Love as Self Embodied Gift

Sancta Colloquia episode 203 ft. Logan Williams

In this episode of Sancta Colloquia, I have the privilege of talking with friend and academic colleague, Logan Williams (@lllogansays). The topic du jour was a combination of talking about the self, the giving of the self, and love. What does it mean to offer the self as gift in the act of love. Looking at Jesus’s sacrifice and the claim that he “gives himself for us,” does Jesus empty himself in that there is nothing left or does he give himself in a substantival way? The way we answer the question is important, and Logan does well to guide me and you down that narrow way.  We covered a lot and there’s no way I’ll address all of it in this short write up, but I’ll point out some highlights. Logan expands on the predicament we find ourselves in when we overemphasize the loss of self in the event of encounter with God in faith and with Jesus’s self-gift through the event of the cross.  He explains that there are two problems of life giving/self-emptying language used: it tends to portray the self as entirely negative with no possible hint at resurrected life now. Essentially, you give yourself away (empty) without any instance where it is right to take care of yourself. Thus, the end result is seeing the cross and the event of encounter with God in faith as total body destruction (of both Jesus and the person in the event of faith). But yet, is emptying the self an actual gift to another person? Doesn’t one have to have integrity of the self in order to engage the self with others? Logan discusses some of the historicity of the idea of self-emptying. According to him, there is an emphasis in Christendom that we are prone to so seek our own interests to the exclusion of caring for others that the event of self-sacrifice on the cross and the inclusion of that idea in theological anthropological definitions has been included to correct this radical self-absorption and has been absolutized in an unhealthy way. Accordingly, self-emptying to correct self-absorption has become a weapon against women causing them to stay subjugated (marital, friend, social, occupational, etc.). And has been used by male theologians to deal with their anxiety about what the human problem is based on male guilt. Logan doesn’t deny the reality of the “death” component in “giving self as gift” that is characteristic of some of Paul’s language in the letter to the Galatians. According to Logan, for the language to work, double reference–giving self into death and gift–Christ has to maintain the integrity of the self after death. There is a death in the event, but in order for the gift to be given, there needs to be a self. And here you find resurrection themes. Self in the event of “salvation” is both deconstructed and critiqued, challenged and sculpted, taken away and reformed, deconstructed and reconstructed. On the other side of that death is resurrection. This is the good word of new life and new creation in Christ. We become more ourselves in the encounter with God in the event of faith and not “less.” The problem is that the authorities don’t often want the people knowing how much substance they have because how else would they maintain their tyranny? Break the silence, become a little bit dangerous, listen to Logan.  

Intrigued? You should be. Listen here via Screaming Pods (https://www.screamingpods.com/)

A huge THANK YOU to my friend and producer Sean Duregger (Twitter: @seanCduregger) and Screaming Pods (Twitter: @ScreamingPods) for hosting Sancta Colloquia (Twitter: @SanctaColloquia).

Although born and raised in Northern California, Logan Williams now resides in England, where he is near the completion of his PhD studies at Durham University. His doctoral research focused on love in Greco-Roman philosophy and Paul’s letter to the Galatians, and his future research will turn to Jewish apocalyptic literature. Outside of academic life he is an avid musician who writes original music, composes arrangements for choir and a cappella groups, and plays jazz guitar and piano at various gigs locally. As a sort of amateur linguist, he also has a deep love for ancient and modern languages. 

 

Logans Recommended/Mentioned reading:

Gene Outka. Agape: An Ethical Analysis. New Haven: Yale University Press. 1972.
David Horrell, Solidarity and Difference (2d ed.; Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015).
Anthony Carreras. ‘Aristotle on Other-Selfhood and Reciprocal Shaping’. History of Philosophy Quarterly 29 (2012): 319–336.
John Barclay, Paul and the Gift (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2015).
Collini, Stephan. ‘The Culture of Altruism: Selfishness and the Decay of Motive’. Pages 60–90 in Public Moralists: Political thought and Intellectual Life in Britain 1850–1930. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1991.
Sarah Coakley. ‘Kenōsis and Subversion: On the Repression of “Vulnerability” in Christian Feminist Writing’. Pages 3–39 in Powers and Submissions: Spirituality, Philosophy and Gender. Challenges in Contemporary Theology. Oxford: Blackwell. 2002.
John Burnaby. Amor Dei: A Study of the Religion of St. Augustine. London: Hodder and Stoughton. 1938.
Darlene Fozard Weaver. Self-Love and Christian Ethics. New Studies in Christian Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2002.
Richard Hays, ‘Christology and Ethics in Galatians: The Law of Christ’, Catholic Biblical Quarterly 49 (1987): 268–290.
Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics books 8–9.
Seneca, On Benefits.
Cicero, On Friendship
Cicero, On Duties

Contemplating 2018

What I’m Carrying with Me into 2019

The following are musings…take them as that…

Over the past few years I’ve learned to take on the orientation of looking forward rather than backwards. I spent the better part of a decade contemplating the things that happened to me and the scars these things left on my body (mind and soul). I credit this to a theological disposition that prevented me from seeing self-actualization as a good thing. I am what I am, was my motto and there I stayed…for years. I kept my trauma and victim narrative in my tight grip and read from it daily; the lines being so known and second nature to me that there was barely any distinction between the narrative and regular speech. And the concept of “that was then” and “this is now” was anathema; the two were too blended for me. Then was now. What was will always be, is what I had intellectually established. I was trapped.

