Tag Archives: God

Joan of Arcadia

Zoe took a trip with her mom and left me alone for five days. Every one of those evenings, my entertainment was Joan of Arcadia, a television drama that aired for two seasons about a dozen years ago. The premise is: at least once each episode, God appears to Joan in the person of a stranger and gives her an assignment such as join the school orchestra, keep your eyes open, clean out the garage. Usually Joan argues, almost always she misunderstands the purpose of whatever God proposes, and always by the end of the episode, the happenings caused by the assignment deliver an important message, a new way of understanding herself or the world.

I can’t recall ever being so fascinated by a television series. What captivates me is that we not only, along with Joan, learn about the world and ourselves; we also come away with new perspectives about God.

I just bought a DVD set of the two seasons to give to a friend, because it seems to me that when smart, generally open-minded and imaginative people can’t grasp why I or anyone with a modicum of common sense would believe in God, the problem is often that they won’t allow their imaginations to roam. It’s as if using one’s imagination to speculate about God is not only heretical but perhaps illegal, and surely cause for a stay in a rehab center like the one where Joan spends the summer between her junior and senior years.

I have often been asked, and occasionally have wondered on my own, why I’m writing this story instead of that one when that one would be more likely to make serious money. I think next time anyone poses the question, I will suggest they watch Joan of Arcadia. Because I see the show’s premise as a metaphor for the way artists are guided by something beyond their comprehension, often assisted by random people they meet or happenings they observe, or by wisdom or questions that arise out of their daily experiences.

I have decided to create a Perelandra College class around Joan of Arcadia as an elective in the Writing and the Spirit MA program. I’ll probably teach the class because it will give me an excuse to watch the series again and again. The thoughtful stuff it offers make it worth many viewings.

 

 

The Necessity of Hope

I can’t seem to make myself stop beginning the day with a dose of world news. This morning I read about the many political assassinations in Russia, and about the thousands of deaths and nearly unfathomable misery the people of Syria and Syrian refugees are suffering.

It’s not like such horrors are unfamiliar. I was born a month after we bombed Hiroshima, and my earliest years were often tainted by stories of the holocaust and of Stalin’s purges.

All my life, the world has been, for many, many, people, a hideously tragic place.

After my morning dose of news, I drove to a restaurant to meet my son for breakfast and on the way listened to an old Andre Crouch song, “Jesus is the Light of the World” and felt as if a boulder had risen off my shoulders. Because belief in Christ and the God he proclaimed gives me hope that all this tragedy will get redeemed; that people who die young, suffer in unimaginable ways, or have very little chance of living in anything like contentment, will at last find peace and joy.

In my favorite of all novels, The Brothers Karamazov, brother Ivan admits that even though God may redeem all the tragedy and suffering, he cannot forgive God for it all. I am neither as bright nor as sensitive as Ivan. Perhaps that’s why I can accept that God has motives far beyond what I can begin to comprehend.

I worry about people who reject God out of hand, who take as gospel the Darwinian world view and essentially contend as did the skinny wrestler in the film Nacho Libre, “I don’t believe in God, I believe in science.” I wonder how these people can live with the world’s tragedy. Maybe they compartmentalize and lock the grim facts away in some dark corner of their minds. If not, how do they accept such a world? Have they become so callous?

I’m a fan of science. My Zoe is a lover of science and I encourage her to follow science as a career, since it offers so many exciting opportunities in so many fields. But to take science as the answer to everything is to ignore the very simple fact Plato portrayed about 2500 years ago in “The Allegory of the Cave”: we only perceive what our senses allow us to know, and our senses are limited.

Though I am glad my belief gives me hope, hope is not the basis of my beliefs. That would be nothing but wishful thinking. Reasons that led me to believe are given in Reading Brother Lawrence.

I suspect only people whose hearts are damaged or turned off can look at the human condition and fail to be driven to actively search for a reason to hope in some destiny more fair and beautiful than what our senses perceive.

Coincidentally, or providentially, take your pick, about an hour after I wrote the above, Pastor Jason in a message at Journey Community Church offered this insight: “One of the central symptoms of our sickness as humans is a rock hard shell of callousness, exhibited in self-absorption, belief in self-sufficiency, and consequent apathy that numbs us to God and people around us.” He attributed it both to the fall (the one in the Garden of Eden) and to defense mechanisms we create out of fear. He also mentioned God’s promise to Ezekiel. “I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.”

My prayer is that God will extend that promise to me and mine and to us all.

I’m and artist and so are you

An Artist?

“We are God’s art, created in Christ Jesus to do works of beauty, which God has prepared in advance for us to do.” Ephesians 2:10

“So God created mankind in his own image… male and female…” Genesis 1:27.

