Much of contemporary talk about spirituality is taken up with the importance–even the essentialness–of positive thinking, of accepting only the light and believing we can refuse pain and difficulty. It is easy to forget that there may be something to be said for a more existentially open view. In the weekend marking the Christian observance of the brutal death of Jesus, here are the great psychologist William James and Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann:
William James, in The Varieties of Religious Experience, casts his lot with existential honesty:
“The method of averting one’s attention from evil, and living simply in the light of good is splendid as long as it will work…But it breaks down impotently as soon as melancholy comes. [T]here is no doubt that healthy mindedness is inadequate…because the evil facts which it refuses positively to account for are a genuine portion of reality; and they may after all be the best key to life’s significance, and possibly the only openers of our eyes to the deepest levels of truth.”
Walter Brueggemann, in his book The Message of the Psalms, sees purpose in those that are cries of anguish (emphasis in original):
It is a curious fact that the church has, by and large, continued to sing songs of orientation in a world increasingly experienced as disoriented…It is my judgment that this action of the church is less an evangelical defiance guided by faith, and much more a frightened, numb denial and deception that does not want to acknowledge or experience the disorientation of life. The reason for such relentless affirmation of orientation seems to me, not from faith, but from the wishful optimism of our culture. Such a denial and cover-up, which I take it to be, is an odd inclination for passionate Bible users, given the larger number of psalms that are songs of lament, protest, and complaint about an incoherence that is experienced in the world…I believe that serous religious use of the lament psalms has been minimal because we have believed that faith does not mean to acknowledge and embrace negativity. We have thought that acknowledgement of negativity was somehow an act of unfaith, as though the very speech about it conceded too much about God’s “loss of control”…The point to be urged here is this: The use of these “psalms of darkness” may be judged by the world to be acts of unfaith and failure, but for the trusting community, their use is an act of bold faith…
Sonja Dalglish says
Thank you for this post. I agree whole-heartedly. Perhaps, this also explains the difficulties that many people have with accepting hospice because it seems so negative, as if denying that death will come will prevent it. Or, conversely, and perhaps more in the forefront of their minds is that accepting that death is coming will hasten it. This reminds me of a patient who told those spirits who came and invited her to go with them, no. She said she would not die. I asked her if she knew of anyone for whom that worked forever. She said, no but it’s working now.
It also makes me think this is what causes family and friends to desert the dying – because they want to remember them the way they were. And, also at the core of what makes it impossible for most people to stay with someone and walk with them through the darkest times of their lives. They simply do not want to view that darkness. It is too painful.
Without acknowledging these hard times and staring them in the face, how do we gain the strength to live?
I have used the whole Psalm 22, which begins, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me”, twice in a service for a dying patient, while they were still very cognizant of what was happening. In both cases, they were grieving heavily their own death, both the process and the inevitable exit. We had protest services to protest their deaths to God, even while they, as the writer of the Psalm ended praising God and wanting their families to worship and proclaim God’s faithfulness.
There are people who are hurting who have no words to express their grief. The psalms of lament can help them pray. Thank you for your post. I ran out of my own words this week and failed to post yesterday, as per my schedule.
Deacon Robert M. Pallotti, D.Min. says
Right on target! Yes, while I appreciate some themes of the New Age thinking, I feel that it fails when it comes to evil and suffering. The lack of a concept of sin leaves much of human history as inexplicable. Evil is real, ask any of the Jews of the Holocaust, or the victims of war, oppression and the like. The desire to run from these realities does not heal us, they create numbness that cannot feel one’s own or another’s pain.
How well said, Bob! Thank you.
Dave Woods says
Yeah, evil is real, if youwant to call it that. The levels of spiritual awareness on this earth plane are unequal. This is because some of us have been through this process many many times, and some of us have just gotten here.
You can only be fully aware of, and understand the reality of that which confronts you to the depth that you already feel and know in your gut that same reality within yourself.
This is why some folks look, and “just don’t get it” or take a long time to do so, and some understand immediatly.
Our reasons for going through this process are to acquire spiritual atributes that we lack, and need to evolve further, and to correct past mistakes. Unfortunately, we have to re remember what we came here for after we get here.
We’re born into this through those who came befor us, who came for the same reasons, and still may not yet even remember why they came. There’s a lot of confusion, damage, and pain involved in this process. Still, we have to wade through it all to get to the eventual enlightenment we came for.
Evil comes down to ignorance of what’s better, and why it’s better. Sin comes down to mistakes we make in blindly confronting this problem until we learn.
Mistakes must be made in order to evolve, and the price of not learning is repitition. In this, our mistakes get laid off on others who hopefully have the spititual maturity to set us straight. We’re all in it together folks.
Penny Parkin says
Thank you, Nancy, for your blog and these wise words. I especially appreciate hearing from William James, knowing that in his time, there were also the “positive thinkers” who denied the reality of suffering.