Saint Hilda's House

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Filtering by Tag: Beyond Theory

Beyond Theory: Discernment in Times of Mild Existential Crisis

Two masters of modern-day Anglican theology, both of whom have now written key texts on discernment.

Two masters of modern-day Anglican theology, both of whom have now written key texts on discernment.

Read more of Will's writing in the St. Hilda's House Winter Quarterly.

I don’t know if it’s the fact that I’ve lived in a religious intentional community for the past two years, or that millennials in general are searching for something deeper, but two words that seem to pop up on a weekly, if not daily, basis are discernment and vocation.  Well, what do these words really mean?  Rowan Williams says vocation is the “residue” that is left after we stop playing games with ourselves.  Some see it as a calling to our true place in life, but before you can get to this great achievement, you have to discern it.  Some describe discernment as the process of listening to God and ourselves, truly listening, and making a decision.  It is incredibly easy to simply define words like these and believe that you have them figured out; but it requires a more mindful approach to learn not just the definition of discernment, but how to live it out in our own lives. 

We all want to be like the prophet Isaiah.  We all want to hear God call out for us in the night, and without a second thought respond, “Here I am Lord. Send me!”  For me at least, I’ve never had such a clear cut call and response decision-making process, at least for things that matter most.  It is important to me to take time, and listen to what God is saying, to listen to what I myself am thinking, and also to all the really important people in my life who know me just as much as I know myself.  I had an opportunity recently for some honest discernment, and the result was something I did not expect.  

The downside of one year programs like Saint Hilda’s House is the fact that you have to start making plans for the next year so early.  Last weekend I had the chance to look into one such opportunity.  I was invited to take part in the Young Adult Service Corps (YASC) discernment weekend at Holy Cross Monastery in West Park, New York.   YASC is similar to the ESC in the sense that it sends young Episcopalians to places to live out our mission to serve with those in need.  It is different from ESC because it sends young adults to places abroad, while ESC focuses on service in the US.  After applying and being invited to the discernment weekend, I was unbelievably excited to see what a year abroad would offer me.   I met some great people, had a lot of relaxation time, and was able to do some honest-to-God discerning.  After three days at the monastery, I had my decision.   

While we were there one of the Brothers talked to us about discernment, and emphasized the fact that it was mostly about listening; that it was about listening to God, to ourselves, and to others who care about us.   And while I cannot really put into words what I heard from God, I felt that God was guiding my thoughts to a future that didn’t include a year abroad.  I listened to myself and found that I've given more of myself over the past two years than I imagined possible; that I might need a bit of time to process everything I've done.  Being on the frontlines of education reform in one of the nation’s worst public school systems, as well as being in the trenches of food justice issues in one of the hungriest cities in America, might be all the mission work I can handle for the time being, recognizing that the work of service is never limited to these kinds of opportunities.  Despite never having left the country, I do in fact count what I’ve done over the past two years as mission work, and I would be willing to have a conversation to anyone who thinks otherwise.  I then realized that I could not put my heart and soul into another service year 100%, and it wouldn’t be fair to anyone involved if I proceeded with the program without that confidence.  I think I had been focusing on how great of an opportunity a year abroad would be, and not whether God was truly calling me to do so.  I had been thinking about how many “Likes” on Facebook a status about me going abroad would get, and not on what I would be devoting myself to for a year.  Minimal family contact, a long distance relationship with my girlfriend, and not to mention the actual work I would be doing abroad.  It was not a pretty realization, but no one ever said discernment is a pretty process.  After the weekend was over I spent the next week talking to those I care about most, and those who care about me.  Generally speaking, popular opinion is not always the best route to take, but in a case like this where I was getting almost unanimous affirmation in my decision, I am feeling pretty good about the discernment I went through.

All that being said, I still haven’t really stated what discernment or vocation is.   I don’t have any concrete answers for myself, so I wouldn’t try to pawn off any of my own experiences onto someone else’s life.  I think the best advice that I can give about these topics is that you won’t know whether you’ve made the right discerned decision until it’s been made, and you won’t know your vocation until you’re living into it.  Until then, these words by Thomas Merton continue to be a gigantic help to me in times of existential crisis.

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”
― Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude


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Beyond Theory: Bringing Theology To Life

A wonderful context for theology.

