, and God's commitment to intervention in human history on their behalf."

So, these days I find myself drawn more and more towards silence and solitude (yet not at the exclusion of desiring also to be part of a community of faith). More and more I want to fill my alone time not with TV or Internet, but with receptive emptiness. I hunger for opportunities to wait on God in a listening state, with open hand and heart. I am a person who has always tried to fill every space with the distractions of sight, sound and activity. Now I'm learning instead to embrace the freedom of emptiness. To decrease. To die.

The process continues...

Further reading:
Wrestling with our Faith Tradition
, Lloyd Lee Wilson
Addiction and Grace, Gerald May


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