Face to Face with the Sham

“After all, some of the basic themes of the existentialism of Heidegger, laying stress as they do on the ineluctable fact of death, on man’s need for authenticity, and on a kind of spiritual liberation, can remind us that the climate in which monastic prayer flourished is not altogether absent from our modern world.  Quite the contrary: this is an age that, by its very nature as a time of crisis, of revolution, of struggle, calls for the special searching and questioning which are the work of the monk in his meditation and prayer. For the monk searches not only his own heart: he plunges deep into the heart of that world of which he remains a part although he seems to have ‘left’ it.  In reality the monk abandons the world only in order to listen more intently to the deepest and most neglected voices that proceed from its inner depth.

This is why the term ‘contemplation’ is both insufficient and ambiguous when it is applied to the highest forms of Christian prayer.  Nothing is more foreign to authentic monastic and ‘contemplative’ (e.g. Carmelite) tradition in the Church than a kind of Gnosticism which would elevate the contemplative above the ordinary struggles and sufferings of human existence, and elevate him to a privileged state among the spiritually pure, as if he were almost an angel, untouched by matter and passion, and no longer familiar with the economy of sacraments, charity and the Cross.  The way of monastic prayer is not a subtle escape from the Christian economy of incarnation and redemption. It is a special way of following Christ, of sharing in his passion and resurrection and in his redemption of the world. For that very reason the dimensions of prayer in solitude are those of man’s ordinary anguish, his self-searching, his moments of nausea at his own vanity, falsity and capacity for betrayal. Far from establishing one in unassailable narcissistic security, the way of prayer brings us face to face with the sham and indignity of the false self that seeks to live for itself alone and to enjoy the ‘consolation of prayer’ for its own sake.  This ‘self’ is pure illusion, and ultimately he who lives for and by such an illusion must end either in disgust or madness.

On the other hand, we must admit that social life, so-called ‘worldly life,’ in its own way promotes this illusory and narcissistic existence to the very limit.  The curious state of alienation and confusion of man in modern society is perhaps more ‘bearable’ because it is lived in common, with a multitude of distractions and escapes – and also with opportunities for fruitful action and genuine Christian self-forgetfulness.  But underlying all life is the ground of doubt and self-questioning which sooner or later must bring us face to face with the ultimate meaning of our life. This self-questioning can never be without a certain existential ‘dread’ – a sense of insecurity, of ‘lostness,’ of exile, of sin.  A sense that one has somehow been untrue not so much to abstract moral or social norms but to one’s own inmost truth.”

Thomas Merton: Contemplative Prayer Series

Recently I’ve been re-reading some Thomas Merton.  I have never read his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, but know him only through some of his shorter works – New Seeds of Contemplation, The Inner Experience, Zen and the Birds of Appetite, and Contemplative Prayer.  Merton is an author who I feel differently about depending on which of his works I’m reading. At times, he seems overly harsh (for instance in some portions of The Inner Experience), and this may stem from the fact that he often writes to other monastics.  A true monastic life is one that I will likely never experience and some of the advice given by Christian monastics don’t seem to fit readers who are “in the world.” I feel the same way when I read St. John of the Cross and he advises his readers to “reject attachment to all creatures.”  Nevertheless, there is hardly a more well-known Christian contemplative in modern times than Merton and overall I find him extremely edifying. He is also clearly well-versed in modern biblical scholarship, seemingly falling much more on the liberal end of things, and is open to other religious traditions which I also resonate with.

In this series, I’d like to post some excerpts from Merton’s Contemplative Prayer.  In it, he documents a variety of his opinions on the spiritual life, writing mainly to other monks.  The reader gets to overhear this advice and decide how it may or may not apply to the life of the novice.

In this first excerpt, Merton introduces the work and writes about the earliest form of Christian monasticism, that of the “Desert Fathers.”

“The monk is a Christian who has responded to a special call from God, and has withdrawn from the more active concerns of a worldly life, in order to devote himself completely to repentance, ‘conversion,’ metanoia, renunciation and prayer.  In positive terms, we must understand the monastic life above all as a life of prayer.  The negative elements, solitude, fasting, obedience, penance, renunciation of property and ambition, are all intended to clear the way so that prayer, meditation and contemplation may fill the space created by the abandonment of other concerns.

What is written about prayer in these pages is written primarily for monks.  However, just as a book about psychoanalysis by an analyst and primarily for analysts may also (if not too technical) appeal to a layman interested in these matters, so a practical non-academic study of monastic prayer should be of interest to all Christians, since every Christian is bound to be in some sense a man of prayer.  Though few have either the desire for solitude or the vocation to monastic life, all Christians ought, theoretically at least, to have enough interest in prayer to be able to read and make use of what is here said for monks, adapting to the circumstances of their own vocation. Certainly, in the pressures of modern urban life, many will face the need for a certain interior silence and discipline simply to keep themselves together, to maintain their human and Christian identity and their spiritual freedom.  To promote this they may often look for moments of retreat and prayer in which to deepen their meditative life. These pages discuss prayer in its very nature, rather than special restricted techniques. What is said here is therefore applicable to the prayer of any Christian, though perhaps with a little less emphasis on the intensity of certain trials which are proper to life in solitude.

Monastic prayer is, first of all, essentially simple.  In primitive monasticism prayer was not necessarily liturgical, though liturgy soon came to be regarded as a specialty of monks and canons.  Actually, the first monks in Egypt and Syria had only the most rudimentary liturgy, and their personal prayer was direct and uncomplicated. For example, we read in the sayings of the Desert Fathers that a monk asked St. Marcarius how to pray.  The latter replied: ‘It is not necessary to use many words. Only stretch out your arms and say: Lord, have pity on me as you desire and as you well know how! And if the enemy presses you hard, say: Lord, come to my aid!’ In John Cassian’s Conferences on Prayer we see great stress laid by the early monks on simple prayer made up of short phrases drawn from the Psalms or other parts of Scripture.  One of the most frequently used was Deus in adjutorium meum intende, ‘O God, come to my aid!’

At first sight one might wonder what such simple prayers would have to do with a life of ‘contemplation.’  The Desert Fathers did not imagine themselves, in the first place, to be mystics, though in fact they often were.  They were careful not to go looking for extraordinary experiences, and contented themselves with the struggle for ‘purity of heart’ and for control of their thoughts, to keep their minds and hearts empty of care and concern, so that they might altogether forget themselves and apply themselves entirely to the love and service of God.”

Progressive Christians and Loneliness

From time to time I'll shout out to great blogs out there.  I regularly read Richard Beck who blogs at Experimental Theology.  He recently did a series on post-Evangelicals and the lack of a "tribe" which I really resonated with.  I am post-Evangelical and miss a lot about the communities I grew up in.  I also now feel adrift – a lone wolf without much of a home.

One option for dealing with this that comes to mind is community based purely on spiritual experience, such as Quakerism.  As I've mentioned before, if I land anywhere as far as an official religious structure, it'll probably be there.

This is my favorite post from that series.

I also occasionally read Peter Enns, and resonate with his similar thoughts here.  

A Right State


"I was asked, 'Some people shun all company and always want to be alone; their peace depends on it, and on being in church. Was that the best thing?' And I said, 'No!' Now I see why. He who is in a right state, is always in a right state wherever he is, and with everybody. But if a man is in a wrong state, he is so everywhere and with anybody."