We are made in the image of the master artist, the creator of all creation, to create works of beauty.

Though we may not be called to quit our day jobs, run off to Tahiti and paint our impressions of the islanders, we are meant to view our work and our lives from an artist’s perspective.

Whether our goal is to provide announcements for a church newsletter, to make of our home a refuge from the storm outside, to save stories and lessons from our lives, to create happiness by loving well, or to compose a novel or film masterpiece, we are called to approach those projects with attitudes guided by the motive of creating works of beauty.

John Keats, in “Ode On a Grecian Urn”, wrote “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all you know on earth, and all you need to know.”

Real beauty, whether in the eye of the creator or the beholder, is an expression of love.

Christ insists, “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works [works of beauty] and glorify your father who is in heaven.”

We are created in the image of God so that we can make art of and through our lives so that our art can draw people to God. And because God is love, we can draw people to God by helping them love better, which is best accomplished by loving them better.

In my novel The Good Know Nothing detective Tom Hickey and his sister Florence, who works for evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, are on a road trip when she asks:

“Tommy, do you want to know why I fell for God?”

“Sure.”

“It’s all your fault,” she said.

“How so?”

“See, when you really know love, when you find yourself being truly loved, you can’t help thanking God.”

A tiny sob issued out of her. Then she scooted closer and kissed her brother’s cheek. Tom sat speechless, wondering if his heart might explode.

Florence rode with her head on her brother’s shoulder. As distant headlights approached, she said, “The thing is, when you truly thank God, you sort of feel him smile. Then you fall for him. That’s all.”

 

Question People and Answer People

I have a new novel coming out soon, entitled The Good Know Nothing.

The title came from a quote from novelist Paul Auster: “For only the good doubt their own goodness, which is what makes them good in the first place. The bad know they are good, but the good know nothing.”

Soon after I decided upon the title, I mentioned it to my son Cody, which prompted a discussion of the value or danger of “knowing”. He contended that unless we know or believe we know something, we will have no passion to fight for it.

I maintained that we can believe with a mighty passion while holding onto a portion of doubt that our belief is valid. This portion of doubt (however small), I argued, can keep us from murderous fanaticism and help us obey the admonition to love even our enemies. For all we know, they may possibly be right. A portion of doubt can also leave us free to grow, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually, and to live unburdened by the defensive posture that troubles and often ruins so many friendships.

I’ve noticed a distinction between types of people, whom I’ll call “question people” and “answer people”.

Let’s apply the distinction between question people and answer people to their attitudes toward belief in God. Either sort might assert “I know God exists”.  But a question person would probably define the word “know” as a deep feeling or an existential choice based upon both intuition and experience. I’ll call this faith, and point out that faith is not an appropriate synonym for knowledge. Knowledge more properly refers to understanding based strictly upon evidence. And where there is sufficient evidence, there is no need for faith. Faith is a kind of knowing apart from, or only partially based upon, evidence.

Now let’s tackle a more nuanced question, and imagine ourselves in a small group of believers. Someone asks, “How can I resolve the fact that the Bible says our prayers will always be answered with my experience that makes that claim look false?”

The “question person” may have an answer, but it’s liable to be tentative, and she is likely not to express it right away. Rather, she will wait to see if someone else’s answer might offer new thoughts or angles on the question, or a new insight or awareness.

The answer person generally seeks closure by delivering a formula, such as: “God always answers prayer, but sometimes the answer is no. ” Or, “The answer may not come right away, but it will come eventually.” Or he may come to the dangerous conclusion that the person who prayed lacked faith or didn’t pray according to God’s will.

The question person is comfortable with mystery. The answer person is not. Essayists, I suppose, can be answer people. Poets or writers of fiction had better be question people, or else they’re not making art, they’re making product, which those of us who consider life on earth far too short don’t have time to bother reading.

 

 

Get Real

If Soren Kierkegaard wrote the truth, all we need do to overcome melancholy is get real. The catch is, getting real can be an arduous chore, which amounts to vanquishing despair.

Kierkegaard taught that we all are inflicted with despair, a disease far more dangerous than depression or melancholy. And he concluded that both the cause and the result of despair is the alienation of our selves from the infinite.

Each of us was created in human form to be an integrated self, aware of and relating in harmony with both the finite and the infinite.

The finite is necessity, the senses, and the mind as it deals with the superficial, both concrete and abstract. Mathematical equations or the most engaging philosophical or poetic inquiry can be no less finite than a cupcake.

The infinite is God, freedom, and beauty as the manifestation of love and truth.