But God is relentless and pursued me through relationships (both good and bad), drawing me deeper and deeper into God’s self, forcing me to reckon that I was determining the future by clinging to the past and slamming the door shut on potential and possibility (all that is and makes up the unknown future). In other words, in my resistance to look anywhere else but behind and use only the words my trauma and pain gave me I was, full stop, objectifying God. Can I be better? Can I move on? Can I alter? Scary questions for one whose mind is made up concretely on the past as all determining. It was like staring into an abyss and stepping out into it. Letting go and letting God–though extremely cliche–is truest here. Giving myself over to the encounter with God in the event of faith demands that I be stripped of all things that I’ve clung to, stripped of my history and grafted into Christ’s, born again as I was born originally: naked and vulnerable.

This event-encounter is not a medium for me now to know God more fully; I’ll never claim to know God in totality or close to it. God self-discloses God’s self and there’s a contextuality to that self-disclosure: what I experience in the event-encounter with God will be different from what you experience; both marked by the language of death and rebirth, the experiences are still different. And not just personal to you and me, but from decade to decade and era to era. The consistency and constancy being that, from our human perspective, God is very much in the business undoing our preconceptions of God, bringing those who are comfortable into chaos, bringing those who are in chaos into comfort. Always the encounter in the event of faith undoes and redoes, but it never looks the same; like snowflakes, the encounters are all different.

What I can say is that this event-encounter with God brings me into a more substantial relationship with and to myself. To think that being rendered naked and vulnerable is the surest state to be in is paradoxical. But the paradoxes ring out over and over again: in death: alive; in weakness: strong; in losing oneself: found. But then somehow the paradox make sense because when I’m stripped down to just my flesh (naked and bare) I am more fully myself than when I am hiding behind my clothes, my past, my doctrines, my knowns, my relationships. Losing my determining of myself according to my pock-marked-by-trauma history, letting that form of self determining go leaves me with two open hands, beggar style, kneeling at the rail of the word of God to recreate me. No longer controlled by the myths of the world or the one’s I’ve created or the ones that others have given me, I’m free to be substantiated by the life giving and life sustaining word of God, the word of God who threw the stars into place, the word of God who became incarnate in Christ, the word of God that perpetually goes forth from age to age, uniting all the world unto God.

2018 seemed to drive this all home over and over again. Through the very good and the very bad, being thrust into God was the overarching theme. And the beauty of it was: becoming more me. There were times when I thought that certain negative relational events I was enduring were going to destroy me and crush me. Yet, I was neither destroyed nor crushed; far from it. I was made stronger and more solid. Being forced to let go of my trauma-victim narrative(s) allowed me to be a better theologian of the cross: having the ability to actually call a thing what it is and to take from it what I need to while discarding the rest. It allowed me to be finally present in the moment, in the feels, in the tears and cries, in the pain and to intentionally stand up and walk–not in order to run away or find a place to hide, refusing to accept things, but in order to face the shit head on without fear because I’m established totally and completely in God. Thus, I can’t help but say that I’m rather grateful for these negative relational events; I’ve learned and grown so much through them. I’m a better person, more solid, more substantial. I’m bringing this into 2019.

2018 taught me that there is a huge distinction between my trauma-vicitm narrative/script and regular speech. Throughout therapy, I’ll say something, and my therapist will stop me and say: “You know that’s the trauma-victim narrative again, right? Did you hear it?” And for a long time I’ve always responded with: but that’s how I think, that’s normal. But through the majority of this year my response has been different. “Yes, I hear it loud and clear.” Understanding this distinction is part of my strength and having a different script to pull from is vital. I’m bringing this into 2019.

And this leads me to thank those friends and family in my life through whom God encounters me last year and (hopefully) this year, 2019. I want to thank you, the people who repeatedly call me higher and remind me to move forward. And the people who challenge me to push my limits. The people who call me out and correct me *because* they love me, and the people who are patient with my many questions and much pushing back to understand things more fully. Thank you to the people who cheer me on in my successes and comfort me in my failures; and the people who just seem to like me (you all baffle me, frankly :D). Thank you. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. I express love in loyalty and you have it.

