A Clinical Imperative for Sex Therapy Training

This morning I sat in on a webinar put on by an LCSW who works at Duke University Hospital. The title of the presentation was “Sex Addiction – It’s not in the DSM-5. Does that Matter?” Having taken courses in sex theory and clinical sexology, I assumed the subtext was that it did matter. Because it is not recognized by the DSM, many clinicians with a lack of sex therapy training resort to using their own biases of what is and is not “normal” sexual behavior as a metric for deciding what constitutes a sex addiction (Braun-Harvey & Vigorito, 2016). Not long into the presentation, however, I realized that the social worker’s assumption was that the absence of sex addiction in the DSM did not matter. Citing Patrick Carnes as a “great resource,” he argued that sexual compulsive behavior was a process addiction with identical physiological effects to other widely-acknowledged addictions (e.g., alcohol, gambling, and heroin) and should therefore be a diagnosis that clinicians do not shy away from with clients. I say this as a way of getting at why I believe sexological training is of utmost importance for all practicing and future-practicing clinicians. Without sex therapy training clinicians are prone to, in some cases, pathologize diverse, healthy forms of sexuality and, in other cases, address behavioral concerns while overlooking a constellation of systems that create the conditions for problematic sexual behavior.

This is an issue near to my heart because of the ways I have been affected by a sex addiction diagnosis. Though it took me about 14 years to understand, my sexual autobiography is quite similar to many of those in my own generation who grew up in the “purity” movement (Sellers, 2017). My family and I attended a non-denominational evangelical church with a markedly conservative interpretation of the Bible. The pastor’s sermons tended to place a great deal of value around the notion of purity. This was equated with a kind of neo-asceticism that revolved around abstinence in a myriad of forms – abstaining from alcohol, abstaining from anger, abstaining from the use of curse words, and, of course, abstaining from all forms of sexuality outside of a cis-hetero marriage. Though I really loved this community and the friends I made in the church, I began to feel immense shame for my own developing sexuality.

Dating prohibitions at home were compounded with abstinence-only messages at church, which, in turn, forced my sexuality underground. Without the permission to date, I discovered porn and masturbation, which became my only outlet for sexual expression. After one traumatic incident of being found out, I vowed to never watch porn again. I made good on this promise for a good year and a half, even abstaining from masturbation altogether, but I fell into old patterns towards the end of high school, which continued well into my college years.

When I went to a counselor during my sophomore year at SPU and reported my relationship to porn and masturbation and the shame I felt about it, I was handed a sheet that detailed ways to overcome process addictions. I spent years thinking I was a sex addict and feeling such chronic shame for my inability to control my sexual desires. Interestingly, it was philosophical theology that taught me how flawed this abstinence-only treatment model was. I learned that, like the Edenic story of the forbidden fruit, prohibitions generate the very desire to transgress (Rollins, 2011). It seems to me that the Church’s strict sexual regulations repress sexual energy in a way that exacerbates desire. Because I was told I was an addict and handed an abstinence-only treatment plan, I inevitably slipped between periods of masturbatory abstinence and binge-pornography use that only fed my sexual desire and increased my religious sexual shame. My interest in sex therapy, then, stems from a desire to offer others a more holistic clinical intervention that helps usher people towards sexual wholeness, rather than repression.

Though I am quite passionate about sex therapy, I have found that when people hear the term they often hear it through a myopic lens that makes a variety of inaccurate assumptions about what a sex therapist actually does. The majority of sex therapists are not practicing like ex-Barney actor David Joyner who has unprotected intercourse with his exclusively female clients (Sager, 2018). Therapists with sexological training are legitimate clinicians committed to advocating for the well-being of their clients arguably to a greater, more holistic, extent than therapists without clinical sexology certification. The unfortunate reality is that we live in a pleasure-phobic culture that regulates the terms of desire based on the body politics of the heteropatriarchy. Such a sexual ethic places the power in the hands of men and relegates women to the receiving end of male-centric objectification; all other forms of sexuality are subject to pathologization and/or shame. At its best, sex therapy is a decolonizing practice that undermines erotophobia and advocates for a radically feminist politics where all bodies are afforded the right to pleasure and intimacy.