– Meister Eckhart, Quoted in Dangerous Mystic

The "right state," according to Eckhart, is a state of detachment from our own self-will.  

"In true obedience there should be no trace of 'I want so-and-so,' or 'this and that,' but a going out of your own."

If a man is in the right state, he is at peace in any situation, at any place, with anyone.  If he is in the wrong state, it doesn't matter where he is or who he is with.  Internal state trumps external circumstances.  

Dangerous Mystic


I just got through reading this biography of Meister Eckhart.  Very good.

The popular image of Eckhart is that of a pure mystic, probably out in an isolated cottage somewhere, absorbed in the presence of God, maybe occasionally counseling a wandering seeker. 

Eckhart was a professor at the University of Paris.  He held several official positions in the Dominican order of the Catholic Church.  He was extremely well educated in scholastic theology and philosophy.  But, like Aquinas, Eckhart eventually became disillusioned with academic theology and its ability to lead a soul to God.   Rather, he turned to experience, teaching that each individual could find God by turning within in silence.

Also his first name wasn't Meister, but rather just Eckhart.  Meister is a title meaning "master" or "teacher."  I did not know that.

Great, engaging read.  

David Frenette on The Path of Centering Prayer

This is David Frenette, a disciple of Thomas Keating, talking about his experience of Centering Prayer on the Buddhist Geeks podcast (sadly discontinued).

Frenette, along with Bourgeault, is what you might call a "second generation" Centering Prayer teacher as he has studied under Keating.  Frenette has also published a book on the topic, called The Path of Centering Prayer.  

As seen with Frenette, there continues to be a link between Zen Buddhist practice and Centering Prayer.  Several people I have interacted with through this site share that same link. 


Cynthia Bourgeault on The Heart of Centering Prayer

Alright, following the St. John series, I'd like to post two talks about Centering Prayer, one from Cynthia Bourgeault and one from David Frenette.  In The Dark Night, St. John talks about a stage of spiritual development in which the soul must be exclusively passive.   He calls this moving from meditation (i.e. the use of discursive excercises including images, words, and "form") to contempletion, or "infused contemplation."  Thomas Keating sometimes talks about Centering Prayer as a way to prepare oneself for the gift of contemplation.  This is one way to understand Centering Prayer, but, as seen below, different authors have different ways of understading the practice.  

This is Cynthia Bourgeault giving a series of talks about "The Heart of Centering Prayer" (the title of her latest book) at Boston College School of Theology.  In Part 1, she tells the story of the beginning of the Centering Prayer movement (0:30), talks about her own experience of the prayer (9:30), and explains her primary paradigm – what she calls "developing non-dual consciousness" – for understanding what is happening during Centering Prayer (18:00).  Bourgeault is the first author to interpret Centering Prayer through this lens.  These are new ideas, and she adds a new set of vocabulary, to the movement. 

In Part 2, Cynthia discusses The Cloud of Unknowing, and its relation to Centering Prayer, in detail. 

Part 3 consists of discussions of apophatic vs. cataphatic practice (2:30), and the active vs. contemplative life (23:00) as seen in The Cloud of Unknowing. 

In Part 4, Cynthia talks briefly about the Divine Therapy and then does a Q & A.  


When I first read Cynthia Bourgeault's new book, The Heart of Centering Prayer, I thought she was distancing herself from the Christian tradition.  The way in which she speaks of Centering Prayer as a means of forming non-dual consciousness seemed to me to relativize the role of God, however you want to describe that term.  It seemed to me that, by emphasizing simply the practice of releasing thoughts, and how this discipline can affect our "operating system," she was turning Centering Prayer into an almost secular practice.  

After watching these lectures I think otherwise.  There are still pieces of her book that give me pause.  For instance, in the following quote she talks about "God being the sideshow":

"I was several years into the practice of Centering Prayer before I came to appreciate the cumulative effect of this patterning.  Like most beginners, I thought that the aim in Centering Prayer was to let go of my thoughts so that God could 'fill' me with his presence.  One day I suddenly realized that the God story was the sideshow and the letting go was the main event.  That was when the practice flipped for me, as I recognized that thoughts were not the obstacle; they were the raw material, as every opportunity to practice releasing that focal point for attention deepened the reservoir of 'free attention' within me and strengthened the signal of the homing beacon of my heart."

– Cynthia Bourgeault, The Heart of Centering Prayer

These statements seem to me to edge the practice away from being "God-centered."  And I do think that her book tends towards the esoteric.  But the way she carefully describes objectless awareness (a meditative state associated with Centering Prayer) as a place where "Divine awareness and our own awareness co-mingle as one diffuse field of inter-abiding" (Part 1 41:40) makes me think that she is still faithful to The Cloud of Unknowing and rooted in the Christian contemplative tradition.  

Overall, I think Bourgeault is brilliant, but re-framing the practice in terms of non-dual consciousness seems obscure and confusing.  Take, for instance, how she defines the term in her book:

"Imagine that there might be a different way of structuring the field of perception, an alternative way of wiring the brain that did not depend on that initial bifurcation of the perceptual field into inside and outside, subject and object.  Instead, one would grasp the entire pattern as a whole – holographically – through a perceptual modality quantitatively more immediate and sensate, working on vibrational resonance rather than mental abstraction.  Then one would indeed experience that signature sense of oneness – not, however, because one had broken into a whole new realm of spiritual experience, but because that tedious, 'translator' mechanism of the self-reflective brain has finally been superseded.  You see oneness because you see from oneness."

I feel like she is essentially describing what a Buddhist would call the experience of "no-self" which can be achieved through vipassana meditation.  On top of this, I feel like this is a slightly different state than what she elsewhere describes as "attention of the heart":

"Perhaps the subtlest fruit of the practice is a gradually deepening capacity to abide in the state of 'attention of the heart,' as it's known in the Christianity of the East.  You might describe this as a stable state of mindfulness or 'witnessing presence,' but emanating from the heart, not the head, and thus free of intrusion from that heavy-handed mental 'inner observer' who seems to separate us from the immediacy of our lives.  The essence of this kind of attentiveness is perhaps best summed up in those words from the Song of Songs: 'I sleep, but my heart is awake.'  Once you get the hang of it, attention of the heart allows you to be fully present to God, but at the same time fully present to the situation at hand, giving and taking from the spontaneity of your own authentic, surrendered presence."

This, it seems to me, is equivalent not to "no-self" but to what a Zen Buddhist would call "Neither man nor circumstances are deprived."

Oh boy, this is quite confusing. 

This is why I prefer to simply think of Centering Prayer as opening yourself completely to the presence and action of God.  Transformation will happen in that process, and the way, or categories through which, you see that transformation may change over time.

When we start talking about how consciousness is changed when off the mat, maybe we can just let what happens happen.  


The Dark Night: Book 2 The Passive Night of the Spirit


So far, in St. John's progression, the soul has actively tried to mortify its attachments to the things of the world and also the pleasures that come from various spiritual exercises.  It has also allowed itself to be passively purged of its attachments to these spiritual delights in the Passive Night of the Senses.  

Through the aridity of Passive Night of the Senses, God has led the soul away from and beyond discursive meditation (i.e. the use of words, concepts, images, or any "content" in prayer), towards what St. John will call contemplation.  