And those are my personal musings about 2018.

“Trees Planted by Streams of Water”

Proverbs 31, Mark 9:30-37: True Discipleship #LikeAGirl (Sermon)

Introduction

You either love her or hate her; but all of you are opinionated about her. She’s either revered as the ultimate example of womanhood or she is despised as nothing but oppressive idealism unattainable by human standards. In academic circles she’s rarely if ever the topic of conversation: she’s relegated to an inferior position; that’s just about woman’s work.

Personally, I’m fascinated by her, ever since becoming a Christian I’ve marveled over her. At multiple points in my life, I’ve tried to be her only to fail. I’ve meditated on and prayed through the poem multiple times. It is no surprise to hear that I wrote a 100 page thesis on her. My question leading up to writing my MDiv thesis was: Why? Why is she here?

In and through my intellectual digging, I discovered an answer I wasn’t expecting. Rather than being a checklist for the proper execution of womanhood and wifery or some abstract communication about the people of God, the Church, she is, from head to toe, the manifestation of hope. And not just hope in general, but hope specific. She is the hope of restoration: restoration of woman to God and the restoration of the relationship between men and women. And even more than those two things, she is the manifestation of hope for humanity: what it means to be a good disciple.

It is my contention that she is an expression of the hope for the reversal of the curse of Genesis 3. She is hope for the longed for reversal that is to be completed in the coming Messiah—the Messiah to whom all of the Old Testament points. It is my belief that she is the signpost on the way to through the metanarrative of scripture that points to what comes in Christ. She is the embodiment of the hope embedded in the protoevangelium (the first gospel promise) uttered way back when in Gen 3:15 when God cursed the snake: “I will put enmity between you and the woman,/and between your offspring and hers;/he will strike your head,/and you will strike his heel.”

She doesn’t just point to Genesis 3 when everything goes bad; but to Genesis 1 and 2 when everything was very good. The poem draws us back to the cool air of the garden, when woman walked alongside man and they communed together in the presence of God, as co-vice-regents of the earth. The Proverbs 31 Woman is fighting a battle, not just keeping house. The warfare imagery throughout the poem leads us, the reader, to see a woman, to see a person who is fighting against the chaos established by the fall. The Proverbs 31 Woman is pointing back to Eve and Adam, and at the same time pointing forward—through the chaos of the fall—to Christ—who is the very image of God his Father in his divine substance (God of very God) and of Mary his Mother in his humanity. When God walked the earth he carried her face into the world. The woman was not forgotten when God became man. To over emphasize the masculinity of Jesus the Christ at the expense of the femininity of the one whom he looked like, is to devolve into a very bad Christology and a malnourished and weak God-talk (theology). Let us talk rightly, for ourselves and because the children are listening.

V.10: “An excellent wife who can find?/She is far more precious than jewels.” The way this question is phrased in the original language expects a negative answer. Who can find this excellent wife? No one. She is so “rare” that jewels do not compare to her. Even if you could “find” her, you couldn’t afford her anyway! VV.11-12: “The heart of her husband trusts in her,/and he will have no lack of gain./12 She does him good, and not harm,/all the days of her life.” She is mature in age and in spirit. Their relationship has weathered the trials of the passing years; she is not young nor is she a newly wed. She operates in love towards her husband, just as in the New Testament those who are in Christ are encouraged to operate in love towards one another.[1] He knows that she loves him; there is no doubt, no worry, no wonder; he is confident in her love toward her. And in that he knows she loves him, his heart trusts in her. Much like a child trusts his mother.

V.13: “She seeks wool and flax,/and works with willing hands.” She can use a broad spectrum of materials to create things—she is capable, creative and astute. There is nothing wasteful about her handling of materials; everything is put to use in some way or another (v.13). V.14: “She is like the ships of the merchant;/she brings her food from afar.” She provides for her family. She’s not just making meals, she’s enjoying the bounty created by God and deemed enjoyable by Him.[2] She takes pleasure in the world just as God did and does; just as humanity did and should. V.15: “She rises while it is yet night/and provides food for her household/and portions for her maidens.” She is not given to too much sleep; she is not lazy. However, though she is diligent throughout her days, her work is not her lord (work is its proper place, under her dominion). She does not neglect her household—those who depend on her—for her own pleasures. Both men and women are to be active and care for others and not act like disinterested selfish slugabeds.[3] Oh, and by the way, she’s wealthy: she has servant girls! Even if this was about “works,” She does NOT bare that responsibility alone.

