When you’re young, it’s easy to confuse strength with dominance; when you’re older, you realize the feat of character it takes to be meek. I used to imagine my calling was to defend the Truth.
Now I’m just trying to figure out how to love. James KA Smith
During a time of research gathering on seminary formation for my PhD, I recall a conversation with the former dean of a seminary. His classes were doxological as much as theological, so it surprised me when he said that it was the seminary’s job to prepare students to answer ordination questions and the church’s job to form character. It struck me as ironic that students were taught the arguments good Christians used against the Gnostics, but trained like brains-on-a-stick.
When I was a seminarian in the mid-90’s, my brain was chock-full of a memorized Westminster Shorter Catechism, but the rest of me was empty, disengaged, and ultimately unloving. If there was a precise test of autonomic nervous system activation, I suspect mine would’ve been off-the-charts. I lived in almost constant sympathetic-activation, my fight-or-flight dance punching-and-retreating like a bloodied and weary boxer. In this anxiously-attached state, as psychologists call it, I couldn’t connect emotionally to others.
I would’ve graduated and been ordained to serve a church in this state if it wasn’t for a generous counseling professor who asked me if I longed for anything more than answers and explanations. Strangely, I did. I felt a palpable ache in my heart for belonging, love, security. He smiled, and welcomed me to the rest of my life.
The 18 inch journey from my head to my heart has taken many, many years, requiring navigation through a cruel wilderness of shame and self-contempt, from disconnection to connection, from self-protection to vulnerability, from brain-on-a-stick to embodied love. At 50, I feel like a beginner in love.
In a moving recent essay, a friend and fellow journeyman, James KA Smith, writes, “As a young Christian philosopher, I wanted to be the confident, heresy-hunting Augustine, vanquishing the pagans with brilliance, fending off the Manichaeans and Pelagians with ironclad arguments. As a middle-aged man, I dream of being Mr. Rogers. When you’re young, it’s easy to confuse strength with dominance; when you’re older, you realize the feat of character it takes to be meek. I used to imagine my calling was to defend the Truth. Now I’m just trying to figure out how to love.”
How to love.
This was also Dallas Willard’s journey, according to his good friend and neuro-theologian Jim Wilder. In his last months, Willard – a prolific writer on spiritual formation — wondered if people really change. Amidst all of the resources and practices and disciplines which foster formation, do people really become more like Jesus? Wilder, whose training is in psychology, engaged Willard on attachment psychology, a psychology of love. The lights went on for Willard. He discovered what Smith did: You are what you love. Even more, this is a neurobiological phenomenon, a whole-person shift from disconnection to connection, from shame-fueled hiddenness to embrace, from exile to homecoming. All of our practices are in service of a maturing love within us.
In my book Wholeheartedness, I explore this neurobiology of love a bit, but I didn’t share a significant story behind it. Seven years ago or so, I was in Cambridge, England for a small gathering with NT Wright. Around a circle of women and men exploring faith and formation, I was able to ask him for his best recommendation for a resource that explores spiritual maturation at depth. Without hesitation, he enthusiastically offered Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, noting that it is a ‘magisterial’ work (I had to look up the word magisterial later, but I nodded like I knew it).
In the book, McGilchrist runs Western civilization through the lens of neurobiology, concluding that the emissary (the left brain) has become the master, that we’ve become largely left-brained and logical, addicted to certainty and being right, prone to mastery and grasping, cut off from our more imaginative and creative right-brained resources, disconnected from the deep well of empathy and vulnerability. This shift has been hundreds of years in the making, and is now our default style of engaging. Imagine how this impacts not just individuals, but churches and institutions, as well.
All of this came to a head recently while reading a stunning and searing new book by Willie James Jennings, After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging. Jennings laments the exaltation of self-sufficient white masculinity with its virtues of possession, control, and mastery, virtues which, as he argues, have become embedded in the practices of Christian institutions.
It’s not unlike what I’ve seen in narcissistic leaders and institutions, where performance, control, certainty, entitlement, and abuse of power trump cruciform love. What Jennings says, which is echoed in the recent works of historians Kristin Dumez and Jemar Tisby, as well, is that these habits are now embedded, institutionalized, so normalized over decades and centuries that to become the kind of person or institution that experiences “transformation,” a sacred re-storying through an intentional and disorienting journey must ensue. As Jennings says, “We live and die in story.”
The transformation or re-storying that needs to happen, however, cannot and will not happen if we continue to operate according to the now-dominant left-brain. And that leaves smart people, like you and me, feeling a bit anxious and under-resourced. How will it happen then? If I can’t explain it and analyze it and control it and diagnose it, how can I change it?
I consider Smith among the smartest folks I know, so I was floored by his remarkable testimony to a transformational therapeutic journey. He writes, “Eventually, through (my therapist’s) patience and compassion, through a remarkable ability to be with me in a way that embodied grace, I realized what we were doing: he wasn’t going to teach me or instruct me. Our conversation wasn’t a way to exchange ideas. It was an exercise in re-narration. If I was going to be restored to health, it was because my imagination was ‘restoried.’”
This resonated deeply with my own therapeutic experiences. In moments of grief and tears, my therapist didn’t try to fix me or correct me or analyze me. Instead, he was present in a way I’d never experienced another person being present to me before. He was safe, steady, secure.
In that space, my anxious grasping relinquished into surrendered love. I felt seen, known, mysteriously held, not just by a compassionate therapist but by a God who abides and remains. Gradually, my tears shifted from a lament of past pain to an ache for love.
As Augustine says, “The desire for grace is the beginning of grace.” Grace broke through my weary and worn self-help strategies. New desires were growing in that liminal space. Old stories of shame were being transformed into new stories of love.
Perhaps, this is what the Apostle Paul discovered in his three years in the desert. The know-it-all persecutor of Christians experienced a “poverty of spirit” space in the wilderness where he came to the very end of himself and discovered that he wasn’t abandoned but was held more intimately and lovingly than he knew.
The Christian tradition used a wide array of metaphors – the desert, the dark night of the soul, disorientation – to describe this liminal space. But of course, after death – life. Life and love! “Rooted and grounded in love,” as he says in Ephesians 3, and longing for himself and others “to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” Maybe this is the fulness that Christian contemplatives like Bernard of Clairvaux and Julian of Norwich and Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross and even the Westminster father Samuel Rutherford mused on, often poetically, often with imagery and language of marital union, secure and embodied love in the crucible of relationship.
I pay attention when wise theologians and philosophers and cultural historians and neurobiologists and psychologists and contemplatives start seeing and saying some of the same things. And I begin to wonder what it means, for us, for our churches, for our Christian institutions, all of us who seem regularly to lose the plotline of love.
McGilchrist laments a shriveled imagination, a lack of wonder and addiction to grasping that keeps us exiled from each other and from God. In this space, we stop listening. We abandon belonging. We lose curiosity. We lack empathy. We plot anxiously. Our divided selves manifest in divided congregations, divisive politics, disintegrating trust. Smith writes, “The pathology that besets us in this cultural moment is a failure of imagination. Empathy is ultimately a feat of the imagination, and arguments are no therapy for a failed, shriveled imagination.”
These days, I find myself asking a simple question of myself and those around me. It’s the same question that professor asked me, a lost seminarian, so long ago: What do you long for? What do we long for?
Our longings reveal what we love. Are we content to put Band-Aids on broken relationships and systems, or do we long for real belonging, real transformation, even if it requires a dark night to get there?
Smith says that he’s still trying to figure out how to love. I’m still such a beginner in love. Maybe, stumbling along the way, we can do this together.