Searching for Our Human Face: Depths Within Depths

by Brian C. Moore, Ph.D.

The lonely path is always shared. This is the secret of Christ’s Cross. The person is indeed called to a singular destiny, but that destiny is and always was paradoxically communal. No one, perhaps, can believe for you—although, to be frank, I think it is part of the Christian vocation to do precisely that, to believe on behalf of those in the world who cannot yet believe; but all can believe in you, with you: more on this later.

The relative paucity of detail and scope in the modern self discourages, promoting a cutthroat calculation, an intrigue of the shallows. In contrast, consider Graham Ward’s elucidation of the much more expansive biblical alternative.

The Hebrew ‘heart’ (lev) . . . is the seat of the emotions . . . the place where thinking, believing, imagining and memory take place. It faces both the external and the internal worlds of the body; it both embraces the conscious and the unconscious for there are things hidden in the heart that only God can draw forth. (“Affect”, Radical Orthodoxy, 1/1&2 [2012]: 56)

Berdyaev will go so far as to discern in our current mode of consciousness a wounded condition that is unnatural. “Consciousness involves a painful division. From its very nature it can never embrace the whole of our being, which includes the realm of the subconscious and the superconscious” (The Destiny of Man, p. 38). Note the inclusion of the “superconscious,” for healing necessarily involves not only integration with unruly psychic depths, but elevation into capacities far beyond what one may infer merely on the bases of elemental instincts. And because the cartography of the soul is so paltry in modern sensibility, there is a cheapened, superficial kind of emotive religiosity that suppresses intellect or replaces a mysterious ontological transformation of many dimensions with a narrowly confined moralism. Whatever the case, the freedom that is considered decisive is located without significant remainder in the unbroken autonomy of the individual.

Yet any minimal acquaintance with premodern conceptions would nullify the view that this was anywhere near adequate. This is not to deny the importance of our choices. Rather, one should see in all willing that enters into the lucidity of rational awareness an archaeology that precedes and suffuses the very capacity to make such choices. Further, one should generously allow for an imperfect grasp of the Good. This means that immediate objects of choice are apt to be confused, even very faulty attempts to obscurely reach for the heart’s desire. As a result, the working out of our deepest, ontological desires involves something only indicated, not comprehended by our so-called rationally articulated volition. Those who want to make an eternal destiny dependent upon what can be clearly stated by a rational ego are playing a game of ascription that dispenses with the hidden interior connections that give the soul welcome in reality. Of course, it is easy to do this and when creatures act despicably, the righteously offended heart is apt to conclude from an instinctive revulsion towards evil that any tolerance of ambiguity is already participation in contagion. But in this fallen aeon, persons are ambiguous and judgment becomes that of the Pharisees when it refuses to live with the complexity.

I think it’s worth considering that Christ’s most angry denunciations of Israel and his most anguished cries of disappointment and invocations of hell are in the context of a blind spiritual leadership that had caused the people of God to miss the coming of the kingdom. What is threatened with infernal destruction is precisely the mentality that thought it could easily discern the separation between the sacred and the great unwashed. In contrast, George MacDonald proclaims a transformation that circulates in a manner that defies temporal clarity. The Good that is requested begins in depths beyond the limited scope of our clearly understood choices; partly, no doubt, because our choices are rarely if ever as clearly understood as we surmise.

. . . perhaps, indeed, the better the gift we pray for, the more time is necessary to its arrival. To give us the spiritual gift we desire, God may have to begin far back in our spirit, in regions unknown to us, and do much work that we can be aware of only in the results; for our consciousness is to the extent of our being but as the flame of the volcano to the world-gulf whence it issues: in the gulf of our unknown being God works behind our consciousness. (“Man’s Difficulty Concerning Prayer” in Unspoken Sermons)

This is how Desmond puts it: “The patience of the good works behind our backs, stirring up the roots of willingness in the idiotic self, bending the violence of time towards a creative becoming, surprising us fragile agents with an unexpected outcome that, in its new perfection, sometimes astounds and refreshes even the most weary soul” (Being and the Between, pp. 526–27). Of course, one may emphasize the “rationally chosen” spiritual gift as the determinative act of a responsible individual. Then the “subterranean” action of God becomes purely consequential and dependent on the kind of simple volition moderns are fond of. I think this breaks down when one recognizes that willing of that nature ultimately reduces to a nihilistic arbitrariness. Only a willing that is given a prior orientation in its origin can avoid becoming lost in a void and if one grants the necessity of the origin, one has implicitly assented to a porosity to freedom counter to the flat, linear equation that would diminish the creative role of actions that fall outside the scope of “choice.”

I will return to this by way of an overwhelming crescendo to which some will sigh “Humph!” and others contemptuously spit “speculation,” and some will retreat into analytic austerity and dismiss wooliness of all kinds (they are a lean, lupine lot), and still others will seek out revelation suitably tamed into organized charts of propositional truth or take heed of saintly quorums that confirm their established prejudices. And I will say, “you need more balloons.”

(Go to “Christic Body”)

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