The self is the result of a synthesis of the finite and the infinite that takes place within us, a conscious unity only accomplished in relationship to God. As long as the self rebuffs or ignores God, it is not itself. And the conscious or unconscious recognition of not being oneself is the substance of despair.

The recognition of our despair should lead us to seek the infinite and finally surrender to its pull and so experience our absolute dependence upon God. But timidity, defiance, or attachment to the familiar allows the finite to hold us captive.

Kierkegaard identifies three categories of despair. In this reflection I’ll introduce the despair of finitude, which “consists in ascribing infinite value to the trivial and temporal.” The person inflicted with this strain of despair considers the stuff of the finite world as supremely valuable. Preachers often call this form of despair idolatry.

The illusion that finite treasures, pleasures, and challenges give life meaning dissuades this person from believing in himself. He calculates that acting in his unique way, rather than in the same manner as the ones by whom he is surrounded, would risk the disapproval of the others. As a result, he might lose all the finite rewards social and public acceptance promise. So he either chooses not to risk being himself or declines to look deeply enough to realize the existence of a potential self beneath the surface.

In Kierkegaard’s vision, these people have “pawned themselves to the world.” They may amass wealth, succeed in careers, prudently calculate social, financial, or political advantages and even be honored by history. Yet they are at best copies of what they admire in others or find that others admire. They have no real self.

In “The Father”, a remarkable short story by Raymond Carver, a mother and daughters are gathered in the kitchen observing the family’s new baby. They offer opinions until one girl says, “He looks like Daddy.”

“But who does Daddy look like?” a sister asks.

The youngest sister answers, “Daddy doesn’t look like anybody.”

They all turn and stare at the father in horror.

I wonder, what more appropriate cause for despair, depression, or melancholy than the recognition, conscious or unconscious, that I am nobody? Literally nobody. The knowledge that I, as a unique being, do not exist.

 

 

Making room for the Infinite

Dallas Willard, in The Spirit of the Disciplines, advocates prayer, solitude and silence, meditation upon the life of Christ, sacrifice and service to others. He implies these disciplines will allow us to make room for what Soren Kierkegaard calls the infinite.

Every believer should read the book. But if Kierkegaard had read it, I imagine he would respond that prescriptions are dangerous, and we each need to discover and practice our unique manner and method.

In my case, prayer may not be the most effective means of accessing the infinite. I have a fitfully wandering mind. Even with a prescribed agenda like the Lord’s Prayer, I need to address one thought at a time because each thought sends me off on a tangent. “Our father–” Zoom, off I go into concerns about parenting.

Solitude and silence work for me.  During the time in my life (age fifteen, following the death of my father) when I most needed to feel the presence of the infinite, I spent nearly every day for a year at a golf course amongst oaks and willows alongside the stream. Usually I played alone. The golf course wasn’t Walden Pond or a hermitage in the desert, but it served.

Meditation upon the wisdom and life of Christ has become a vital part of my routine, and also where these reflections of mine usually begin.

Sacrifice and service to others, I suspect, follow naturally from love conceived in the manner Kierkegaard teaches: that we should obey Christ’s command to love (primarily in action) our neighbors (everyone) without distinction.

And I will add to Willard’s list a discipline I find both difficult and imperative, which is denying myself the right to judge.

Long ago, when I first turned to the Bible, a passage that most rang true was Luke 6:37: “Do not judge not and you will not be judged, do not condemn and you will not be condemned, forgive, and you will be forgiven.”

“Do not judge” felt especially relevant, and I have tried to obey as it applied to severe judgments (this guy is a lowdown, worthless jerk, etc.) Only lately, in response to Kierkegaard’s exacting application of Christ’s commands, have I begun to notice the extent to which I go around judging all day long. He isn’t successful since his car is junk, she doesn’t know how to match clothes, he probably eats too much, she has breast implants, he’s an athlete, she is exceedingly beautiful, as would her friend be if she gained about twenty pounds.

All these judgments of mine, according to Kierkegaard, have the effect of delivering judgment upon myself.

Say we are a curious person who wants to know about others, and instead of our critical judgments we look at people with the intention of seeing the goodness, the love in them. Instead of my eyes and thoughts lingering on the beautiful checker at Trader Joe’s, suppose I turn to the heavy-set older fellow she is checking, and attempt to view him with Jesus’ merciful and loving eye. If I succeed, won’t I get blessed with a deeper appreciation of beauty, more in accord with the infinite?

Kierkegaard has been accused of drawing from Eastern thought, perhaps because of his vision of God echoing our behavior with his behavior toward us. Without exception, Kierkegaard teaches, God’s attitude toward us literally reflects our attitude toward others.