"At the time of the aridities of this sensory night, God makes the exchange we mentioned by withdrawing the soul from the life of the senses and placing it in that of the spirit – that is, he brings it from meditation to contemplation – where the soul no longer has the power to work or meditate with its faculties on the things of God."

Now, absorbed in the work of contemplation, the soul is completely passive, and can do nothing but be acted upon by God:

"When this house of the senses was stilled (that is, mortified), its passions quenched, and its appetites calmed and put to sleep through this happy night of the purgation of the senses, the soul went out in order to begin its journey along the road of the spirit, which is that of proficients and which by another terminology is referred to as the illuminative way of infused contemplation.  On this road God himself pastures and refreshes the soul without any of its own discursive meditation or active help."

Passing through the Passive Night of the Senses and entering into the contemplative work is a great joy and the soul is again at peace in God, although this time no longer attached to specific discursive exercises.  The soul is content to rest in loving awareness of God:

"The soul readily finds in its spirit, without the work of meditation, a very serene, loving contemplation and spiritual delight."

This state, according to St. John, may last for years and this is, in fact, where the journey ends for some, maybe even most, contemplatives.  But for others there is one final purgation to undergo – the Passive Night of the Spirit.  

This is the deepest, longest, and darkest night.  Just when the soul feels that it has abandoned all that is not God for God's sake, it then, in this night, feels rejected by the very God it has given all for.  St. John describes this Night in several ways.

"Since the divine extreme strikes in order to renew the soul and divinize it, it so disentangles and dissolved the spiritual substance – absorbing it in a profound darkness – that the soul at the sight of its miseries feels that it is melting away and being undone by a cruel spiritual death.  It feels as if it were swallowed by a beast and being digested in the dark belly, and it suffers and anguish comparable to Jonah's in the belly of the whale."
"But what the sorrowing soul feels most is the conviction that God has rejected it, and with abhorrence cast it into darkness."
"The afflictions and straights of the will are also immense.  Sometimes these afflictions pierce the soul when it suddenly remembers the evils in which it sees itself immersed, and it becomes uncertain of any remedy.  To this pain is added the remembrance of past prosperity, because usually persons who enter this night have previously had many consolations in God and rendered him many services.  They are now sorrowful in knowing that they are far from such good and can no longer enjoy it."
"They resemble one who is imprisoned in a dark dungeon, bound hands and feet, and able neither to move nor see nor feel any favor from heaven or earth."

Bellies of whales, dungeons, spiritual death, anguish, abhorrence, darkness.  Not a happy place.

But at the end of this long and dark night lies the unitive state, one in which the soul proclaims:

"I abandoned and forgot myself,
laying my face on my Beloved;
all things ceased;
I went out from myself,
leaving my cares forgotten among the lilies."

The blessedness of final Union allows the soul to look back on the various Nights and say, with St. John, "Ah, the sheer grace!"

The Dark Night ends abruptly and unexpectedly, as we may come to expect with St. John.

Final Thoughts on St. John of the Cross

This will end the series on St. John of the Cross' Ascent of Mount Carmel and The Dark Night.  One major takeaway for me after reading St. John is the tentative nature of any structured, sequential spiritual path.  Not only does St. John not stick to one scheme to describe the spiritual journey, he himself believes that some experience these stages in different ways than others.  He also sometimes speaks of the stages being simultaneous or overlapping.  Everyone's experience is going to be unique.  It is insightful to read about the paths of others, for instance the one St. John presents in these works, but to make any one sequence normative is probably a mistake.  

Another, related, takeaway is the continued understanding from the Christian contemplative tradition that the path is winding.  There are times of aridity, of doubt, of pain, of the feeling of absence, and these are normal, even necessary for progression.  Meditation teachers from any tradition that don't speak about this reality set practitioners up for disappointment.  I continue to believe that this is a relative strength of the Christian tradition as compared to others which speak only of peak experiences or a road that leads straight to the top without major trials along the way.  

St. John is one of the harshest of the Catholic mystics.  He insists on nothing less than complete mortification and non-attachment.  An interesting contrast would be reading him next to The Cloud of Unknowing, whose author is gentler and, perhaps, more suited to modern, non-monastic audiences.  

As an additional resource about the life of St. John, here is a introductory lecture from the Boston College School of Theology:

The Dark Night: Aside – God as a Transforming Fire


"For the sake of further clarity in this matter, we ought to note that this purgative and loving knowledge, or divine light we are speaking of, has the same effect on a soul that fire has on a log of wood.  The soul is purged and prepared for union with the divine light just as the wood is prepared for transformation into the fire.  Fire, when applied to wood, first dehumidifies it, dispelling all moisture and making it give off any water it contains.  Then it gradually turns the wood black, makes it dark and ugly, and even causes it to emit a bad odor  By drying out the wood, the fire brings to light and expels all those ugly and dark accidents that are contrary to fire.  Finally, by heating and enkindling it from without, the fire transforms the wood into itself and makes it beautiful as it is itself."

The Dark Night, Book 2, Chapter 10


The Dark Night: Book One The Passive Night of the Senses


It is an understatement to say that St. John is a frustrating writer to follow.  Not only does he outline his own work in several distinct and competing ways, he also often fails to follow through with his own writing plan!  On top of that, the images and vocabulary he uses are often interpreted in different ways even within the same work.  

I do believe there is a lot of value in St. John, but trying to read him in a systematic fashion is extremely difficult.  It is almost better to read small selections and take what you can from them.  The outline I gave in The Ascent of Mount Carmel Book 1 seems to me the most natural, but it is not the only possible outline of his thought.  If you really want to dig into St. John, be warned.  

Alright, that digression aside, The Dark Night is a natural sequel to The Ascent of Mount Caramel as it continues the train of thought from that work.  But it is not certain that St. John meant for them to be joined.  That said, they are very difficult to interpret apart from one another.  

Book 1 of The Dark Night concerns the Passive Night of the Senses, which John promised to address in The Ascent.  While in The Ascent, St. John talks about "the senses" as the pleasure we get from things in the world, in The Dark Night, "the senses" are spoken of as the pleasures we get from discursive spiritual exercises.  

The Passive Night of the Senses, then, is when God removes the consolations one gets through discursive spiritual exercises in order to bring the soul closer to the unitive state.  

Perhaps St. John's most straightforward description of the Passive Night of the Senses comes in Book 1, Chapter 8:

"Since the conduct of these beginners in the way of God is lowly and not too distant from love of pleasure and of self, as we explained, God desires to withdraw them from this base manner of loving and lead them on to a higher degree of divine live.  And he desires to liberate them from the lowly exercise of the senses and of discursive meditation, by which they go in search of him so inadequately and with so many difficulties, and lead them into the exercise of spirit, in which they become capable of a communion with God that is more abundant and more free of imperfections.  God does this after beginners have exercised themselves for a time in the way of virtue and have persevered in meditation and prayer. For it is through the delight and satisfaction they experience in prayer that they have become detached from worldly things and have gained some spiritual strength in God.  This strength has helped them somewhat to restrain their appetites for creatures, and through it they will be able to suffer a little oppression and dryness without turning back.  Consequently, it is at the time they are going about their spiritual exercises with delight and satisfaction, when in their opinion the sun of divine favor is shining most brightly on them, that God darkens all this light and closes the door and the spring of sweet spiritual water they were tasting as often and as long as they desired...