V.16: “She considers a field and buys it;/with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard.” She has investment-like foresight. She re-invests; she does not earn gain for gain’s sake. Her very fruitfulness (prosperity) is evidence that she is sowing righteous seed in righteous soil and continually replants the fruits of her hand.[4] V.17: “She dresses herself with strength/and makes her arms strong.” Strength is one of her foremost qualities. Her arms are strong for the task…she is able to get things done, especially in ‘planting’ a vineyard. She is not afraid of hard work or of labor. [5] Meek and mild? Think again! Think: Princess Xena. Think: Wonder Woman: Think: Amazon. Think: Frontier Woman. Weaker sex, eh?

V.18: “She perceives that her merchandise is profitable./Her lamp does not go out at night.” This is not about having a home-based business. This is creational language reminiscent of Genesis, “And God saw that it was good.”[6] She is a creature that was gifted to use her mind and her hands to make. And she uses this ability to purchase the oil for her lamp and keep a store of oil so that her lamp will not go out. She is, essentially, prepared with enough oil to provide light for a long time; she’s one of the wise virgins with a trimmed wick waiting for the Lord to return.[7] V.19: “She puts her hands to the distaff,/and her hands hold the spindle.” There’s more to the imagery here than sewing. What is the distaff and spindle imagery depicting? A valid definition for the Hebrew word translated as spindle is “district”.[8] She puts her hands to the district; she extends her hands and subdues the earth as the manifestation of one of the commands of God in the Garden (reversal of 3:16ff). [9]

V.20: “She opens her hand to the poor/and reaches out her hands to the needy.” She is caring for the poor and afflicted by “extending her hands” as was required by every Israelite (Deut. 15:11). She is the godly person for whom Micah seeks as he walks around the streets, for her hands stretch out and do “good” (7:1-7). She represents what it means to be truly human: caring for the disenfranchised; she is being used as what it means to love your neighbor as yourself;.[10] V.21-22: “She is not afraid of snow for her household,/for all her household are clothed in scarlet./She makes bed coverings for herself;/her clothing is fine linen and purple.” The poem covers many seasons, winter being one of them. The poem does not just cover this woman’s day, but this woman’s entire life. The reference to her household being clothed in scarlet is synonymous with her wealth; she is a wealthy woman and has clothed her household in good, warm clothing.

V.23: “Her husband is known in the gates/when he sits among the elders of the land.” Her husband sits among the elders so he is older, thus she is, too. Notice that there have been 12 verses since her husband has been mentioned. This woman is not defined by him and her service to him, but by her own qualities, V.24: “She makes linen garments and sells them;/she delivers sashes to the merchant.” She is aware that her deeds are worthy and, thus, she does not hesitate to capitalize on them. She is wise and can bring in her own income, which she uses to the benefit of her household.[11] V.25: “Strength and dignity are her clothing,/and she laughs at the time to come.” It is through her relationship with God, it is in her fear of the Lord (v.30) where these characteristics of strength and dignity are sourced. These characteristics are evident to everyone who meets her. V.26: “She opens her mouth with wisdom,/and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.” And her words back this up; they are described as wise. Her outward appearance and inward manner are one in the same; she is not a white-washed tomb. The state and orientation of her heart is righteous for what flows out of her is righteous. In Mark 7, Jesus explains it is what comes out of and not what goes into that defiles a person; our Proverbs 31 woman speaks wisdom and thus is wise and you can only be wise if you know God (according to the Hebrew and our own tradition). She knows Torah (rare); she knows and is known by God.

V.27: “She looks well to the ways of her household/and does not eat the bread of idleness.” V.28-29: “Her children rise up and call her blessed;/her husband also, and he praises her:/“Many women have done excellently,/but you surpass them all.” “This one at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh,” is akin to the statement of the husband in the poem in Proverbs 31, “Many women have done well, But you surpass them all.”[12] V.30-31: “Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain,/but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised./Give her of the fruit of her hands,/and let her works praise her in the gates.” This is the key to the whole poem! It is her inner-beauty, her fear of the Lord that has been the eye-catching aspect of this woman from v.11 to v.30. Her strength and dignity come from her relationship with God; her wisdom, too, is of God (Prov. 1:7).

Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked,

nor lingered in the way of sinners,
nor sat in the seats of the scornful!

Their delight is in the law of the Lord,
and they meditate on his law day and night.

They are like trees planted by streams of water,
bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither;
everything they do shall prosper. (Psalm 1:1-3)

The proverbs 31 woman is a glimpse of a restored Eve and a restored relationship of Eve to God; thus, a glimpse of the restoration of the relationship of woman to man.[13] But it’s not only about that. If we take the creation myth of Genesis 2 seriously, and see it primarily as a story about the creation of (thus the necessity of) community in likeness and difference (which is the extinguishing of loneliness), then what we see here, too, is the restoration of Humanity. The Proverbs 31 woman is clearly the embodiment of the ideal humanity yanked out of the chaos and myths of the world–a world broken by oppressive and deleterious systems of abuse in manifold forms–and placed into the Reign of God. Located in the reign of God in the event-encounter with God by faith in Christ alone. And this Reign of God is marked by love and kindness, by mercy and divine justice in restoration and reconciliation, in freedom for all or freedom for none, in the solidarity in suffering and pain and grief and sorrow, in the equality and mutuality in community that lives the very thing believed: that the dividing wall has been torn down, there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male and female (Gal 3:28). To be truly human, to be the faithful disciple in the world, is to act as the Reign of God is; to act like the Proverbs 31 woman.

