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On Unlearning

October 29th, 2020 | 10 min read

By Kirsten Sanders

Come now, O Lord my God. Teach my heart where and how to seek you, where and how to find you. Lord, if you are not here, where shall I seek you, since you are absent? But if you are everywhere, why do I not see you, since you are present? Truly ‘you dwell in unapproachable light.’ And where is this ‘unapproachable light’? How am I to approach an unapproachable light?

Anselm, Proslogion, 79

An authentic self wills to be what it is.

Catherine Keller, From a Broken Web, 11.

The first day of our graduate student colloquy, the professor said disdainfully “it is impossible to be an ‘evangelical theologian!’” What they meant was that this particular kind of religious conviction was naive, self-serving, that it was incompatible with sophisticated theological understanding, with love of neighbor, with knowledge of self. Such naivete, it was assumed, hid a cloak of repression, of oppression, of self-hatred, of annihilation of self and other. To rid ourselves of such commitments before beginning the work of contemplation, that was the goal of this education.

The process would deliver many things to me, with courses in theory, in religious texts, in “reading” and discourse. Inquiry was the named goal, but it often ended in delivering naivete up to criticism, innocence to theoretical distance. The plain reading was not sufficient, seeing as it had enabled so many years of social oppression, turning the soul and its desires against itself. To educate away from belief often seemed to be the goal.

And it worked, for a time. In demarcating the self and noting its boundaries and unbounded nature, in analyzing power and its intended and unintended exercise, in noting not simply the clear landing of an argument but tracking also the ripples it makes like a stone thrown into a pond, we were trained to trust no authority except our own. Decoupled from tradition, reason and experience were catechized under the critical gaze.

In truth, some of this was what I had sought. Taking things apart and putting them back together again helps us to understand how they work. (Being able to discern “how they work” remains one of my best theoretical tools). Some of Protestant, and especially “evangelical”, theology is notoriously ill-suited for this kind of work. The theological method of many such theologians involves strict textual reading. You might call it text-criticism applied to theological discourses instead of biblical texts. It is undoubtedly useful to understand a text in its context.

But to lack the skill to analyze rhetoric and its unintended consequence, its backhanded compliments, its possible misappropriations—this really does do damage. The problem is, one skill without the other leaves you in trouble. We run between the Scylla of “I read Calvin” and the Charybdis of “I read critical theory” with far too few managing to chart a course between. But there is such a thing as too much critical distance.

The challenge was amplified because the subject of our study was God. I was so young, and so incredibly naive. But truly I thought the desire of my soul to love God would in fact produce the fruit of knowledge. The problem as best as I can frame it is that religious discourses were assumed to be oppressive if they posited the self from outside. Anselm’s invitation, “Come, O Lord, teach my heart where and how to seek you, and where and how to find you,” all this places the soul under God’s instruction. It is a request to know God made from inside belief, and so it ultimately rests on trust. But to submit the soul to God as guide unseats the reasoning “I.” This is dangerous, if God is thought to sometimes be an oppressor.

Much contemporary academic theology is obsessed with the “I.” It aspires to speak of the self and its constitution, of the ways it has been falsely formed, and of the myths it has believed. To seek the constitution of the self is incredibly illuminating, but it sometimes seems to suggest that the self is self-made. As the self discovers and makes meaning, the narrative suggests, it then becomes a self. Perhaps this works better for Philosophy than Theology. But when I see myself as the adventurer, on a quest to search out the Most High—and when I tired, having not found God—it was my own failure of discovery.

In the Proslogion, Anselm writes “Let me seek you in desiring you; let me desire you in seeking you. Let me find you in loving you; let me love you in finding you.” This pattern Anselm follows in the Proslogion is of the soul finding God in seeking, of finding God in loving God. God was found as the fruit of desire, and finding God led not to comprehension but only to more thirst. “I am not trying to scale your heights Lord; my understanding is in no way equal to that. But I do long to understand your truth in some way, your truth which my heart believes and loves.” This famous patterning of belief in order to understand is universally quoted, but oft-misunderstood. Too often Anselm’s Proslogion is treated as a proof and not a prayer. But it is a prayer that God would be as known as God is already loved.

The problem with Theology done at a critical remove is that we can become untethered from love of God and so untethered from the Other. It is then that we begin talking mostly about ourselves. Even “transcendence,” often referred to, longingly, can be misappropriated as the erotic longing of the soul. This happens slowly, but it begins when the initial orienting love of God is forgotten. Anselm’s “where can I find you?” is based in trust, but it can become a cry of despair. There is no “where” that God is. God is distant from us, John of Damascus writes, not by space but by nature. But that there is no “where” means that there is no single place where God can be found. Put differently, all searching will fail if locating meaning is its only true goal.