God now leaves them is such darkness that they do not know which way to turn in their discursive imaginings.  They cannot advance a step in meditation, as they used to, now that the interior sense faculties are engulfed in this night.  He leaves them in such dryness that they not only fail to receive satisfaction and pleasure from their spiritual exercises and works, as they formerly did, but also find these exercises distasteful and bitter.  As I said, when God sees that they have grown a little, he weans them from the sweet breast so that they might be strengthened, lays aside their swaddling bands, and puts them down from his arms that they may grow accustomed to walking by themselves."

As we can see, on St. John's path, spiritual consolations (i.e. feelings of inner peace and joy in God, etc.) are necessary for beginners.  They are of great benefit to help the novice remain on the spiritual path.  But eventually, as with the things of the world, attachments to these feelings must also be rejected.  And the soul is not strong enough to do this on its own.  Ultimately, the soul must be passive, and allow God to do this work. 

"...until a soul is placed by God in the passive purgation of that dark cannot purify itself completely of these imperfections or others.  But people should insofar as possible strive to do their part in purifying and perfecting themselves and thereby merit God's divine cure.  In this cure God will heal them of what through their own efforts they were unable to remedy.  No matter how much individuals do through their own efforts, they cannot purify themselves enough to be disposed in the least degree for the divine union of the perfection of love.  God must take over and purge them in that fire that is dark for them..."

And yet the Passive Night of the Senses is not the end of the journey, nor the last struggle that the soul will encounter.  The final, most intense, night is still to come. 


The Ascent of Mount Carmel: Aside – St. John's Description of Union with God

In Book 2, Chapter 5 of The Ascent, St. John describes both the nature of union with God, and his overarching method for achieving it – depriving oneself of all that is not God.   

"To understand the nature of this union, one should first know that God sustains every soul and dwells in it substantially, even though it may be that of the greatest sinner in the world.  This union between God and creatures always exists.  By it he conserves their being so that if the union should end they would immediately be annihilated and cease to exist.  Consequently, in discussing union with God we are not discussing the substantial union that always exists, but the soul's union with and transformation in God that does not always exist, except where there is likeness of love.  We call it the union of likeness; and the former, the essential or substantial union.  The union of likeness is supernatural; the other, natural.  The supernatural union exists when God's will and the soul's are in conformity, so that nothing in the one is repugnant to the other.  When the soul rids itself completely of what is repugnant and unconformed to the divine will, it rests transformed in God through love... a soul must strip itself of everything pertaining to creatures and of its actions and abilities (of its understanding, satisfaction, and feeling), so that when everything unlike and unconformed to God is cast out, it may receive the likeness of God.  And the soul will receive this likeness because nothing contrary to the will of God will be left in it.  Thus it will be transformed in God."

Especially in this second quotation, St. John describes what in the Eastern Orthodox tradition would be called theois, or divinization – the soul becoming like (or even becoming) God.  

"A soul makes room for God by wiping away all the smudges and smears of creatures, by uniting its will perfectly to God's; for to love is to labor to divest and deprive oneself for God of all that is not God.  When this is done the soul will be illumined by and transformed in God.  And God will so communicate his supernatural being to the soul that it will appear to be God himself and will posses what God himself possesses.  When God grants this supernatural favor to the soul, so great a union is caused that all the things of both God and the soul become one in participant transformation and the soul appears to be God more than a soul.  Indeed it is God by participation."


The Ascent of Mount Carmel: Books Two and Three The Active Night of the Spirit


In Books 2 and 3 of The Ascent of Mount Carmel St. John discuses the Active Night of the Spirit.

At this point (although the path isn't exclusively portrayed as a straightforward, step-by-step progression, but sometimes as an ongoing journey with each element intertwined), the soul has already mortified its attachments to the things of the world.  Now it is time, in the Active Night of the Spirit, to purposefully mortify the attachments of the spirit.

This night, according to St. John, is darker and more painful than what has come before:

"The first night pertains to the lower, sensory part of human nature and is consequently more external.  As a result the second night is darker.  The second, darker night of faith belongs to the rational, superior part; it is darker and more interior because it deprives this part of its rational light, or better, blinds it.  Accordingly, it is indeed comparable to midnight, the innermost and darkest period of night."

Just as the soul becomes attached to the exterior pleasures it gets from the things of the world, it also becomes attached to the interior pleasures it gets from its relationship with God.  According to St. John, these must also be rejected because the soul is still not seeking God in purity, but only the consolations it gets from spiritual exercises. To overcome these attachments, the soul must again perform a strict self-denial. 

"...all that is required for complete pacification of the spiritual house is the negation through pure faith of all the spiritual faculties and gratifications and appetites.  This achieved, the soul will be joined with the Beloved in a union of simplicity and purity and likeness." 

For those who disagree, and believe they can reach their goal without denying themselves in the spiritual realm, St. John offers the following assessment:

"For they still feed and clothe their natural selves with spiritual feelings and consolations instead of divesting and denying themselves of these for God's sake.  They think denial of self in worldly matters is sufficient without annihilation and purification in the spiritual domain.  It happens that, when some of this solid, perfect food (the annihilation of all sweetness in God – the pure spiritual cross and nakedness of Christ's poverty of spirit) is offered them in dryness, distaste, and trial, they run from it as from death and wander about in search only of sweetness and delightful communications from God.  Such an attitude is not the hallmark of self-denial and nakedness of spirit but the indication of a spiritual sweet tooth."

Throughout Books 2 and 3, St. John discusses how the soul must mortify three distinct faculties – its intellect, memory, and will.  The things the soul must reject, or at least be indifferent to, include: visions, locutions ("messages"), revelations, spiritual feelings, storing objects in the memory(!), and the experience of joys that come from temporal goods, natural goods (beauty, intelligence, etc.), sensory goods, (some of these overlap with what he has discussed as the goods of "the senses"), moral goods, supernatural goods, and spiritual goods.

Of all these, St. John counsels:

"...they should be the object of neither our aims nor our desires."


"...nothing but what belongs to the service of God should be the object of our joy."


As with the externals of the world, it is not that spiritual consolations are bad (in fact, he believes they are needed for beginners on the path), or even that they aren't from God (although St. John is unsure if they always are), but that the soul's attachment to them ultimately becomes an obstacle to pure Union with God.

As throughout much of his work, St. John seems overly harsh, especially to non-monastic ears.  In his mind, without the most strict self-denial, the soul's journey to God will be forever stunted.  His overarching method remains:

" divest and deprive oneself for God of all that is not God.  When this is done the soul will be illumined by and transformed by God."

The Ascent of Mount Carmel is unfinished, but seems to be picked up in The Dark Night.  St. John has described the active nights (active referring to the fact the the soul is actively doing the work of mortification), and will describe the passive nights – in which the soul can do nothing but allow itself to be passively acted upon by God – in The Dark Night



The Ascent of Mount Carmel: Book One The Active Night of the Senses


According to St. John, to truly advance toward union with God the soul must pass through several "dark nights."  He often speaks of the whole spiritual journey, the path from ordinary selfhood to union with God, as one long dark night.  And yet there are nights within that Night. 