The remarkable thing about our readings today is not just the fact that we read the Proverbs 31 poem and that you happen to have in your midst a self-proclaimed P. 31 scholar (*wink), but that our Gospel passage, from Mark, works with the Proverbs reading. Jesus spends time explaining to his disciples what it means to be a good disciple (and the Gospel of Mark is directed at such a specific message): If anyone wishes to be first, he must be last and servant of all people (9:35, translation mine). He then (immediately) snags a small child and places that child in the midst of his cadre of disciples. Jesus lowers himself, puts his arms around the child and says this, Whoever receives one such as this child on the basis of my name, that person receives me; and whoever receives me, does not receive (only) me, but the one who sent me (v37, translation mine). Whoever receives into their arms, intimately, one such as this child receives me. Receives one such as this child. And I am relocated to when I reached for and held my first born son, just born; receive one such as this child. According to Jesus, to be and do the will of God is to love like a mother.

Even Paul, in the letter to the Ephesians uses mothering imagery to explain what agape love (divine love) looks like to the men/husbands in Ephesus. In a discussion about what mutual submission looks like, Paul shorthands a quick statement to the wives: each to their own husbands as unto the Lord. (Full Stop.) He then turns to the husbands: y’all best sit down for this…Paul begins. What do I mean by love and mutual submission the women get, but you don’t because you’ve never brought a child into the world. The washing imagery of 5:25-28 is less to do with “baptism” and everything to do with the washing of a child by the mother.

“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, so as to present the church to himself in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind—yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish. In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.”

A regular practice of mothers in the ancient Greco-Roman society was to forgo their own cleanliness in order to wash their child. Just like our own bodies betray us in gestation, so to do our brains in consistently choosing the well being of our child over our own. It’s why mothers do weird things (because they’re tired and they’re in love). The men would’ve washed themselves first, but the mother would’ve washed the baby first. This Paul uses as an example for the men, they would’ve seen it practiced in their own homes and boy would that message had been radical. Paul knew that women understood “mutual submission”; not only because they had to endure it socially and politically but also because they couldn’t deny it relationally (as a mom). They knew instinctively what that agape love was.

If you’ve ever wondered why the women are always getting “it” in the gospels, if you’ve ever wondered why the women seem to understand what and why Jesus came, you now have your answer: the activity of God for the world has not only paternal but also significant maternal power. And if you know agape love you recognize agape love.

Mark 15, the women watch Jesus die; they knew. Mark 7, the Syrophoenician woman; she knew. Mark 14, the woman who anoints Jesus in Bethany; she knew. Mark 5, the woman suffering from perpetual bleeding; she knew. John 4, the Samaritan woman at the well; she knew. Luke 10, Mary at Jesus’s feet; she knew. They all knew in the core of their being; they knew.

We see Jesus the man in his strong masculine form and forget that he’s God who is both male and female and thus embodies also the strength and dignity of the paradoxical gentleness and fierceness of the feminine. Both men and women, in Christ, justified by faith, are to receive and love all people unto the least, like a mother. It’s not reception as in tolerance; it’s life laying down neighbor love, the way a mother loves her child. Believe me, Jesus loves the whole world. He loves in the way that he bore the sins of the world just like a woman bears a child into it. In the same way she holds that child to her breast as she nurtures and sustains that child. In the same way a mother will lay her life down for her child no matter what the threat or possible destruction she herself will undergo.

Both men and women are encountered by God in the event of faith. Both men and women are called to be disciples of Christ marked by laying down of their lives and in bearing their crosses. Both men and women are brought unto death and into new life in Christ. Together.  Good news has come to the world in Christ Jesus this man who is God. And no longer bound to the systems and stories and lies of the world, believers are the ones who live into the world in a radical way; the one’s who know God and live as if they do. Today through the words of the poem of Proverbs 31 and in Jesus’s embracing a child, we are called to be the faithful witnesses of Christ in the world, to proclaim Christ crucified to the world in all that we say and in all that we do, and to love (radically) all people and the world as we have been loved (radically and unconditionally) by God. Let us love, let us love like a mother loves her child, love like the Proverbs 31 Woman, love like the women who knew, love #likeagirl.

