The Studio of Eric Valosin

Monday, April 21, 2014

Good Grief: An Easter Crisis, Mindfulness and the Absolute

- this profoundly joyous time of resurrection - is not time of the year I expected to grieve. Holy week has passed, yet I find myself returning to an empty tomb to weep a bit. I grieve not the loss of a person right now, but of an ideology I didn't know I had.

Disclaimer: If you're looking for fully digested philosophical treatises or flashy epiphanic discoveries, this is not that type of post. I do those every now and then, but the conclusion of this Lenten season and the arrival of Easter has left me in a far messier, unresolved place - albeit, a good one I think. This is one of those posts where I crack my heart open a bit and pour out the contents, partially grasping at cathartic straws, and partially because I know I'm not alone in my quandaries. I share these here because I know that the outcomes of these sorts of struggles have everything to do with my work as an artist and thinker, and, more directly, with the way I live my life in a public manner. This is going to be a long post, and you're lucky it has any organizational strategy at all.

A Look Back at Lent

These past 46 days my church, under the leadership my wife, its Pastor, embarked on a theme of repentance and reconciliation - reconciliation with nature, diverse people groups, within families, the church community, the self, and of course reconciliation with God. Each week focused on a different topic and provided tools for recognizing how we as individuals and as a community have fallen short of right relationship, and how we might reconcile those relationships in our daily lives.

I personally took this opportunity to invest in some reconciliatory practices of self-care, since the rigors of grad school had pretty much undone most of my better habits in this respect. I took up daily mindfulness practices (daily is a very generous description, but at least a good start), tried to eat better (embarking on a 30 day smoothie challenge that tasted great but ended up making my wife sick), and exercised more regularly (again a generous description, but a good start). I also tried to very intentionally reconnect with my family and take time away from the workaholism instilled in me through grad school under threat of career death. It's been a far more difficult task than I expected, but one that I think made me more prepared for and receptive to the this upcoming crisis of faith.

Resurrection Reconciliation

Today my wife gave one of the most brilliant Easter sermons I've ever heard. That's not me being biased, that's me being blown away. Having heard and thought deeply about the Easter story over and over again, I was not expecting to hear it in a fresh way that clicked any differently than it had in the past. Yet, it left me in tears and got me thinking new, deep thoughts. I tried recounting the sermon's brilliance to a coworker today and failed miserably, so I'll spare you my troubled synopsis. Instead, suffice it here to discuss this one main point of hers:

Matthew 28:1-10, Jesus appears to the two Marys who had just discovered his empty tomb and the angel. The resurrected Christ says to the women "Greetings, do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will meet me." What we often overlook is that he does not call them his disciples, or even his friends, he calls them his brothers. These are the same "brothers" that within the last week had fallen asleep on him 3 times while he went through a point of crisis and begged them to stay awake with him, ran away when the authorities came, denied ever knowing him at all, and then stood and watched him get killed. That would be no friend of mine, much less a brother! Yet, as if it never happened, he greets them as beloved family.

The model of repentance and reconciliation gets flipped on its head. In every other case we studied, first you repent (acknowledge a wrong behavior and apologize) and then reconcile (reconnect and establish a better relationship). But here reconciliation is offered... and there seems to be no sign of repentance. At least not yet. These "brothers" had never so much as said they were sorry. But Jesus extends to them his familial love. He simply wants to see them again in Galilee.

The whole Easter story - in fact the whole of the Good News - is simply that. That even though we sometimes don't take God seriously and "fall asleep" on him, even though we put on our blinders and flee the scene in favor of our own agendas and self-preservation, even when we deny the intimacy we may have had with God for fear of rejection or persecution, even when we stand idly by as we watch our strained faith die... God choses to take no offense, calls us "brother" and "sister" and simply longs to see us again in Galilee. That had me in tears, and I even choke up a bit typing it. This is God's Easter Basket to us - a gift of guilt-free reconciliation undeservedly given.

