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Thomas Finger

Overwhelmed by God

True spirituality means being swept away by God's desire for us.

Few areas of interest are expanding as rapidly to day as spirituality. Do-it-yourself versions abound, scrambling themes from world religions, New Age fads, and psychology in wildly eclectic variations. Christian offerings are also proliferating, stretching from the "Five Easy Steps" variety to scholarly retrievals of classic Catholic saints (perhaps most appreciated by Protestants). Across the board, however, spirituality is often promoted by contrasting it sharply with words like intellect, theology, and doctrine. Spirituality, one repeatedly hears, concerns the right brain, not the left; you must get out of your head and into your heart.

In such a climate, it is significant that The Shape of Living comes from a distinguished academic theologian (David Ford is Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge). Yet it is also significant that many readers may not recognize this. David Ford's image-laden prose, interspersed with Michael O'Siadhail's poetry, renders the spiritual significance of everyday joys and struggles, and of those processes and powers that shape them, recognizable to everyone. Yet barely visible beneath this highly accessible word stream runs a current of profound theological depth.

To probe at today's heart-head opposition, I want to sound that current at several points, yet not to reduce spirituality's overflow to some underlying structure. My intent is the reverse: to indicate how contemporary theological themes need not be intellectual abstractions, but can help us discern the swiftly shifting contours of our lives. Without question, spiritual reality ceaselessly surpasses all rational description. This reality is hardly amorphous, devoid of all shape. Its shaping, however, is not best conveyed by images like structure or foundation. It is more like the themes, counter themes, and their expositions that pattern a symphony whose beauty and exuberance far exceed understanding.

Ford's book "is about coping with multiple over-whelmings, both good and bad." It clearly is situated amidst the accelerating productivities, multiplying diversities, and organizational anonymities configuring much of to day's world. Through Ford's pages one often glimpses the harried, responsible, educated professional; predominantly Western, perhaps mostly urban and white. One glimpses people wrestling with overstimulation, not boredom; overwork, not unemployment; those at the center, not on the margins.

Yet Ford proposes that the experience of being overwhelmed is not unique to this culture, nor is it wholly negative. Indeed, at its core, spiritual life involves being overwhelmed: by evil and suffering, by causes and loved ones, but most of all, by God. Here is no tame, cautious rendering of the spiritual life, preoccupied with moderation and restraint. Here is a cosmic vision of daring, passion, and excess—yet one where responses call for mobile balance, permeable boundaries, and flexible shape. Here is a spirituality of responsible personal and social action, yet one whose chief decisions involve when to be overwhelmed, and by what.

Spirituality is often conceived individualistically—as mostly what one does with one's solitude. For Ford, however, selves are constituted much as current object relations theory says. Every child introjects "objects" (persons or features of persons) from its surroundings, and its emerging self is contoured around these cores. This means that various faces and voices inhabit each person's "heart" (which Ford does not oppose to "head," but describes more biblically as the center of memory, feeling, imagination, and thought). Self-formation involves continuing dialogue with the oldest, most deeply imprinted of these, but also with new ones that come along. We are most deeply shaped by those who have overwhelmed us, for good or ill. We will never fully fathom their influence. Yet this need not always be damaging, since being fully human involves the capacity to be overwhelmed.

Accordingly, finding oneself involves coming to grips with these voices, and finding God involves opening this conversation to God. To be Christian is to allow Jesus to overwhelm one and enter this dialogue from one's center (perhaps what's really meant by "inviting Jesus into your heart"). Further, since this conversation is never closed, spiritual growth also involves expanding it across boundaries, and offering "hospitality" to others in one's heart. The way one incorporates the impaired, the victims, and the marginalized may best test the right shaping of one's heart.

Now, because many of these inner voices represent persons to whom one is socially linked, genuine interior dialogue will often affect these outward connections. In other words, spiritual growth involves a social dimension: the transformation of those social relations which shape the self. By connecting the personal to the social in this way, the communal notion of the self deepens our understanding of life's spiritual dimension.