At the conclusion of today’s webinar 2 members of the Triangle Area Sex Addicts Anonymous fellowship in North Carolina spoke. They discussed their addictions and their sexual sobriety, all of which I found pathologically dehumanizing, not to mention sad and angering for the ways it reminded me of who I was once labeled as. What I am learning is that the (pseudo-)modality of sex addiction treatment looks at behavioral concerns, while often overlooking the systems in place that create the incubation for these sorts of behaviors (Donaghue, 2015). As clinicians and as a society, we need to talk about purity culture, transphobia, relationship issues, and abstinence-only sex education that force underground, compulsive expressions of sexuality. Sex therapists can be, and ought to be, on the frontlines of this work.  

Resources

Braun-Harvey, D., Vigorito, M. A. (2016). Treating out of control sexual behavior: Rethinking sex addiction. New York, NY: Springer Publishing Company.

Donaghue, C. (2015). Sex outside the lines: Authentic sexuality in a sexually dysfunctional culture. Dallas, TX: BenBella Books, Inc.

Rollins, P. (2011). Insurrection: To believe is human to doubt, divine. New York: NY: Howard Books.

Sager, R. (2018). The guy who played barney the dinosaur now runs a tantric sex business. Vice. Retrieved from https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/zmzgbw/the-guy-who-played-barney-the-dinosaur-now-runs-a-tantric-sex-business

Sellers, T. S. (2017). Sex, God, and the conservative church: Erasing shame from sexual intimacy. New York, NY: Routledge.

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Spiritual Autobiography

This autobiography was a required piece for the discernment process to ordination to the Vocational Diaconate in the Episcopal Church. It was fun to write and caused me to reflect a great deal on my spiritual formation. I figured I’d share it!

I was born in 1992 to a multi-racial couple in Bend, OR. My mother is Chinese and my father is Caucasian; both are healthcare professionals. Dad works for the Seattle Seahawks as the team chiropractor and Mom helps run their private practice as both a chiropractor and an acupuncturist. I have a younger brother named Alec who is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley and will be attending medical school in the Fall to pursue holistic medicine. We’ve been referred to as a family of healers, and I think there’s truth to that.

Though we weren’t practicing Christians growing up, in 2002 my family began attending a small non-denominational evangelical church that met in my middle school cafeteria. Over the course of approximately one year, I witnessed my parents’ entire disposition change. They seemed to have this newfound vitality that radiated at home. This was profoundly formative for me and inspired my own conversion shortly thereafter. Soon, I became the Christian ideal in my youth group, frequently giving my testimony, writing out prayers, drawing angelic beings (as one does), and carrying around a Bible in my back pocket.

Four years later my health was compromised. I was fourteen. Following a concussion due to a skateboarding accident, my ability to fall asleep became progressively eradicated. Within two and a half years, I was going a couple of days at a time without any sleep at all, and for roughly the next eight years this continued off and on. The acute insomnia caused a whole host of other health problems including debilitating fatigue, full-body eczema, severe depression, and episodic shortness of breath that made me feel as if I was on the brink of suffocation. These are all things I still deal with in varying degrees today, albeit much less than before and with better coping strategies. Without distinguishable medical cures, doctors articulate that I live with chronic illness. I have come to categorize these symptoms as invisible disabilities, all of which impact the ways I think theologically and conceive of my vocation in the world.

In the church, my adversity was compounded by the way my spiritual leaders began narrating my illness within a framework of divine pedagogy or punishment—that is, God was either trying to teach me something through my suffering or disciplining me for something I was guilty of. Truthfully, I don’t blame them. This was the theology they inherited and the only way they knew how to make theological sense of why bad things happen to good people. Their attempts to draw meaning out of my suffering, however, left me feeling like a theodicean case-study, and it was immensely spiritually and ecclesially estranging—something I have come to narrate as religious trauma. I spent years questioning why God was allowing me to suffer as much as I was, and so much so that I fell out of love both with this God and with myself.

In 2010 I left for college at Seattle Pacific University where I began to explore other denominations in search of a tradition that could hold my pain instead of make hurtful attempts to explain it. Among many of the churches I visited, a common critique emerged: either they recruited substitutionary atonement to an extent that placed redemptive value on human suffering or they utilized the Christ narrative to espouse a harmful prosperity gospel for those who have to grapple with issues of chronicity. When I first visited an Episcopal Church, however, I experienced the notable absence of these theological frameworks and felt safe to worship with integrity. I remember delighting in how the pulpit was off to the side and the altar was at the center. I found, particularly in the sacraments, the freedom to inhabit a space of both emotional honesty and theological inquiry without an underlying pressure to appear happy or theologically certain. The centrality of the Eucharist, the language of ‘mystery’, the communal prayers, and the emphasis on ritual and habit was all an incredibly refreshing alternative to the rather spontaneous, belief-centered, apologetics-based tradition I had left.