I don't easily tear up, so that's usually an indication I've got some major crap going on behind the scenes that I'm not aware of. So I began digging. It's not a new message; why did it goad me so much this time?

Clinging to the Absolute

For a long time I've been obsessed with a search for absolute truth. I know, I know. The good postmodernist in me knows that there's either no such thing, or that if there is we simply have no access to it, mired in our relative subjectivity. But that hasn't stopped me from seeking it. I don't want an absolute in the Platonic ideal sense; there are too many terrible ethical implications like an inherent intolerance of diversity. However, if the absolute dies entirely, then where's the anchor of our faith? Wheres the logic of metaphysics? How do we not get lost in a relativistic ethical free-for-all? (Many of these I address in my thesis monograph, seeking a relational metaphysics).

Relational models of truth are the immediate answer, and for this reason non-anthropomorphic ideas of God have become very popular, since they sidestep the problems of correspondent truth and allow for more theological adaptability. I don't disagree with these ideas (in fact I cringe at the anthropomorphized God we create in our image rather than the other way around), but I am wary of the pantheism that can result. As a result, I clung desperately to the idea of some absolute truth that might one day disclose itself in some unfathomable, ineffable way.

Without knowing it, this for me took the form of Heaven. By this I mean eternal life - eternal union with a pure sense of deity outside of the constraints of our individual contexts (no time, space, physical bodily limitations, etc). I may have no access to absolute truth in this life, but at least I can bank on becoming one with the absolute once I'm outside of this earthly mixture of complications (ab-solute).

I had never realized it, but this focus on heaven shifted my entire paradigm in a very particular way:

A Crisis of Options

This is the classic tug of war between the subjective and the absolute, the immanent and the transcendent, the temporal and the eternal, the kingdom on earth and the kingdom of heaven.

Assuming for the sake of argument that there is indeed both this life and eternal life in one form or another, I began to realize there are 4 ways of navigating these realities.

1) put all your focus on this life and completely ignore eternity
2) put an equal importance on both and focus more on this life since it's all we have access to right now
3) put an equal importance on both and focus more on eternity since that is the goal to be striven towards
4) put all your focus on eternity and completely ignore this life.

...I wonder if there's a 5th way, putting equal importance on both but focusing on neither - maybe that's the more apophatic approach, but I'm not sure yet what that looks like...

(Of course you can put no importance on either and become a nihilist, but then why bother writing this at all?)

1 and 4 seem irresponsible and implausible, so I was left with 2 options, and it became clear to me that my bias towards the absolute had me subtly leaning toward option 3 (we'll call the "heaven-focused" option), focusing my life around eternity, rather than the here and now; all my works on earth - though supremely valuable - are an attempt to live in a way that grows out of my respect for eternity and the eternally transcendent God's commands. I discovered my wife, as it turns out, leans more toward option 2 (we'll call it the "world-focused" option), living in the here-and-now so that all her works are an attempt to participate with an immanent God in the time we have, bringing eternity and the kingdom of God to the present.

The increasing implausibility of a dogmatically prescribed anthropomorphic God - and don't misunderstand me, I'd want nothing other than an implausible God, for there could be no God that is entirely plausible; I seek to unknown this God all the time - has inevitably got me questioning my most basic pre-assumptions, even down to the very existence of God. So, I examined each scenario and what you're left with if you then ask if God really exists.

After I had worn down the tolerance of my wife's patient ear, I began scribbling down my thoughts in a flow chart.

The conclusions in the flow chart from left to right if you can't read my handwriting:
"is your focus on this life or the next?" ->
this life -> yes -> "sweet, you lived well and get to enjoy heaven as a side benefit"
this life -> no -> "oh well, you tried your best, but at least this life was lived well"
next life -> yes -> "you must take God's instructions for life seriously and act in this life accordingly"
next life -> no -> "everything is meaningless" (and not in the Ecclesiastical sense)
To my horror, my wife's world-focused viewpoint was pretty much a win-win situation, while my heaven-focused one logically terminates, at best, in business as usual, and at worst nihilism! My gut said her way was clearly the better approach. As I recount it now, it seems obvious that a focus on the present is in fact the way of mindfulness and relationality, while a focus on heaven the way of idealism and fundamentalist evangelicals. That should have been my first red flag as I seek to be neither of the latter two, but then again I've always been a recovering idealist at heart.