Although he seems to flip back and forth between several different outlines/progressions, in general terms, St. John's schema involves the progression through the Active Night of the Senses, the Active Night of the Spirit, the Passive Night of the Senses, and the Passive Night of the Spirit.  A broad outline of The Ascent of Mount Carmel and The Dark Nights is as follows:

Ascent Book 1: The Active Night of the Senses
Ascent Books 2 and 3: The Active Night of the Spirit
Dark Night Book 1: The Passive Night of the Senses
Dark Night Book 2: The Passive Night of the Spirit

Book One of The Ascent concerns the first night – the Active Night of the Senses.

In the Active Night of the Senses, the soul must purposefully deny itself of all attachments to the "things of the world" or its "appetites."  Whether it is a desire for sensory pleasure, or attachment to a certain person, object, conception of ourselves, or way of living, the things we normally look to for satisfaction in the world must be denied.  This mortification must take place not because the things themselves are bad, but because our attachment to them, according to St. John, hinders our journey toward union with God.  

"Hence, we call this nakedness a night for the soul, for we are not discussing the mere lack of things; this lack will not divest the soul if it craves for all these objects.  We are dealing with the denudation of the soul's appetites and gratifications.  This is what leaves it free and empty of all things, even though it possesses them.  Since the things of the world cannot enter the soul, they are not in themselves an encumbrance or harm to it; rather, it is the will and appetite dwelling within that cause the damage when set on these things."

For St. John, this absolute denial of all our appetites is a prerequisite to union with God.  There is no way around it.

"...for in God, or in the state of perfection, all appetites cease.  The road and ascent to God, then, necessarily demands a habitual effort to renounce and mortify the appetites; the sooner this mortification is achieved, the sooner the soul reaches the top.  But until the appetites are eliminated, one will not arrive no matter how much virtue is practiced.


"The attainment of our goal demands that we never stop on this road, which means we must continually get rid of our wants rather than indulging them.  For if we do not get rid of them all completely, we will not wholly reach our goal."

Reminiscent of the teachings of Buddhism, desire/attachment/craving for things is ultimately seen as counterproductive, for the things we crave don't ultimately satisfy.  

" is plain that the appetites are wearisome and tiring.  They resemble little children, restless and hard to please, always whining to their mother for this thing or that, and never satisfied.  Just as anyone who digs covetously for a treasure grows tired and exhausted, so does anyone who strives to satisfy the appetites' demands become wearied and fatigued.  And even if a soul does finally fill them, it is always weary because it is never satisfied.  For, after all, one digs leaking cisterns that cannot contain the water that slakes thirst."

To enter into this Active Night of the Senses and conquer the appetites, St. John gives several counsels including:

"1. Have the habitual desire to imitate Christ in all your deeds by brining your life into conformity with his. 

2. In order to be successful in this imitation, renounce and remain empty of any sensory satisfaction that is not purely for the honor and glory of God."


"3. Endeavor to be inclined always:
not to the easiest, but the most difficult;
not to the most delightful, but to the most distasteful;
not to the most gratifying, but to the less pleasant;
not to what means rest to you, but to hard work;
not to the consoling, but to the unconsoling;
not to the most, but to the least;
not to the highest and most precious, but to the lowest and most despised;
not to wanting something, but to wanting nothing."

Finally, to end Book One, St. John returns to his poem and concludes that it ultimately takes a love of God, a stronger love than our love for our attachments in the world, in order to carry us through this first night.

"The soul, then, states that 'fired with love's urgent longings' it passed through this night of sense to union with the Beloved.  A love of pleasure, and attachment to it, usually fires the will toward the enjoyment of things that give pleasure.  A more intense enkindling of another, better love (love of the soul's Bridegroom) is necessary for the vanquishing of the appetites and the denial of this pleasure.  By finding satisfaction and strength in this love, it will have the courage and constancy to readily deny all other appetites."

I struggle with this, especially as a non-monk who regularly interacts with family, friends...a significant other.  It makes sense to me that attachment to our own pleasure keeps us bound to the things that give us that pleasure.  We then remain chained, slaves to those things.  We need them.  In Hindu terms, we remain in Samsara.  So, I see the logic.

What I still can't wrap my mind around is not being "attached" to people.  It seems wrong to me to be "unattached" to my family, or my girlfriend, or my friends.  Perhaps it means simply not turning people into things that I use to fill a need.  I need companionship, so I find a friend.  I need affection, I find a girlfriend.  I need affirmation, I go home for a family dinner.  Perhaps our attachment to people is simply attachment to self in disguise.  Maybe to truly love another, we need to come to them without a need.  Maybe the ideal for a contemplative relationship or marriage is two people who come to each other, each completely fulfilled in themselves, in God, and then freely choose to love one another.  I wonder what St. John of the Cross would say to that.  Maybe he would just tell me to become a monk :)

Regardless, in St. John's system, and in most contemplative paths, complete non-attachment from our appetites is necessary for total union with God.  And this is the concern of Book One in The Ascent of Mount Carmel.


Ascent of Mount Carmel: Fired With Love's Urgent Longings

Saint John of the Cross (born Juan de Yerpes) was a mystic from the Catholic Carmelite order in 16th Century Spain.  He was a contemporary of Saint Teresa of Avila, and the two are probably the most well known mystics from Catholicism in the Middle Ages.  

Saint John produced several works, the most substantial of which were The Ascent of Mount Carmel and The Dark Night.  In this series, I will take a look at both of these major works.  

Although he attempts to outline his own work several times, St. John is not necessarily a systematic writer.  He does eventually touch on all the themes he promises to, but perhaps not in as sequential a way as we would like.  This is not uncommon among the Catholic mystics as their theological reflections sometimes take their writings on paths they didn't originally intend.

St. John opens The Ascent with a poem which underlies his writing.  He introduces the stanzas and then records the poem as follows:

"This treatise explains how to reach divine union quickly. It presents instruction and doctrine valuable for beginners and proficients alike that they may learn to unburden themselves of all earthly things, avoid spiritual obstacles, and live in that complete nakedness and freedom of spirit necessary for divine union. It was composed by Padre Fray John of the Cross, Discalced Carmelite.

The following stanzas include all the doctrine I intend to discuss in this book, The Ascent of Mount Carmel. They describe the way that leads to the summit of the mount – that high state of perfection we here call union of a soul with God. Since these stanzas will serve as a basis for all I shall say, I want to cite them here in full that the reader may see in them a summary of the doctrine to be expounded. Yet I will quote each stanza again before its explanation and give the verses separately if the subject so requires.

A song of the soul's happiness in having passed through the dark night of faith, in nakedness and purgation, to union with its Beloved.

1. One dark night,
fired with love's urgent longings
– ah the sheer grace! –
I went out unseen,
my house being now all stilled.

2. In darkness and secure,
by the secret ladder, disguised,
– ah the sheer grace! –
in darkness and concealment,
my house being now all stilled.

3. On that glad night,
in secret, for no one saw me,
nor did I look at anything,
with no other light or guide
than the one that burned in my heart.

4. This guided me
more surely than the light of noon
to where he was awaiting me
– him I knew so well –
there in a place where no one appeared.

5. Oh guiding night!
O night more lovely than the dawn!
O night that has united
the Lover with his beloved,
transforming the beloved in her Lover.

6. Upon my flowering breast
which I kept wholly for him alone,
there he lay sleeping,
and I caressing him
there in a breeze from the fanning cedars.

7. When the breeze blew from the turret,
as I parted his hair,
it wounded my neck
with its gentle hand,
suspending all my senses.