A wonderful context for theology.

Go back to just about any time you want and you'll be able to find someone inveighing against abstract theology and the spiritual atrophy it can invite.  We still, I believe, carry with us a stereotype of dry scholasticism, according to which theologians are more likely to debate how many angels could fit on a pinhead than they are to feed the hungry.  It is also easy, in my experience, to find those for whom an overt focus on the specific details of Church doctrine merely reinforces a dead orthodoxy.

Now, I tend to be naturally drawn to the abstract and the (pseudo-)technical, at least when it comes to philosophical theology.  For whatever reason, I can imagine myself being quite interested in the various arguments one could put forward regarding angels on pinheads, and whilst I used to be scathing about the importance of specific doctrine, I now find it to be an absolutely fascinating confluence of faith and language.  My purpose here, however, is not immediately to try and argue against this idea of abstract theology. It is instead to give a personal account of how my philosophical and theological reading has informed and been informed by my life in St. Hilda's, then try to draw from this a sense in which a focus on such disciplines can both properly invigorate and be properly invigorated by Christian living.  (I'm trying to write this as accessibly as I can, so apologies if it's either a) not rigorous enough, or b) still completely inaccessible.)

First, how has my time at St. Hilda's been informed by my reading?  First, it has been a spiritual practise, a bit like prayer.  I might disagree with him about a couple of things (which, on balance of probability, I'm almost certainly wrong about), but I think my old tutor Bill Wood is absolutely right when he writes about how Analytic theology can be understood as spiritual practise in and of itself.  It has certainly served this function for me, and in doing so has kept me feeling spiritually refreshed over the last couple of years.

There are, however, more specific ways in which philosophy and theology have affected the last couple of years.  For example, I have found that reading around the history of philosophical arguments regarding the nature of essence (or what it is to be a given thing, whether this thing be a zebra, a chair, or an example of knowledge) has had a major impact on the manner in which I have approached community living.   It is easy to think of the essence of a given thing as being immutable, necessary, absolute, definite; as that which cannot be changed if that given thing is to continue in its existence.  It can be referred to as the 'pure' core of what we are, or what we find when we strip away everything in us that is inessential*.  Whether or not this essence is conceived of in terms of instantiating universals or in terms of specific particularity is not hugely important, as far as I can see: what matters is that we carry with us a view that what something is essentially is what it is in and of itself, apart from any extrinsic relationships.  This is, very broadly speaking, the view of essence we have inherited from Plato and (in a significantly more complicated fashion) Aristotle, and which still carries weight in both contemporary philosophy and wider society. 

There is a another way of thinking about essence, however (I am here trying to refer to the thought of Wittgenstein).  It does not deny that the word 'essence' has an important use: it does, however, deny that this use is to refer to a specific set of qualities in virtue of which a given thing necessarily is what it is.  This is first because there is no such specific set of qualities: this notion of essence refers to something which doesn't exist*.  It is second because what we are, both in and of ourselves and at any given time, is a far more contingent business: we are not primarily defined by our intrinsic qualities but by our contexts, by our relationships, by what we do and why.  As those contexts change, meanwhile, they can change us.  By this I don't mean that they can just make us behave differently; I mean that it can change the very thing it is to be ourselves.  

A picture of Ed reading.  He reckons his reading here impacts his actions elsewhere. 

A picture of Ed reading.  He reckons his reading here impacts his actions elsewhere. 

These arguments have shaped the way I've approached community.  Is my purpose in community to hunker down and learn who and what I am in and of myself, irrespective of my situation, apart from those with whom I live and who I love?  My reading has told me that the answer is no.  In trying to apply this, I have sought to allow myself to be shaped by my community; to be less concerned with asking who I am as opposed to asking who I can be.  Of course, a part of what has emerged from this is that there are certain qualities of mine which I cannot seem to alter (I'll leave those to your imagination); the effect of this, however, has merely been to suggest that these qualities do not define me.  

My reading has also changed the way that I have sought to interact with others (though missteps are of course always possible).  I have, I hope, been far less concerned with trying to discern who and what my housemates are in and of themselves, then holding them to an essential measure of quality.  I hope I have been able to apply the philosophy I've been reading and approach them without the presupposition that to know them I must be able to isolate their essential qualities (which, alien as it might sound expressed like this, is I think a tendency many of us have!).  