No doubt this will offend many believers, as it seems almost mechanical, more like karma than like the ways of the anthropomorphic God they imagine.

Still, the notion of God’s behavior reflecting ours is an idea worth much consideration, as it may hold a key to the infinite.

Where Is Truth?

Soren Kierkegaard has been accused of forsaking reason in favor of searching for truth in the purely subjective. To that accusation, I say phooey.

His argument concerning the objective and the subjective and their value in the search for truth holds that logic, reason, and conclusions based upon sensory or scientific observation are only valid in the objective realm. Truth about our values, the meanings of our lives, the essential nature of reality, or our purpose for existing cannot be observed by using our physical senses, nor approached through reason except by commencing with a premise such as: what matters most is achieving the greatest good for the greatest number, or nothing exists outside what our senses can observe.

Without relying on such a premise, questions of value, meaning, purpose, or essential reality must be approached from outside the reach of the purely objective. To find answers, we must add another element to the equation.

In other words, Kierkegaard doesn’t deny the usefulness of the objective, but simply maintains that it can’t answer all of our concerns. Either we give up searching for answers outside the objective realm or we find another path.

Many, perhaps most, people choose to give up searching and instead choose to rely exclusively on someone else’s answers or to relegate any non-objective search to the category of nonsense.

Kierkegaard suggests, as an alternative to giving up or blindly following a leader, that we inquire of the subjective when we feel called to explore places in which the objective will only reach a dead-end. The subjective, contrary to popular belief, is not necessarily synonymous with wishful thinking or whim. In Kierkegaard’s  vision, the subjective involves a dedicated and relentlessly honest journey inward.  I’ll offer a few thoughts about this journey.

One way to begin is to cultivate solitude. Removing ourselves from other people and the distractions they bring can at least allow us time to discover what else we are and what our beings possess other than the superficial and obvious.

Kierkegaard proposes that “… anyone who stands alone for any length of time soon discovers that there is a God.” Though in this passage standing alone can refer to alienation from others, another of his central topics, it can also apply to solitude.

Anyone at liberty to practice solitude, or who sometimes longs for solitude, may appreciate reading Thomas Merton’s No Man Is An Island, which in one edition was subtitled “thoughts in solitude”.

But solitude is by no means the only route inward. Even while surrounded by people and engaged in activity, we can do our best to expel from our thoughts a lot of what normally occupies them. Many of us spend valuable time and effort needlessly passing judgment on people or things or situations. We not only judge ourselves but dedicate energy to making excuses for the thoughts or behaviors that led to those judgments. We listen to the opinions of others, or read books or articles, without absorbing or relating to any subtle insight or wisdom because we are occupied with creating arguments against or in favor of the speaker’s or author’s assertions or implications. All this activity, most of it fruitless, keeps our minds whirling, on the surface.

When I studied Tae Kwon Do, we began each session with a brief meditation. Master Jeong would guide us to: “Think about who you are. Not what you do or what you want. Who you are.”

Some of my deepest and most valuable excursions inward have come during long road trips. For an account of one such journey, and to experience how a journey inward can lead us to the kingdom of heaven, take a look at Reading Brother Lawrence.

Happy holiday preparations,

Ken Kuhlken

 

 

 

 

 

 

How to Love Whom?

One of the benefits of reading Soren Kierkegaard is, he compels us to learn to read differently. He won’t allow us to skim, or to overlook the depth of loaded words.

So, the command, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” becomes a study of the words shall, love, neighbor, and of the phrase as yourself.

Consider as yourself, a critical phrase in my attempt to apply the wisdom of Kierkegaard. Especially when wrestling with his assessment of the obedience God requires, I need to remember that when God commands me to love even my ornery neighbor, he commands me to love myself as well.

Still I wonder, what does it mean to love myself? We who believe God is love can give a ready answer: we should love ourselves (and others) in the manner that God loves us. Then we who believe God loves us ought to ask, in what way does he love us?

He certainly doesn’t gush or fawn, or let us forever get away with our pranks. The tough love theory–don’t let your feelings stand in the way of applying or allowing consequences for harmful or dangerous actions–might provide a reasonably sound description. Except miserable consequences often appear to arrive in spite of our best efforts at obedience.

We are advised that God treats us with such deep concern for our welfare that his every response to our pleas and needs is meant to draw us closer to an eternal realm where the fullness of joy awaits us. Unless we fully accept that premise on faith, during hard times we may feel rebellious and abused, certainly unloved. And we may descend into self-condemnation, which is surely not the route to healing melancholy.