The Grieving Process

So why, then, if it is so painfully clear that I should release my grasp on the absolute and be focusing elsewhere, do I feel so reluctant to do so?

Then it hit me. Grace. My wife's sermon illustrated grace - undeserved reconciliation even before repentance takes place. I've always believed in this grace, but that was actually the problem. Real grace is a hard thing to swallow, especially when you know you don't deserve it, and my eternally-focused viewpoint allowed me to hide from the painful reality that I'm not pulling my weight here on earth and the humiliating feeling of receiving something so beyond my deserving (also therefore missing the incomprehensible grandeur of the true grace that God offers). Grace in this heaven-focused paradigm is watered down to a mere shadow of itself, for the full gravity of it is logically inconsistent in that setting. For this reason, life took on a subtle meaninglessness, leaving me only the absolute to cling to. Allow me to explain:

If live rightly at an 80% capacity, let's say God's grace covers that 20% failure and gets me into heaven. I appreciate that greatly, but since the real goal is heaven anyway, I appreciate it only in the sense that God has picked up my tab, so to speak. The fact that the finite world is 20% short of being a better place doesn't really matter much in an eternal sense. This makes complacency easy, and sincere repentance (that should follow the undeserved reconciliation) very hard.

However, with a world-focused spiritual paradigm, that 20% failure in the world really matters. Now, not only is grace picking up my tab and getting me into a heaven I don't deserve, it is also God forgiving the personal affront of my complacency in the one area that really matters. Thinking that my main goal in the universe has been handed to me and it is only a secondary task that is 80% complete is palatable. However, realizing that my main purpose in the universe and God's top priority for me is only 80% complete when I could have easily striven for 100% pains me greatly. Getting into Heaven would happen anyway. That's grace, and that's up to God. But the one part that really matters, that was really up to me, I blew. Ouch. 

That's why I clung to the absolute. It let me justify mediocrity and complacency. It let me pretend I don't actually have to go out and feed the hungry, donate a liver, or what have you, to bring the kingdom of God on earth no matter the personal cost. It let me stay numb and never have to truly repent.


I now see, for the first time, the true importance of mindfulness. I now see, for the first time, the real value of relational truth. I now repent, for the first time, more earnestly for I am utterly ashamed and horrified at my satisfaction with 80%.

Over the coming weeks I'll be reevaluating a lot of lifestyle habits and ideologies, weighing them against this new paradigm shift, and making sure that the implications of my artwork support this new worldview (I suspect it has in fact led me here and supported it all along, and it is only now that I'm catching up with it, but it can't hurt to double-check).

And so I feel like I've been led by the hand of the resurrected Christ back to the empty tomb in order to lay down my idealistic tendencies towards the absolute. They must be buried there so that I can rise to a fuller eternity, one that encompasses the here and now in its breadth. Does the absolute still exist? It very well may (in fact I think it does), but it cannot be my primary focus. I feel like my wife was Mary in the story, passing along Jesus' greeting to me on the street. I for one am eager to meet him in Galilee.

If you've read this entire post, first of all, God bless your tenacity! (I'd apologize for the time you've lost reading it, but frankly look at how much time I spent writing it!) I can only hope it has been edifying to you in some way. Secondly, I urge you to think deeply about the logical conclusions implicit in your own most basic pre-assumptions, whatever they may be, and take a good hard look at the way you live in response to that. Lastly, I sincerely hope you discover the joy of this world so that you might have both this world and the next to their fullest, being reconciled to the great Creator in unfathomable ways.

Peace, Introspection, and Easter Baskets,
- Eric

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