[1] (1 Cor. 13; Eph. 5, Love your neighbor as yourself)

[2](DBI 297) “God not only provides, and provides abundantly for his creatures, but he also provides an immense variety of pleasurable flavors, textures, colors, shapes and smells, all of which indicate the joy and delight of the creator with his creation”

[3] (Prov. 6:6, 9; 10:26; 13:4; 15:19; 19:24; 20:4; 21:25; 22:13; 24:30)

[4] (v. 16; Gen. 1:28; Mt. 25:14-30).

[5] “Both the arm and the hand are biblical images of power….[and] can represent power in action, either good or evil” (DBI 43)

[6] (Gen. 1:10b, 12c, 18c, 20e, 25c, 31b)

[7] (Mt. 25:1-13)

[8] (Moore 25-30; BDB 813; cf. Nehemiah)

[9] (Gen. 1:24, Gen. 2:18)

[10] (Lev. 19:18; Mt. 22;39; Mk. 12:31; Lk. 10:27; Rom. 13:9; Gal. 5:14)

[11] (Gen. 1:24, 28)

[12] “In order to understand what follows, we must turn at once to the final goal: ‘This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh,’ is the cry of man when God brings him the woman. This exclamation, the expression of a recognition, the proclamation of a choice and decision made by man—the first saying of man expressly recorded in the saga—is not just a kind of epilogue to the creation of the woman, and therefore the completion of man’s creation, but it is with this express saying of man that the latter reaches its goal…The whole story aims at this exclamation by man. In this, and this alone, the creative work of God reaches its goal, for only now has man really been given the necessary help designed by God” (CD III I.41.3 291).

[13] Erika Moore’s Exegesis paper, “The Domestic Warrior: An Exegesis of Proverbs 31:10-31”. 1994. (14).

The Toxicity of Toxic Language

When “Toxic” becomes Toxic

Here’s the thing about “toxic” relationships: it’s not always restricted to one person being *the* “toxic” person that needs to be excised from the group or broken off with. Though, this is commonly what is conveyed in the dialogue of aftermath of relational split: “that person was toxic; so glad that person is gone. Now, we/I can go on being/becoming more healthy.” While I don’t have a very high anthropology (meaning: I still question the inherent goodness of human beings but not the inherent dignity; plus, I’m a Luther theologian, it comes with the terrain), I still believe that *anyone* can be “toxic” in *any* given situation. It’s the mix of personalities in their potential for toxicity. Potential for toxicity can be other wise dubbed as the beloved and oft used term: “brokenness.” However, in common parlance, it’s not just “brokenness” (because general brokenness is acceptable for the most part), “toxicity” is like the dark underbelly of “brokenness,” the thing that is the deal breaker and can’t ever be tolerated by anyone. Thus, people who have otherwise standard issues and problems and “brokenness,” get labeled as “toxic” and should be avoided at all costs because they bring “toxicity” to everything. They’re essentially and inherently harbingers of poison to every relationship they touch; they’ve been ontologically defined as poisonous.

(Side note, I’d like to argue that it is better to render “brokenness” as “bentness” in order to adhere to the inherent dignity of human beings. “Brokenness” can indicate being useless and worthy of being trashed; all human beings are never ever, never ever of that category.)

“Toxic” is the new “co-dependent.” One of the problems of the language of toxicity becoming so popular is that it has lost its actual definition and impact (there are legitimately toxic people, things, and places in our lives). It has become easier to label someone as “toxic” because they are causing us *any* discomfort. Also, It has become all the rage to label someone, some-place, something as “toxic,” in order to scapegoat our own problems on to someone else, some-place else, or something else. It’s easier to just cut someone, some-place, something out of your life, rather than take a long hard look in the mirror and realize you are fucking up your own life. (I say this as someone who was caught too long in “toxic” this-and-that language and finally had to come to terms that *I* was (me and my trauma narrative) more of the problem than any other person, place, or thing.) Rather than knee-jerk reacting and labeling someone, some-place, or something as “toxic,” it might be worth slowing the roll and asking: why is this causing this reaction in me? Therein answers lie.

Another problem is, from my perspective, we all carry within ourselves potential for acting caustically[1] toward others; our potential for this activity can be actualized by other people acting out of their issues and trauma (and vice versa). Also, our caustic behavior can be actualized by another person’s otherwise normal personality traits because we’ve had some sort of trauma associated with those traits even if they’d never be considered categorically “problematic” by any professional. It’s rarely the fact that only one person is the “toxic” source, but rather the mix of personality traits we have that conform and collide with others. Conformity with others creates a wonderful sense of peace and acceptance, but this does not mean collision is out of the question nor does it mean that when collision occurs it’s a deal breaker and the other person is now “toxic.” Collision occurs as conformity becomes bedrock in a relationship. When the honeymoon of a new relationship wears off, it’s then where we start to see how different we are from each other and also the potential for triggering and being triggered. (And I am not speaking of small things like a disagreement and miscommunications that run standard in any relationship. Rather, I speak of the big collisions, the ones that demand terms like forgiving and forgetting.)