For me, to make the soul the arbiter of knowledge with the tool of criticism robbed my soul of its native tongue, which was belief. I could no longer speak the language of adoration, of petition, of prayer. I could only stammer in a language that was not my own, and one that lacked words I desperately needed. I could no longer pray.

And then I encountered moments when I needed to. I gave birth to a child, my first, and it broke my soul in two. Suddenly every child in the world was my child and I could not bear the weight of such need. I needed to cast myself on One I could not understand. You cannot trust the one whom you spend much of your time analyzing. To play theorist to God makes him an object but not a friend. My soul was the deer thirsty for streams of water. My soul longed for the courts of the Lord, but I could not find him.

I am of two minds about whether Theology belongs in the secular academy. On the one hand, of course theology should be treated along other disciplines, borrowing and stealing frameworks that help make sense of its claims. And yet endlessly theorizing about the One who is beyond all thought can serve to hand God over to our desires. Theology can become an endless exercise of power. The “authentic self” wills to be “what it is.” But this authenticity is unearthed not in theorizing but in resting in God.

It is this striving that needs to be unlearned. Allow me, for a minute, an image from Pseudo-Dionysius. When we think on God, he writes,

Picture ourselves aboard a boat. There are hawsers joining it to some rock. We take hold of them and pull on them, and it is as if we were dragging the rock to us when in fact we are hauling ourselves and our boat toward that rock. And, from another point of view, when someone on the boat pushes away from the rock which is on the shore he will have no effect on the rock, which stands immovable, but will make a space between it and himself, and the more he pushes the greater will be the space.[1]

You are upon the boat. The rock is the immovable God. In our striving, our thinking after God, you might imagine that you are grasping hold of new knowledge or achieving new proximity to divine reality, but truly, it is the rock that draws you. And others, those who seek to flee the rock, indeed are moving themselves. God remains, though we distance ourselves with our effort.

I think about the image quite a lot. The thing about the tether (the “hawser”) is it belongs to all Christians, laypeople and theologians alike. We are differently disposed to it, however. “Imagine yourself in a boat”, but imagine that you are seated inside the boat, resting on the waves, secure in your relation to the rock. You do not busy yourself overly much with querying the size or shape of the rock or noting your distance from it. The waves arise and you may feel discomfort, your boat drifting with them further from the rock, and yet the tether holds. When you take note of the rock, that is to say, when you pray, you find it present, close, certain. But you might not take much note of it otherwise.

Imagine yourself in the boat, now, but you are a boatmaker, or a cartographer. Your job is to survey the potential problems with the vessel and all the conditions under which it might fail. Or, your job is to draw a map of the ocean’s depths, based only on what you can see. You might take your oars and journey as far as you can, surveying each corner of the ocean that you can reach. You might lean far over the bow, searching the ocean’s depths for signs of movement or life. You would remain still fastened to the rock, but with all your surveying and movement you are more likely to feel the rope’s tension. With all your counterfactuals and scenarios, you might become afraid. The rock remains the same, but the tension of the rope as it strains against the rock is more evident with your movement, with your journeying, with your questions.

We need the knowledge this journeying will provide. Significant new information is gained by surveying the ocean’s depths, by charting its tides, by mapping its territory. It is good work, and noble work. But the tether, that is, the relation between the voyager and the rock, it can become strained. It is under constant stress from working, from grasping, from theory. The tension can weigh upon you as you feel its weight.

The moral of the story, here, is: Do not despise the tether. Those who spend all their lives at rest, loosely held, it is that same rope that binds them to the rock. Respect their belief and never despise how they pray. And you, with your eager, maybe even anxious striving, the same tether holds you too. The tension you feel is often of your own making. Strive when you must, but remember this: It holds you too. Somehow you must find yourself always held to that rock, the immovable One, fastened tight. The trick is to learn when to strive, and when to rest.

“You will keep in peace those whose minds are steadfast, because they trust in you.” (Isaiah 26:3)

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  1. Pseudo-Dionysius, trans. Colm Luibheid. The Complete Works. New York: Paulist Press, 68-69.

Kirsten Sanders

Kirsten Sanders (PhD, Emory University) is a writer and theologian. She lives with her family in Massachusetts.