By itself, however, this communal construal might reduce the self to a construct of its sociotemporal location, wholly conditioned by and incapable of transcending it. Yet Ford also stresses the fathomless "mystery" and "secrets" of each person, human and divine. He insists on patience and respectful re serve in approaching another's irreducible otherness. Such respect, especially for the divine mystery and its superabundance, calls for practices of silence.

Spirituality is often conceived as the subjection of desire. Many of its adherents are unnerved by passion and unleashed power. Christian ethics often follows suit, downplaying affectivity and stressing principled calculation. Yet many ethicists are asking whether principles alone can lead to goals such as justice, or whether these goals must also be objects of intense desire.

Some such thinkers praise Desire, now liberated by postmodernity's dissolution of doctrines and institutions, as the unerring impetus toward Truth. In contrast, Ford recognizes that desires are not simple, natural guides toward good, but diffuse energies needing direction. To attain such direction, a person need not stifle desires but can range them under an overarching One.

This terminology of desire suggests a way through the tension between God's electing grace (which, stressed by itself, would make us puppets) and our human response (which, by itself, would make salvation a work). Ford proposes that God attracts us through loving desire, not bare command or power. Drawn by this, we are willingly overwhelmed. God's Desire then sweeps us away, yet energizes us and sets us truly free. This connection of God's sovereignty with our freedom (though Ford avoids technical terminology) is one way that this notion of desire can deepen our understanding of spiritual life.

More precisely, how are desires shaped? The communal nature of each self provides a clue. Our behavior becomes patterned through repeated interaction with others. Some such patterns can be established through participation in small, intimate groups (interestingly, Ford processed his book in such a setting). Such groups, however, best function within a wider Christian community. Ford stresses the formative character of baptism and the Eucharist, and of the rhythms of worship and the Christian year. Through these, today's communities can tap into a collective wisdom, distilled over centuries, for guiding our lives.

Since desires are shaped mainly through concrete behaviors, or "practices," this wisdom, found in Scripture and also church history, includes numerous narratives of people coping with different situations. Though this wisdom also involves ethical principles, the church forms character chiefly through steeping persons in these narratives; this helps them discern what such principles might mean today. Here Ford is deepening our understanding of spirituality's connection with the church by drawing (without saying so) on a "narrative" theology that regards ethics chiefly as the formation of character through the traditions and nurture of historic communities.

I have pointed out several ways in which David Ford, while writing in accessible, nontechnical language, draws on theological resources to en rich our understanding of spiritual life. Similar incorporations underlie his profound treatments of leisure and work, of evil and suffering, and finally of joy and feasting. However, one tendency in Ford's portrayal of God gives me pause.

Ford stresses almost exclusively the divine love and desire, and assures us that "God always gives us more than enough to enable us to follow" these. In today's world, however, God often seems very distant, and many Christians still experience "Dark Nights" of God's apparent absence. If spirituality focuses almost entirely on God's intense love and desire, and stresses God's mysterious presence even in suffering (as Ford beautifully does), what of those Christians who struggle with God's seeming remoteness, even on good days? Are they simply not as spiritual as those who apparently always experience God?

I wonder if experiences of God's absence might be better accounted for by making room for other divine characteristics. Traditionally, talk of holiness, righteousness, even judgment, have pointed to God's overawing, transcendent Otherness. Many current spiritualities, fearful of the damage that legalistic understandings of these terms have inflicted, avoid them altogether. But might there not be more biblical, less legalistic ways of conceiving them while still granting primacy to God's loving Desire? If so, God's seeming absence and the Dark Nights might be mysteriously connected with something intrinsic to God and to the spiritual life.

In any case, though Ford does not really address this issue, The Shape of Living offers far greater wealth than even several readings can probe. Much of its richness is informed by Ford's theology, scarcely visible though it is.

Thomas Finger is professor of systematic and spiritual theology at Eastern Mennonite Seminary, Harrisonburg, Virginia. He is the author most recently of Self, Earth, and Society: Alienation and Trinitarian Transformation (InterVarsity).

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