As to how living in community has informed my reading, well, I believe that it has quite literally given it life. If you've made it this far (and my deepest thanks if you have), I would guess you might been a bit frustrated with two lengthy paragraphs about philosophical views on essence, paragraphs which in themselves seem to have little to say to anything outside of a pop-philosophy journal.  I would agree with this: and I would then say that it is since I have lived in community that the words have come alive and started speaking to my situation.  The same is true of my work with Saint Martin's, and especially of my students, who have taught me more about my books than my books could ever teach me about them. 

There is a reason for this.  One of Wittgenstein's most powerful images is of philosophers dissecting (analysing) dead words: for having removed them from the context of their use, from their actual application, the philosophers have ensured that they won't be able to find the very thing they're looking to find, namely, the life of the word, its meaning(s).  I believe that living in community has effected a reverse of this situation: it has given the words a use in context, and so it has brought them to life.  This, I believe, is why I have read more in community than at any other time I can remember: because all the otherwise dusty tomes filled with potentially dry scholasticism have, when read in this context, been instead energised and energising.  

All this is so much philosophy: what about theology?  Well, I believe that some stance on the above is already implicit in the different ways we believe in God, approach Scripture, and understand the Church and its creeds.  Through all this, some stance is also implicit in what we believe God wills us to do in the world and how he wills us to do it.  

Strange as it might seem, the context of theology can be enjoying a minor league baseball game with some wonderful fifth graders. 

Strange as it might seem, the context of theology can be enjoying a minor league baseball game with some wonderful fifth graders. 

We express these beliefs, meanwhile, in the form of Church doctrine; in the shared beliefs we regularly proclaim about God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  The form of expression, the content of these beliefs, and their practical implications (including the nitty-gritty work of comforting those who mourn and trying to shelter those who are vulnerable) is, I think, the subject matter of theology.  As such, some stance on philosophy is often already presumed in both the manner in which we make theological assertions and the lives we live on the basis of them.  This philosophy, then, is relevant to both theology and to Christian living.

This is not, of course, to say that one must read Wittgenstein to be a Christian.  It is, however, to say that these figures can be important for giving life to the whole.  To use a crude (and probably misguided) analogy to illustrate this: engineering works according to the principles of physics, and physics is expressed using the tools of mathematics.  A change in mathematical principles can lead to a change in the principles of physics: sometimes these changes will be of obvious practical relevance when it comes to engineering, sometimes they might look like only so much reshuffling.  Either way, though one doesn't have to be a mathematician to be a skilled engineer, our societal understanding of physics (thanks to a very few) improves our society's ability to construct, and our societal understanding of mathematics (thanks to even fewer) improves our ability to understand physics.  

It seems to me, that Christian living, theology, and philosophy stand in a similar relationship.  One doesn't need to be a theologian to live a Christian life, and one doesn't have to be a philosopher to be a theologian.  However, Christian life and Christian service is still informed by theology on a societal level; and the expression of that theology is itself premised upon an (often implicit) philosophy.  Exploring the connections between these three thus seems to me to be of great importance, not because everyone should be a philosophical theologian, but because it is a good thing to have a clear(ish) communal sense of what we're doing and why.  

Which brings me in a roundabout fashion back to my first paragraph.  Is all this just dry scholasticism, which in belatedly pointing towards church doctrine merely inspires a dead orthodoxy?  It can be: it absolutely can be.  If philosophical theology loses sight of its end, which is love of God and neighbour, then it surely dies: it cuts itself off from the institution of its use.  This end, however, can give philosophical theology purpose.  It can inform this abstract work, so that this abstract work might then inform the concrete situations within which love is commanded.  And this, I hope and pray, is what living in community has done for me: it has focussed my philosophical and theological reading around the command to love God and neighbour, and in doing so has quite literally brought this theology to life. 

*at the recent convention of the Episcopal Church in Connecticut, on of the poems on the table made this point by comparing human beings to pineapples.

*N.b. I'm not trying to deny that most species of things entail within them certain necessary qualities: rocks are necessarily inanimate, for example.  I would deny, however, that in a large number of cases, the necessary qualities are not themselves sufficient for being.