Shortly thereafter, I made a decision to start seeing a Christian therapist to work through some of the mental and emotional aspects of living with chronic illness. To my surprise, this therapist not only helped me overcome a great deal of my religious trauma, but planted the early seeds for what would become my call to the diaconate. His therapeutic modality was rather simple but proved to be quite formative over time. He made sure I knew that issues of chronicity had no stake in our inherent worth as human beings; he created an empathic environment where deep-seated hurts and anxieties could be brought to the surface and robbed of their power; and he empowered me to do one thing a day that would feed my spirit, which, as ostensibly minute as it may seem, ended up changing everything for me. I began to abandon questions of “why” and to focus instead on building a quality of life in the midst of my suffering, and I learned to voice the depth of my pain without the frantic need to make meaning of it.

Though my therapist was not an Episcopalian, it strikes me that he ministered to me in a profoundly diaconal way. He was a sign of God’s presence where I least expected to find it—a mediator of Christ outside of the church walls at a time when I was still somewhat hesitant to enter a church. I began asking myself, “How can I do for others what this clinician did for me? How can I build bridges between the Church and those who feel so deeply disavowed?

It wasn’t until moving to North Carolina for seminary and speaking with my newfound priest, the Rev. Karen Barfield, that I began to connect my sense of call to the ministry of the diaconate. I articulated to her that as an MDiv/MSW dual-degree student I sensed a calling as a therapist and an ordained minister of some capacity. Outside of the church I hoped to become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker specializing in religious trauma. Within the church, I loved the idea of proclaiming the Gospel, setting the Table, and offering churchgoers the grace of the Eucharist, but I didn’t picture myself as the celebrant. I saw, and continue to see, this vocational duality as a blurring of the lines between the sacred and the (so-called) secular such that all can experience the love of God no matter where they find themselves in relation to the church.

Karen spoke to me about the role of deacons in the Episcopal Church, and when she did it felt like I was hearing an articulation of who I fundamentally understood myself to be. She explained that, of all church positions, deacons have an especially intrinsic relation to the field of social work. In short, their role is “exercised in the world outside the church community, reflecting the church’s prophetic concern for economic and social justice.” It has been about two years since that initial conversation and my sense of call has only grown stronger with time, prayer, and study.

I think there is immense ministerial opportunity to occupying spaces of authority both in the ‘world’ and the church. As I have reflected it has occurred to me that the diaconate is fundamentally fugitive in practice—of the church but always moving beyond its walls to follow Christ in service of the neglected. This is, without a doubt, what continues to resonate with me as I consider my sense of call. As a fugitive icon of Christ, the diaconate potentiates opportunities for rich spiritual conversations in otherwise ‘secular’ spaces and, likewise, for prophetic dialogue inside the church about how to counter insular and impersonal institutionalization. I have known for years that many of my most powerful experiences have come from speaking with others about matters of spirituality in (un)holy places like hospitals (CPE ‘17) and therapy offices and punk shows and curbsides with those experiencing homelessness.

For me, to serve as a deacon is a powerful sign that consecrates these ‘secular’ spaces as both a reminder and a symbol that God is never bound to a church building but always right in front of us waiting to be seen. There is, or rather there ought to be, no outside to the Church, no end to the counter-politics of unconditional belonging signified and embodied at the Table. The Church can be that place where people are invited to encounter the mystery and non-commodifiable glory of the Creator, to explore the theory and praxis of a divine economy of grace – an alternative sociality to the liturgy of consumerism that assaults the lifeblood of creation. As a Christian, I am interested in Eucharistic futurity where people are gathered into a spiritual community in which the calculus of belonging is overcome by mutual participation, where the giver and the receiver is blurred and the sacred and the secular is unified such that every table becomes an altar and every participant begins to see with the patristic mystics an all-encompassing sign of God’s presence. When I picture what ministry looks like for me years from now, I see myself in a diaconal capacity symbolizing in my liturgical functions the Christian imperative of embodying the Gospel in fugitive flight from the Church, and representing the diakonia of Christ in my therapeutic work to undo the religious trauma of others. I do not and cannot envision one without the other.