I’ll submit that those of us who often or occasionally battle melancholy ought to consider applying all the faith we can muster to the notion that everything that befalls us, God allows for a beneficial reason. And we should also attempt to better understand the way God’s love works. Because such understanding is a key to our ability to love ourselves and others.

According to my current understanding, the tough love equation factors into God’s love. But, as Kierkegaard points out, so does Jesus’ answer to Peter, that we should forgive our brother seventy times seven times.

While reading Works of Love, in the chapter entitled, “Love Believes All Things”, I saw that to forgive seventy times seven times means forgiveness could become a useless concept. Because if we do love well, we will decline to judge or take offense, and so will have nothing to forgive.

That chapter is a treasure.

Ken Kuhlken’s award winning novel Midheaven recently came out as an ebook.

Coach Kierkegaard

Kierkegaard cautioned believers to stay as far as possible from the Danish clergy, whose religion was “just about as genuine as tea made from a bit of paper which once lay in a drawer beside another bit of paper which had once been used to wrap up a few dried tea leaves from which tea had already been made three times.”

The man didn’t mince words. It might be fair to say that an aspect of his genius was the ability to rant and reason at the same time. Even if I didn’t sense truth in his convictions, I might read his work just to get a rise from his rabid enthusiasm. His words are so charged with emotion that I, a rather careful fellow, get awestruck by his wild indulgence, especially in analogy and metaphor.

Not only does the passion endear him to me, it gives me perspective, so that when he informs us that God requires our perfect obedience, I don’t feel condemned for falling way short but rather feel cheered on, as if a crew of girls in tutus are leaping up and down on the sidelines and a coach is screaming for us to give 110 percent.

A golfing buddy told me that Anika Sorenstam, one of the game’s legends, recommends that golfers approach each game with the intention of shooting 54. For those who don’t play, that means one under par for each hole on a standard course. On a par four hole, it means one drive, one shot onto the green, and one putt.

I don’t know that Anika, or anybody, has ever accomplished this essentially perfect score. But the idea of setting the goal has merit, much like Kierkegaard reporting that God requires us to live, act, and think according to Jesus’ prescriptions and commands.

The author of Zen Golf suggests a strikingly different goal. He reasons that if we are, say, bogey golfers (one over par per hole, on average), we should set our sights on bogeys, in order to relieve the pressure that causes tension and so restricts the freedom of our swing.

I find both suggestions valid, but for golfers with different intentions. Those who would be touring pros, and so are willing to devote their best efforts most every day of their lives, can wisely and legitimately go for birdies. The rest of us are more likely to suffer than to benefit from such a lofty goal.

Kierkegaard maintains that devoting ourselves to seeking God’s will, and obeying what we are given or discern, is the route to fullness of joy. So he cheers us on to that end, while warning that running the race will require our full dedication.

I don’t sense him condemning us bogey Christians, unless we happen, like the Danish clergy, to be leading others along our mediocre way. Rather, he appears to anguish over our failure to seek and win the highest joy. Like a parent who lies awake fretting over his prodigal children.

Ken Kuhlken writes historical crime novels and teaches online at Perelandra College.

Either/Or

In 1843, while contending with the melancholy that was a motive for the urgency and intensity of his work, Sören Kierkegaard wrote this journal entry:

“The most important thing of all is that a man stands right toward God, does not try to wrench away from something, but rather penetrates it until it yields its explanation. Whether or not it turns out as he wishes; it is still the best of all.”

One of the heaviest challenges of my life was a years-long bout with panic attacks, in the heat of which, family problems deposed what balance I had and left me alternating between panic and severe depression.

My friend Charlie Morgan, then a graduate Psychology student, recommended The Road Less Traveled, by M. Scott Peck.  In that book I discovered an insight that started my healing and which I still try to live by.

Before, I believed that by defining life and events according to my preference I was avoiding pain. I agreed with the 1960s bumper sticker, “Reality is a Crutch.” From the wisdom of Scott Peck, I recognized that dedication to facing or seeking the truth, about large matters and small, sets me free from the pain, emotional and often physical, that are symptoms of living with illusions.  The truth guides us out of the night woods and into the morning meadow. And/or it loosens the stranglehold of a conscience whose job is to turn us away from the selfish and destructive and toward the Good.

Kierkegaard maintains that peace of mind requires purity of heart. To achieve purity of heart requires that we only seek one thing, the Good. And, he assures us, we can’t begin to know or approach the Good except by undertaking a penetrating search for the truth. And as a prerequisite for penetrating the truth, we need to accept one of two premises. Either:
• Christ is God
• or God isn’t anything.
Anyone who cares to argue or question the proposition that those are the only two valid choices should consider tackling Kierkegaard’s Either/Or.