When collision happens, it’s a time for introspection and dialogue. The normal and healthy response in situations where collision has occurred—in any way—is: discussion, both interpersonal (what happened and what can we do together to grow and move forward with our relationship (if possible)?) and intrapersonal (why did this action trigger this response in me?). Granted not all relationships are or need to be carried forward, some are mutually too caustic (as a whole) to be continued; not because one person is inherently “toxic,” but because the unit doesn’t work and we are both mutually bad for each other because we trigger each other, you trigger me, or I trigger you. None of us wants to be in relationship that is primarily collision and strife. None of us want to be causing the caustic reaction. (I’m a firm believer that not all personality types should be anything more than cordial acquaintances because the relational scales tip too much in favor of the potential for collision and triggering.) Often times, though, a good conversation will allow for light to be shed on issues that either or both people in the relationship were blind to, where acceptance of your own and the other person’s contribution to the issue can be owned, and create the space for solutions to move forward to be implanted and embraced.

We have used and abused the word “toxic” in all its forms, and the results prove disastrous. We are all bent, traumatized individuals making our way through this journey of life. Even the most integrated of us still has plenty to work on and will continue to aggravate, frustrate, and bother other wanderers. The most we can do is admit our own weaknesses, realize when those weaknesses are not beneficial to others, and realize where we can and need to become strong.

Something that I loved learning about when I started studying Luther and his conception of justification and the proclamation of the Gospel, was not that he let me off the hook of the law of God, but that he put me on it. Far from being a therapeutic hedonist, Luther has a high view of the law both as it plays into the believer’s relationship before God and in the believer’s life. No, sin boldly isn’t the same as: you do you as you please at whatever expense and at whomever’s expense. It’s about the reality that you are, by encounter with God in the event of faith, right before God, that this event-encounter is not born of your particular activity but does have significant bearing on your present activity. Luther’s dialectic of law and gospel and the need for the good theologian to be able to distinguish between the two is never about being given the license to avoid the law at all costs and to reject all people and things and words that give off even the hint of personal discomfort and conviction to us. Rather, it’s always about being able to really *see* with our own eyes what is the law and what is the gospel, what brings death and what brings life, and to act accordingly—not to avoid it but to enter into the event, to be encountered there in by God and God’s grace.

Sometimes, we must enter into the death present and terrifying in relational collision (to face it head on, eye to eye, word to word) in order to be brought into something so much more beautiful and alive than it could ever be if we had sidestepped the entire problem in the name of comfort. I will be more alive, you will be more alive, and even the relationship (either sustained or terminated) will be life giving (even if there is grief and pain as a result of termination). With God all things are possible, even abundant life out of what feels like and looks like certain death.

 

[1] I like “caustic” rather than “toxic” because there is an allusion to a chemical reaction, neither chemical is bad in it’s own state, but when combined the reaction is bad.

Projection and Distortion, more from David Schnarch and “Passionate Marriage”

The following excerpt from David Schnarch’s “Passionate Marriage” caught my eye as I was reading a couple of days ago. The chapter is “Your Crucible Survival Guide” and the section is Holding onto Yourself Requires an Accurate Picture. The quote starts on page 333 of a 408 page book, this means that when something catches my eye as I’m trucking through to the end, it’s significant. A concept, statement, or thought, has to be so substantial as to still my quickly moving eye. The following quote is one of those concepts/statement/thought. (Bold is mine.)

We all have distorted views of our own lives–it’s part of being human. We develop ways of stringing together events that are plausible and give them particular meaning. Sometimes we create overly bland pictures of our childhoods; other times we may overemphasize some points and ignore others. Overall, the interpretation and emotional impact of things remembered–not just things forgotten–are blunted. The truth is often hidden–right out in the open–camouflaged as something else. People make a lot more sense (and seem less crazy) when their picture is accurately focused; until then the hazy image can be interpreted in ways that they prefer.

Invariably, poorly differentiated people hold onto the part of themselves that constructed the distorted self-portrait. They demand that their partner understand them, in part, because they don’t really understand themselves. They feel understood, accepted, and validated when their partner sees them the way they picture themselves. Their partner’s refusal to see them the way the want to be seen is upsetting. But the problem isn’t a failure to communicate: their spouse can’t understand them the way they demand, because they view their own behavior and the details of their life differently than their partner does. This discrepancy challenges their inaccurate picture of themselves–which they have difficulty maintaining to begin with.