Eucharistic Futurity

“Because all my reading and religious training reinforces this construction of human reality, I keep missing signs that point to alternative, more loving ways of experiencing my body.”
—Nancy Mairs, Remembering the Bone House: An Erotics of Space and Place (1989)

 

Imagining the future is an important way to think pragmatically about the present. Imagined futures help orient us towards a telos, thereby shaping the sort of life we are pressing towards here and now. Within the Judeo-Christian tradition, thinking theologically about the future is called “eschatology.” In her essay on the politics of healing, Rabbi Julia Watts Belser (2015) defines eschatology as “a dimension of theology and religious reflection that centers on the ‘last things[,]’ … as well as the way we imagine the afterlife and the world to come” (p. 178). She states that eschatology is a powerful and useful tool “because it calls us to consider what place we hold for disability in our imagined futures; whether that future cradles or erases disability” (Ibid.). She critiques popular eschatologies as being “potent sites of disability erasure, forms of eugenic imagination that envision liberation through the denial of bodily and sensory difference” (p. 177). In other words, popular visions of the eschaton tend to operate with a sense of perfection that perpetuates rather than dismantles ableist paradigms.

Keeping with Belser, both the religious and the secular imaginary tend to idealize either the past or the future in ways that overlook the social and political realities of disability. Christianity embedded in the former is characterized by nostalgic ‘back-to-the-future’ longings for a return to an Edenic, pre-Fall, pre-illness, pre-disability utopia. Christians in this camp often adopt a theodicy that associates disability and all varieties of injustice (which isn’t to say that disability is an injustice) as being the result of “the Fall.” Non-religious folk engaging in a similar longing for the past tend to advocate for a previous sociopolitical reality more in line with their politics. Sociologist and philosopher Zygmunt Bauman (2017) calls this retrotopia. This retrotopic impulse has revealed itself in Trump’s ingenious campaign slogan “Make America Great Again” (emphasis added for effect). It is a sort of reverse-Marxism that understands humanity to be progressing further and further away from some utopian ideal.

On the other hand, there are imagined futures both religious and secular that by envisioning an inevitable utopic future reinforce postures of passivity to present injustices. Slavoj Žižek (2001) says new age Asiatic thought has become the underlying ideology of postmodern post-industrial capitalism because it allows people to participate in a system that’s still rooted in domination and aggression while maintaining this inner sense of detachment. We could call this eschatopia as the theoretical opposite of retrotopia. I see Marxist thought playing into these imagined futures in a subtle, yet deeply problematic way. Karl Marx theorized that human history was bending towards revolution—specifically denigration of the state—but that there was a telos to human history as a sort of self-realization of the whole (Robinson, 1983). The (w)hole in this theory of history—that is, the universalizing of a utopian sociopolitical meta-narrative—allows individuals to be rendered collateral damage in relation to this upward trajectory. An example of this would be the Chinese Communist Party that justified the murder of dissidents in the name of socioeconomic “liberation” and the establishment of an egalitarian ideal.

My crazy idea is that by enacting the alternative sociality that it gestures towards, one’s participation in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper can be an alternative practice of psychic formation to both retrotopia and eschatopia. The Eucharist is a better alternative to these modes of thinking not because it avoids looking ahead or behind, but because it does both in a way that doesn’t necessitate idealism; it is both present-oriented while at the same time gesturing towards the paradoxical “already-but-not-yet” Kingdom of Heaven. In his book Theopolitical Imagination (2002), William Cavanaugh says, “Eucharist is both an act of ‘dangerous memory’ of the past death of Jesus Christ at the hands of the powers and of his resurrection, as well as the eschatological anticipation of the future Kingdom of God” (p. 5). Eschatologies that understand the utopic as an inevitability, rather than something that involves active human engagement, risk idealizing an inevitable utopian future that, as Rabbi Belser argues, “depoliticize[s] disability” (p.177).