8. I abandoned and forgot myself,
laying my face on my Beloved;
all things ceased; I went out from myself,
leaving my cares
forgotten among the lilies."

– St. John of the Cross, Ascent of Mount Carmel

Although St. John will deviate from his original structural plan of citing each verse and commenting on it, this poem provides the backdrop for both The Ascent of Mount Carmel and, later, The Dark Night.

Top 10 Progressive Christian Writers, Bloggers, and Podcasters

There was a time when I considered myself a liberal Christian.  As I made a break with the Evangelical church, it was very natural for me to seek out more progressive expressions of the faith.  I still believed in God.  I still read the Bible.  I still wanted to follow Jesus in a lot of ways.  Ultimately, though, after several years of trying to be a liberal within the Church, I had to stop.  Either the churches I attended were too conservative, in which case I was always "in the closet" about what I believed, or they were too liberal, to the point where I didn't see any real center or driving passion to what these churches were doing.  These liberal churches just seemed "wishy washy" to me.  I didn't want to hear a 10 minute homily on "love" and be fed democratic politics every week.  At the end of the day, I didn't even really know why I was coming.  

Right now I am comfortable outside the Church, practicing Centering Prayer.  I do occasionally attend Quaker meetings, which consist of one hour of silence.  No dogma, no real doctrine, just an openness to the Spirit.  I continue to believe that the experience of God is real and that I can be led and changed by that experience.

But I also like to keep my finger on the pulse of the Christian world.  Even though I didn't feel like I fit going to a liberal church, I do still enjoy reading Christians from the progressive side of the faith.  

Defining a progressive Christian is a difficult task.  Typically, when someone says they are a progressive, it means they are reacting against some doctrine of the conservative Church.  In The Evangelical Experience, I contrast conservative vs. liberal/progressive Christianity as follows:

"A conservative is more likely to believe that: (1) the doctrines of the church are literal and true, (2) the Bible is literally the Word of God in a way that is unique among religious literature, and (3) their tradition, or perhaps Christianity as a whole, is the only valid faith and path to salvation."

"A liberal is more likely to believe that: (1) the doctrines of the church may have to be re-interpreted figuratively or symbolically and may not be literally true; (2) the Bible is a collection of books that records Hebrew and Christian religious thought about God, but is not literally the inspired Word of God; and (3) their tradition is one appropriate response to the Divine, but other religious paths are also valid."

I still think these statements fairly summarize the differences in thought between conservative and liberal Christians.  These labels, however, aren't always hard and fast.  Some who identify as progressives are still fairly traditional orthodox Christians, while some conservatives stretch the boundaries of Evangelical theology in one area or another.  Regardless, this "looseness" in understandings of Christian doctrine and the Bible, as well as an openness to religious pluralism continue to be defining characteristics of progressive Christianity.

Although I am more comfortable outside the bounds of official religious structures, I think progressive Christianity provides an important alternative for those who can't affirm some part of the conservative faith they grew up with.  The challenge for the progressive Church is to clearly define what they believe, rather than define themselves only in contrast to their conservative counterparts (i.e. we don't believe the virgin birth, we don't believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus, etc.).  What doctrine are they actually committed to?  A related challenge, and a main reason why I do not count myself among progressive Christians, is to answer the question: How do we do Theology?  Once you give up an inerrant text, I don't know how you can say anything theologically about God.  Personally, this lack of a firm basis for theological reflection leads me to pure contemplative practice, hence this blog.  Probably the most common answer to this objection is that progressive theology is "Jesus centered."  The problem is that progressives can't agree on who Jesus was, what he said, or what he did!  The issue of theological method is one that the liberal Church has no clear consensus on, and I don't see any consensus coming soon.  

Regardless, here are some (my own personal Top Ten!) Progressive Christian writers, bloggers, and podcasters who you should check out if you are so inclined.

Marcus Borg

Marcus Borg was a historical Jesus and New Testament scholar who taught at Oregon State University.  He passed away in 2015.  Borg, maybe more than any other author on this list, articulated what progressive Christianity could look like in contrast to conservative versions of the faith.  Specifically he addressed how the Bible can be used in liberal Christian communities, advocating for its use as a sacrament – a means of experiencing God – not necessarily as a source for theology.   His book Reading the Bible Again for the First Time is very helpful for understanding the liberal/conservative divide.  He also wrote often about the historical Jesus, and presented a "wisdom Jesus," a Jesus who was primarily about dispensing general religious wisdom.  Resources from Marcus Borg can be found at the Marcus Borg Foundation.  

John Hick

John Hick was a religious scholar and a highly philosophical writer.  He was also a religious pluralist and advocated for a progressive Christianity in which traditional Christian language such as "Jesus is Lord" would be understood in a metaphorical sense.  Probably his most famous work is The Metaphor of God Incarnate, and here he clearly presents how Jesus can be understood from a progressive Christian perspective.  I also find The Fifth Dimension to be a fascinating read where he argues to a secular culture that a spiritual worldview makes sense, more sense than an atheistic or agnostic worldview.  Reading Borg and Hick together provides a very clear paradigm for what a logical progressive Christianity can look like.  They address both how Scripture and Jesus can be understood from a liberal perspective and that is probably their most valuable contribution.  

Dale Allison

Dale Allison is a historical Jesus scholar who presents Jesus primarily as an Apocalyptic Prophet.  That is, Jesus expected the world as we know it to come to an end, followed by a final judgement and the inauguration of the Kingdom of God on earth.  In Allison's view, Jesus was wrong about the end of the world.  This picture of Jesus isn't advantageous to liberal (or conservative) Christianity and Allison knows it.  But his historical studies, for better or worse, have radically changed the way he thinks about the Christian faith.  Allison has written several volumes in the field of historical Jesus studies, and has also documented his own spiritual reflections in The Luminous Dusk and Night Comes.  His The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus has had more impact on my own theology than any book I have ever read.  Read at your own risk.  Allison teaches at Princeton Theological Seminary.  

Walter Brueggemann

Walter Bruggemann is an Old Testament scholar who has written widely on themes from the Hebrew Scriptures.  His most well known work is The Prophetic Imagination, in which he analyzes the prophetic Hebrew tradition from Moses to Jesus.  I also really resonated with his Spirituality of the Psalms.  His paradigm of Orientation, Disorientation, and New Orientation as seen in the writings of the Psalmist was helpful for me as I was going through my own deconstruction and reconstruction of faith.  Brueggemann is part of the liberal United Church of Christ denomination and regularly speaks within that tradition and others.  His content is centralized at




Richard Rohr

Richard Rohr is a Franciscan Friar from the Roman Catholic Tradition.  He runs the Center for Action and Contemplation in New Mexico.  Rohr is a prolific author who focuses on the contemplative dimension of the gospel.  Although he does not overtly deny traditional Catholic and Christian doctrine, he stretches his tradition to the limits and seems unconcerned with maintaining orthodoxy.  Rohr draws heavily from the Christian mystics and the world Perennial tradition.  I think his What the Mystics Know is a good introduction to some major themes in Christian Mysticism.  For a deeper introduction to the Christian mystic tradition, I recommend Carl McColman's The Big Book of Christian Mysticism.  Rohr's work includes The Divine Dance, Falling Upwards, Everything Belongs, The Naked Now, and Immortal Diamond.  For more on Rohr, check on the Center for Action and Contemplation

Peter Enns

Peter Enns is a biblical scholar who created waves in the Evangelical world with his Inspiration and Incarnation in 2005.  Due to this book, he was suspended from his teaching position at Westminster and eventually resigned.  In most of his work, Enns emphasizes the ancient context of the biblical writings.  He is unafraid to address where there are tensions and contradictions in various biblical texts and this puts him at odds with many conservative Christians.  Enns has become more and more bold in addressing contradictions in the Bible as the years have progressed as seen in his more recent books The Sin of Certainty and The Bible Tells Me So.  Enns blogs and podcasts at  Another scholar who addresses very similar issues is Kenton Sparks, specifically in his God's Word in Human Words.  