You may think it’s a problem when your partner won’t ‘accept you the way you are,’ but consider what happens when you demand that he validate the distorted lens you use to look at yourself, your life, and your marriage. The problem in many marriages is not that spouses won’t validate each other, it’s that what gets validated is an inaccurate self-portrait. Distortions and projections keep us from seeing our partners and ourselves. That’s important to remember next time you feel like demanding your partner ‘understand’ you the way you understand yourself.

Here’s what caught my eye: demanding validation for a distorted self-portrait. What does this mean exactly? In my opinion, it means that I demand that another person see me as I see myself. This can work in two ways. 1. I may demand that someone view me as awesome as I think I am, which leads to a worshiping situation. In this case, there’s an automatic hierarchy created in the relationship, which results in one person consuming the other person in order to satisfy the attention appetite of the consuming person. There’s no room here for two distinct selves; just one self in love with itself. Narcissism should come to mind. While Schnarch isn’t talking about this narcissistic attribute in relationships, I think it applies. One can easily up-sell themselves as much as one can down-sell themselves.

And that leads me to: 2.  (The down-sell) I may demand that someone view me as poorly as I view myself. (And, this is inherent in what Schnarch is talking about, but I’ll tease it out a bit differently.) It’s not just that I (and I’m using I to make writing clearer) have a “false” perception of myself that is fabricated from a hyper-focus on a negative event or a glossing over of a bland childhood; it’s that I legitimately have been handed the script for a negative view of self and am refusing to read from any other script. I then force others in my life (and here, again, we can expand from the marriage relationship mentioned above out into other relationships like friendships/work relationships) to read from the same script. The problem is everyone in my life is the worst method actors and can’t (for the life of them) stay on script let alone read it correctly.

In other words, I have had traumatic experiences that have radically altered my self-perception and now I look through that experience and claim it as my identity. Anyone who comes up against that identity with an alternate identity for me (what they say/see to be true) is shut out. To remove from me or challenge my trauma-identity, would result in the loss of myself. My trauma-identity is my shell that protects me and keeps people away and either you play along (validating my trauma-identity) or you fight it and then reject me and (still) validate my trauma-identity. It’s lose/lose for you; I control the whole thing and, thus, it’s win/win for me.

I allow my brokenness to be the genuine thing about me. It also becomes my justification for things, like: not changing, rejecting those who won’t play along, and defaulting to the “see, I knew I was always a failure” when I’m rejected. It’s the defensiveness and anger that rears her head because someone dare ask her not to see herself through the lens of her past. It’s the, “You just don’t get it, do you!?” that flies from spiteful lips or bounces around an irate mind. Who likes to have their identity–that they’ve mistaken for their essence–ripped from their death grip. As Schnarch mentions above, “This discrepancy challenges their inaccurate picture of themselves–which they have difficulty maintaining to begin with.” I need you to play along because I’m barely keeping this act alive;  your playing along helps me dupe myself and is the fodder for me pressing more and more into that distorted self-view.

If you’ve ever become angry because someone pushed against your trauma-identity, then you know exactly what I’m talking about and explaining. The scariest thing in the world is to step out from this broken identity (and I don’t mean identity of brokenness; I mean the identity is broken). To shed the costume of the always victim and leave behind the familiar and over-handled script is to step into *real* vulnerability and the unknown. (I stress *real* vulnerability because I can use my trauma-identity to share my trauma with you as an act of seeming vulnerable but I’m still standing behind that trauma. Vulnerability demands full exposure of the self in the presence of another different self. There’s no standing behind anything in the truly vulnerable.) Being willing to say, “Yes, I will move on from this; I will begin anew” demands a death of the old identity and self, new eyes and ears, even new language. It demands habitually forcing your mind to work in a different way; it demands that you train your own voice to call yourself higher. It demands a dare to believe this other identity. Dare I believe another story about me one that is future oriented and present focused rather than stuck in the past?

And, oddly (at least I find it odd), in this shedding of the trauma identity and stepping into real vulnerability, I’m concurrently stepping into my real self. My real self isn’t my trauma self because the trauma self is dependent on an other validating that story line; stepping out from that distortion demands an alterity and a self-validation. I am more myself as I move forward in the present than I am when I’m consumed with the past.

 

Some Thoughts on the Billy Graham Rule

A couple of weeks ago I had a bit of a rant on Twitter about the foundations for the Billy Graham Rule. (If you are (lucky enough to be) unaware of such a rule, I’ll send you out in to the inter-webs to read more: BGR.) I turned the rant into a “Moment” at the advice from one wiser than I about these things (h/t Travis McMaken*). In order to make the Moment available to a non-twitter audience, I have embedded the tweets below. Enjoy!

 

*You are encouraged to visit his blog: http://derevth.blogspot.com/p/about-die-evangelischen-theologen.html