In holding onto the sense that the world is moving towards an inevitable utopic society, eschatologies of the Marxist variety risk rendering present injustices as “part of God’s plan” or even assigning redemptive value to violence inflicted upon vulnerable populations. Remember, American society is caught up in a capitalist neoliberal economy that measures people strictly by their “productivity” and their ability to fit a culturally constructed paradigm of “beauty,” which are never not brutalizing metrics. Alternatively, the Eucharist both gestures toward and, in its enactment of, makes possible another world where one’s worth is predicated on an alternative calculus of belonging. In the Eucharist people are gathered into one body in which a hierarchy of citizenship is intercepted with the boundless invitation of the martyred Christ, or what Nancy Eiesland (1994) calls “the disabled God.”

The Constantinian Church of imperial religion that has functioned as a mere extension of state politics, historically marginalizing those already disavowed, must be burned and denounced. The community to rise from its ashes must be a sacred place where diverse persons – asian, black, queer, trans, Christian, Agnostic, Atheist, (dis)abled – are welcomed into mutual participation such that divinity is not something to “believe” in or an identity politics to assimilate to, but something found in the act of love itself. That, I believe, is the future of the Eucharist. 

Divine Fugitivity: The Doctrine of God

“Wilderness as wide, wide world could not be contained, but wilderness as a specific place could be.” This notion of wilderness is the nucleus of Delores Williams’ work around what Dr. J. Kameron Carter has coined “fugitive theology.” As such, it provides the theological grounds upon which an alternative way of imagining what we might call “God” emerges. I read Williams’ exegetical work around Genesis 16 and 21 as a path of potentiality for reconfiguring the doctrine of the Creator away from notions of sovereignty and towards a social-symbolic notion of wilderness vis-à-vis the black radical tradition. I am interested not so much in exploring God as that which Hagar discovers in the wilderness, but in the figuration of God as the wilderness itself—the space of fugitive refuge devoid of exclusionary practices of governance. This essay will begin by looking to Sallie McFague and M. Shawn Copeland to establish the ways in which particular conceptions of God have been deployed as a means of exclusion and a justification of colonial enterprise. Next, I will utilize Williams’ reading of Hagar to explore God as wilderness (/fugitivity). This God, I will argue, functions as a sociopolitical critique against every system that attempts to police the boundaries of belonging.

To begin, let us first establish the popular view of the God-world relationship that Williams’ work challenges. McFague refers to this view as the monarchical model. It imagines God as an “all-powerful king [that] controls his subjects [who] … in turn offer him loyal obedience.” Mcfague notes that the allure of this model is bound up in the ways it “dramatizes divine transcendence,” meaning it places great emphasis on the authority and grandeur of God. This notion of the sacred incites both “awe and reverence” as well as vocational identity, considering that discipleship calls forth service to the Master. Finally, in keeping with the male pronouns used for God throughout scripture, divinity is almost always rendered as male within this model. Therefore, God is foundationally patriarchal, which presents a kind of social double predestination for women in which they are destined by virtue of biology to a life of both human and divine subordination.

It is crucial to mark that God as sovereign overseer has routed within it a racialized doctrine of election that functions as a theological bordering tool. By the fifteenth century, supersessionism transubstantiates and meets the transatlantic where it begins to route itself through the slave trade. The Gentile Christian claim to owning the covenant of Israel (see Exod 3:10) becomes part of a wider matrix of the desire to own the earth and label it as property. In that way, the story of YHWH’s relationship to Israel becomes a story of bordering, of negotiating who is in and who is out, with black bodies positioned on the receiving end of this “elected” system of governance. Copeland notes that though race “is a social construct with no basis in biology, … skin [pigmentation] morphs into a horizon funded by bias.” This should not surprise us, however, since (white) Christian settlers were operating from the basis of the monarchical model of the God-world relationship. As we will see glimpses of in the story of Hagar, insofar as divine sovereignty relates to lordship and property, the racial imaginary is secured and sanctioned under the guise of divinely ordained social hierarchy.

Reframing Hagar’s escape to the wilderness as an act of sacred defiance against her own brutality, Williams challenges this notion of a monarchical God who sanctions the arrest of black bodies. When Hagar escapes to the wilderness she is liberated not only from the brutalities of being a slave, but also from the patriarchal God of Sarai and Abram. As such, “Hagar becomes the first female in the Bible to liberate herself from oppressive power structures” and “the only person in the Bible to whom is attributed the power of naming God.” Here in the wilderness—a home away from home (which is not so much a home as it is a scene of captivity)—is a space of possibility where Hagar exercises a sort of ‘paratheological’ – imagination of the divine. Here she freely names God in a way that interrogates the doctrine of the Creator funding the brutalizing body politics of the Abrahamic plantation.