Richard Beck

Richard Beck teaches psychology at Abilene Christian University.  He also runs an extremely popular blog called Experimental Theology and is a fascinating author, writing about topics ranging from The Devil, to disgust psychology, to the fear of death, to the authenticity of faith in God.  As the range of his book topics suggests, Beck is kind of all over the place.  He doesn't need to fit his theology into any particular box and this can be both freeing and frustrating for his readers.  He's orthodox enough to appeal to conservative Christians, but liberal enough to cause them some significant hand-wringing.  There is hardly a better place to go for an articulation of a highly biblically informed, progressive Christianity.  He accepts the label and speaks often to his fellow progressives though his blog.


Rachel Held Evans

Rachel Held Evans came on to the scene in 2010 with her Evolving in Monkeytown (now repackaged as Faith Unraveled) in which she documents her journey of faith.  Evans grew up within Evangelicalism but found herself questioning many of its core tenants through her ongoing life experience.  Reading her memoir was really helpful for me as I was going through my own unraveling of faith.  Evans has also recently written Searching for Sunday and A Year of Biblical Womanhood.  I'm not sure if Rachel would accept the label Progressive Christian.  I get the sense that she's just done with labels.  But she certainly represents a non-traditionally conservative/Evangelical voice from within the Christian tradition.  Evans blogs at


Rob Bell

Rob Bell was a mega-church pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Michigan.  He's not anymore.  When Bell was in the Evangelical world he was highly controversial, pushing more and more Evangelical boundaries through his books and preaching until the bubble pretty much burst with his Love Wins.  Many Evangelicals distanced themselves from Bell after this book in which he seems to accept, or at least is highly open to, some type of universal salvation.  Bell now blogs, speaks, and podcasts at  His books include Love Wins, How to be Here, What We Talk About When We Talk About God, Velvet Elvis, and his upcoming What is the Bible?  Bell is another thinker who doesn't seem too interested in labels.  If he still considers himself Christian, he is definitely on the progressive end of the faith.  


The Deconstructionists

The Deconstructionists was a new podcast in 2016.  They have the most impressive guest list of any podcast I have ever listened to.  Adam Narloch and John Williamson host discussions with scholars and thinkers from across the faith spectrum including several of the authors listed above.  These two come from the Evangelical world, but emphasize an openness to new ideas, especially as previous understandings of the faith fall apart or become "deconstructed."  Check out their website at  

A few other authors on the progressive side of things include Karen Armstrong, John Shelby Spong, John Dominic Crossan, Brain McLaren, Phyllis TickleDiana Butler Bass, and Mike McHargue.

These writers, bloggers, and podcasters represent a diversity of thought.  Some are self-consciously outside of "orthodox Christianity" while others are not.  Some may even reject the label Progressive Christian or simply be done with labels altogether.  But each is worth interacting with if you find yourself on this end of the faith.  I'm pretty sure they all hang out together on the weekends.  

The Historical Christ and The Theological Jesus: Review

In The Historical Christ and The Theological Jesus, Dale Allison discusses the challenges inherent in the "quest for the historical Jesus," his methodology for historical criticism of the Gospels, the paradigm of Jesus that emerges from his methodology, and personal impressions about how his historical studies have informed his own faith.  This is required reading for anyone embarking on their own quest to understand who Jesus of Nazareth was as a historical figure.  

Overview:  Allison breaks this book up into five sections: The Problem of Theological Utility, Disputed Questions, How to Proceed, Some Difficult Conclusions, and Some Personal Impressions.  I'll take a look at all five parts.

The Problem of Theological Utility and Disputed Questions:  In the first two sections of the book, Allison focuses on the question, "Of what use, if any, is the so-called historical Jesus for Christian theology?"  That is, should Christian theologians even concern themselves with uncovering a so-called historical Jesus?  And, if so, how should that historical reconstruction inform theology?  Here Allison discusses the polarization between theologians who simply use canonical descriptions of Jesus for theology and those who want to find a historical Jesus and use that construction to inform their understanding of Christian doctrine.  For those who are even interested in finding a historical Jesus, they are in for a challenge, for there is little consensus in the field:

"If contemporary theology wants to include the historical Jesus in its discourse, it is up against grave obstacles, because his identity is unclear.  More than one historical Jesus resides between today's book covers.  We indeed have a plethora of them.  There is the Jesus of Tom Wright, a Jewish prophet and almost, it seems, orthodox Christian.  There is the Jesus of Marcus Borg, a religious mystic who dispensed perennial wisdom.  There is the Jesus of E.P. Sanders, a Jewish eschatological prophet a la Albert Schweitzer.  There is the Jesus of John Dominic Crossan, a Galilean but Cynic-like peasant whose vision of an egalitarian kingdom and nonviolent God stood in stark contrast to the power politics of Roman domination.  One could go on.  To the outsider, theories about Jesus must seem to crisscross each other to create a maze of contradictions.  For the portraits in the marketplace are to large degree not complementary but contradictory."

In the end, Allison believes that yes, a historical Jesus is of value to the theologian, and indeed his own historical conclusions have changed how he views the Christian faith.  Although there is no consensus about the identity of Jesus, and the biases of each historian are difficult to overcome, there is real value in the Quest.

How to Proceed:  After affirming the value of historical research into Jesus, Allison moves on to consider methodology.  How do we go about finding the historical Jesus?

Traditionally historical Jesus scholars have used what are known as "criteria of authenticity" to determine whether a particular passage about Jesus is historical or not.  The major criterion have been multiple attestation (Does the story or saying show up in multiple, independent sources?), dissimilarity (Is the story or saying significantly different from what we would expect to come out of 2nd Temple Judaism or the early Christian communities?  If so, the story or saying is unlikely to have been "made up."), embarrassment (If the story or saying is embarrassing to the Church, it is unlikely to have been "made up."), and coherence (Does the story or saying fit with other texts that we believe are historical?).  Allison himself has used these criterion in the past, but does so no longer.  The major problem he sees is that while these criteria are supposed to create a more "scientific" way to determine the historicity of a text, scholars, using the very same criteria, come to vastly different conclusions regarding both the historicity of individual texts and even major paradigms to understand Jesus with.  

For Allison, the criteria just don't work.  There are hardly any individual texts that he believes we can even reasonably assign a probability of historicity to:

"After years of being in the quest business, I have reluctantly concluded that most of the Gospel materials are not subject to historical proof or disproof, or even accurate estimates of their probability.  That Jesus said something is no cause for supposing that we can demonstrate that he said it, and that Jesus did not say something is no cause for supposing that we can show that he did not say it.  Similarly, if Jesus did something, that does not mean we can ascertain with any probability that he did it, and if he did not do something , that does not mean we can ascertain with any probability that he did not do it.  There is a gaping chasm between what happened and what we can discover or deem likely to have happened...Did Jesus utter the golden rule?  I do not see how anyone will ever show that he did, or how anyone will ever show that he did not.  I certainly have never run across persuasive arguments for one conclusion or the other.  Sadly, this example for me is representative."