Hagar’s naming of God is the hermeneutic by which God as wilderness can begin to take shape. She addresses God as “El Roi,” which, as Williams notes, is a deity that “is not associated with Hagar’s oppressors, the patriarchal family.” Instead, El is traditionally used to refer to the god of the Canaanites. And, interestingly, names compounded with El were not applied to specific people or tribes but to cultic sites: “El olam, ‘the Everlasting God,’ appears in Genesis 21:33 in connection with Beer-sheba. El ro’i, ‘God of seeing,’ appears in Genesis 16:13 at another sanctuary in southern Palestine.” What does it mean that Hagar does not call upon the patriarchal God of her slave owners Sarai and Abram? Hagar’s unique choosing of the name El Roi is the mutinous construction of a non-anthropic, non-patriarchal, non-monarchical deity that is found in the very site of resistance to those opposing notions of sovereignty. Considering the context in which Hagar announces this sacred name (in the wilderness), God is the wilderness and the wilderness is the cultic site of fugitivity. The implicit corollary is that God is not the god of the plantation or the patriarchy. In this way, Hagar’s naming action is a staunch critique against “patriarchal power at its highest levels, since the ultimate head of this ancient Hebrew family was its patriarchal God.”

The runaway slave Hagar witnesses to the runaway God who is wilderness—the path of fugitivity towards abolitionist futurity. This God is a challenge to imperialist notions of the divine operative in the popular doctrine of the Creator. It is a notion of the sacred that is uncontainable, and therefore a polemic against all systems of power that necessitate the politics of surrogacy and atonement. What if the brutalities of the external and provincial God is a reflexive gesture of sovereignty to try and border the unborderable? What would it mean to think divinity not through the logics of the settler, and therefore the notion of borders and boundaries, but rather through the wilderness “as wide, wide world [that] cannot be contained?”

Atonement Theory & The Idolatry of God

In Christian theology salvation tends to refer to God’s intent to restore that which has been broken in the world, including the earth and the creatures that inhabit it. The doctrine of salvation has a robust Christological interior. Soteriology (lit. “the study of salvation”) primarily centers around the “life, death, resurrection and exaltation of Christ in relation to human salvation.” Because of my chronic health problems, particular imposed soteriologies have caused me and my faith the most trauma. What I am interested in is the ‘implicacy’ of the doctrine of salvation in systems of meaning and power that ultimately disavow those in similar positions of vulnerability. One of the primary ways this gets played out is in the construction and exhortation of atonement theologies as modes of theodicy and meaning-making—that is, as theories designed to explain the existence of evil and make sense of the human predicament. I want to argue that insofar as atonement theologies function as defense mechanisms against facing systems of oppression, adherents are implicated in the idolatry of an antichrist.  

Let us begin by defining the “dominant Western view of the atonement” and its relation to salvation. Leanne van Dyk articulates that in this view “the death of the beloved Son is the substituted punishment for the accumulated total of human sin. … Punishment, [therefore,] is rooted in the divine economy.” This theory essentially frames the incarnation of Jesus as an “anthropomorphic reaction to human sin.” The death of Jesus, then, is the event which satisfies the wrath of God and makes possible the ability for sinful humanity to inherit holy salvation. Such sin-based theology is so enraptured in a Christ that redeems human sin that it tends to place redemptive value on the suffering of others, and, at its worst, forces the justification of such suffering. For most of my young adult life, this theology was the bedrock of my Christian faith.

Growing up in the Evangelical Church, my understanding of the doctrine of salvation was primarily informed by a scripturally dislocated John 3:16. Hence, the concept of salvation was inextricably linked to a certain interpretation of the crucifixion and a redemptive grace that was imparted to all who professed belief in the divinity of Christ. We ended up drawing the Godhead into an egoic longing for “retribution, judicial resolution and punishment.” This theology implicitly assumed God the Father to be fundamentally wrathful, dangerous, and subject to supposed cosmic laws of offended justice, and yet this God was spoken of as fundamentally interventionist in nature. However, in the elementary stages of my faith this boded well for me and my young mind that longed for a majestic Zeus-like God who had control over the dealings of the world.