The solution for Allison is not to sift through individual sayings and determine whether each is "historical" or "unhistorical," but to look for large patterns in the Gospels.  If there is a large body of material that, for instance, portrays Jesus as coming into conflict with religious authorities, then we should conclude that he had public conflict with religious authorities.  It does not matter if this or that story is historically accurate, and we will never know either way, but the pattern leads us to believe that he acted in this sort of way:

"The Gospels are parables.  When we read them, we should think not that Jesus said this or did that but rather: Jesus did things like this, and he said things like that."

If we can't trust major patterns in the Gospels, then we can't trust our sources at all.  When discussing Jesus' eschatology, Allison makes the following remark:

"I do not contend, because I do not believe, that all this material comes from Jesus, directly or indirectly.  Nor do I insist that any of it is word-perfect memory.  To repeat what I have said before: the Synoptics are not primarily records of what Jesus actually said and did but collections of impressions.  They recount, or rather often recount, the sorts of things that he said and did, or that he could have said and done.  As for eschatology in particular, my contention is that either a decent number of the entries in my catalogue fairly characterize what Jesus was about, or the tradition is so full of mnemonic holes and fictional accretions that the quest is a vain aspiration and we should find some other pastime with which to amuse ourselves."

Some Difficult Conclusions:  Using his unique methodology (although he would argue that his conclusions should hold regardless of methodology), Allison argues here that the the historical Jesus is the Apocalyptic Jesus.  That is, Jesus believed that the world would soon end, a final judgment would ensue, and a new world – the Kingdom of God – would be born.  Furthermore, Jesus believed that he himself, as the final messianic prophet, would usher in this new age.  

"...Jesus had firm eschatological expectations, to which he gave frequent expression.  More precisely, he envisaged, as many did in his time and place, the advent, after suffering and persecution, of a great judgment, and after that a supernatural utopia, the kingdom of God, inhabited by the dead come back to life, to enjoy a world forever rid of evil and wholly ruled by God.  Further, he thought that the night was far gone, the day at hand."

Allison knows that his conclusions, in the line of Albert Schweitzer, will trouble both conservative and liberal Christians.  A historical Jesus who held these beliefs is advantageous to neither. 

Some Personal Reflections:  To end the book, Allison includes a personal section in which he discusses how his conclusions about Jesus have changed his own faith.  In the end, he finds that he must adopt Jesus' dream of a future ruled by God, for it the only way to make sense of the world as it is and the hope of a Loving Creator:

"Such (eschatological) expectation implicitly concedes that life as we have known it does not make sense.  It posits reward and punishment in a life to come precisely because they are missing from the here and now.  It locates meaning in the future because there is a deficiency of sense in the present.  It hopes for better someday because today it is worse.  Eschatology does nothing, of course, to explain away evil, and it leaves us with the question, Why would God be better to all in the future than God seems to be now?  To which Jesus prudently returns no answer.  But he does share with us his audacious imagination, born of his unswerving conviction that, despite appearances, God is profoundly good.  His fundamental intuition is that the creator must be the redeemer, that the divine Father is good enough to ensure that those who mourn will be comforted, loving enough to guarantee that those who weep with someday laugh...

We do well, I suggest, to follow his lead.  For although eschatology is not the solution to the problem of evil, without eschatology there can be no solution.  If what we see on earth is all that we will ever see, if there is no further repairing of wrongs beyond what we have already witnessed, then divine love and justice do not really count for much.  This is not, for me, a theological cliche but a philosophical necessity."

Allison ends another of his works Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet, in a similar vein:

"And yet, despite everything, for those who have ears to hear, Jesus, the millenarian herald of judgment and salvation, says the only things worth saying, for his dream is the only one worth dreaming.  If our wounds never heal, if the outrageous spectacle of a history filled with cataclysmic sadness is never undone, if there is nothing more for those who were slaughtered in the death camps or for six-year olds devoured by cancer, then let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.  If in the end there is no good God to calm this sea of troubles, to raise the dead, and to give good news to the poor, then this is indeed a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing."

Reflections:  I agree with virtually everything Dale Allison says in this book.  He bears witness to just how complicated historical Jesus study can be, while also clearly laying out his tentative conclusions, which I find persuasive.  He does so with humility and from a perspective of faith, albeit a faith that many won't be comfortable with.

Regarding his methodology, I am sold.  If we can't trust major patterns in the Gospels, then trying to find the historical Jesus is a vain endeavor.  Likewise, looking at individual sayings and dubbing them historical or non-historical, or perhaps assigning probabilities of historicity, may work for a small amount of texts, but not for the vast majority.  

In my mind, Allison towers over others in this field and deserves a much wider readership than he seems to have.  

Personal Takeaways:  This book pushed me over the edge into seeing Jesus of Nazareth as primarily an Apocalyptic Prophet.  In many ways, this was the straw that spurred my break from traditional understandings of Christianity and into an interest in contemplative practice.  I had widdled my faith down to Jesus, and then I came to accept that he was wrong about the end of the world.  The way I understood my own faith was forever changed.  Although this book was initially threatening and disorienting, in the end, I found it to be freeing.  It opened me up into new ways to think about Jesus, Christianity, faith, and spirituality.  

If there is one book to read as an introduction to the Quest for the Historical Jesus, this is it.  


For more, here is a lecture by Allison in which he reads from most of the sections of this book.  The lecture leaves out the sections of the book focused on eschatology.

The Luminous Dusk: Heroes

In this final excerpt from The Luminous Dusk, Allison laments that our culture has given up on the concept of heroes – models of how a human life should be lived – and, instead, settled for celebrities.  

"If there is indeed an instinct to emulate what appears before us, then at present we must be emulating celebrities.  Observation confirms the inference.  Celebrities are trendsetters.  Who first models our hairstyles?  Our skirt lengths?  Our eyewear?  Now this is not in itself objectionable.  Nor do I protest that so many celebrities, stained by riotous living, are decadent, unworthy of emulation.  The problem is more fundamental.  It is that celebrities are not heroes – this is, they are, even when upright, too small to do us any good.  Celebrities are, as their numbers necessitate, average people.  This is why their sins – extramarital affairs, multiple divorces, drinking binges – are so humdrum.  They are just like us.  But to look at ourselves is to emulate ourselves, which means giving up "ought" for "is."  To look in a mirror does not expand one's horizons.  We need rather to dream, which is what heroes and poets, not celebrities, make us do...

Hebrews II says this: 'They conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, received promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.'  We should, against the modern habit, hold these for memories, that they might hold us.  Our amnesia should not be for heroes, whose virtues are our sunlight, but for their modern usurpers, who represent the ordinary condition of humanity, which so obviously tends toward sin and sloth and mediocrity.  Celebrities do not conquer kingdoms, enforce justice, receive promises, stop the mouths of lions, quench raging fires, escape the edge of the sword, win strength out of weakness, become mighty in war, put enemies to flight.  Why exchange gold for pyrite?"