We may ask, “What is disavowed in the dance between theological predications of atonement and Western cultural logic?” With such an individual, ahistorical, legalistic, mathematical formula-based theology being the center of many dominant notions of the Gospel, to what extent does this notion of salvation “[mask], even [legitimize], the violence which is such a painful characteristic of our society?” Dr. J. Kameron Carter argues that the inability to confess America as a genocidal society built off of slavery keeps the doctrine of salvation implicated in the idolatry of whiteness. He describes whiteness as “a practice of government, of population management and in this way of sovereignty.” He poses a striking polemical question, albeit indirectly, in conversation with Dyk: How does whiteness as a brutalizing practice of sovereignty intersect and inform the dominant Western view of the atonement? Carter reveals that whiteness has aided and abetted imperialist images of God that have been received in the Church as normative. He calls this “the reduction of the sacred to a brutalizing property-concept.” We ended up with a rather primitive notion of God who exists outside the realm of creation judging the world from afar.

When my health began to erode in 2006, this interventionist (and monarchical) deity—the one who enabled Jesus to heal the sick (Matt 8:3, 8:13, 8:16), to give sight to the blind (John 9:6-7), and to exorcise people of demons (Luke 8:26-33) was apparently, for reasons unknown, apathetic to my suffering, to the countless prayers I prayed, and to every hand that was laid on me for my healing. This began to render the Crucified Christ a meaningless, even harmful, metaphor for me. I began to see that because atonement theologies so strongly emphasized the redemptive blessing of Jesus’ blood, the wounds of others almost inherently became glorified centers of meaning leaving them to grieve their pain in isolation. I longed for an alternative theology and still do.  

Substitutionary atonement makes room for the perpetuation of individual and corporate systems of oppression under the guise that “all is paid for and eschatologically secured in Christ.” Slavoj Žižek says new age Asiatic thought has become the underlying ideology of postmodern post-industrial capitalism because it allows people to participate in a system that’s still rooted in domination and aggression while maintaining this inner sense of detachment. Though I do not claim to know how to approach the doctrine of salvation in a way that fully honors the experience of suffering people, I fear that framing the Crucified Christ in terms of atonement is the Christian equivalent of the white bourgeoisie appropriation of simplified Eastern philosophy. Both promote a stance of passivity to oppression, as if to be faithful is to be still rather than to act for one’s own liberation. The notion of salvation in the dominant Western view of the atonement is so caught up in the restorative reality of the eschaton that social activism is practically rendered futile. But what if the crucifixion was not about changing the mind of God about humanity, but about transforming humanity’s monarchical conception of the divine? What if being ‘saved’ was never about accessing God’s kingdom through gaining the forgiveness of God, but about being freed to live in a radically new way? Perhaps, then, we are saved not to escape this world, but to help transform it.

Control & The Antithesis of Faith

(Sermon delivered 9/27/17 to my preaching class—middler’s of the Divinity School.)

Matthew chapter 28 vv. 1-7 & 16-18:

After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb. There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. … Go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’” … Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations.”

The major climactic moment post-resurrection when Jesus appears to his disciples after having died and “proves” his messiahship, the text says, “They worshipped; but some doubted.” It’s horrible Jesus propaganda, but brilliant insight, I think, into what it means to be human. There’s something called Christian Atheism, which sounds like an irreconcilable paradox, but I think it gives us good insight into what this little detail in Matthew may be getting at. What Christian Atheism asserts is that actually all of us live in the liminality between belief and unbelief. In other words, doubt and faith, theism and atheism aren’t actually diametrically opposed; they’re two dimensions of being human. In other words, belief is a spectrum, and our dance between the polarities is what makes us human.

When things like mystery, liminality and questioning are actually portrayed in scripture as normative for the life of faith why do we reinforce the stigmatization of doubt? When some worshipped and some doubted but all were commissioned to go and love the world, why do we persist in pathologizing skepticism?

I’m passionate about this because nobody brought this to my attention when I needed it most. In early high school I began developing major complications with my health. My severe bodily suffering was compounded by my own shame for the ways I found myself questioning my faith, the nature of scripture, and the existence of God. Consequently, I found myself doubting my own self-worth in deeply isolating ways. I prayed for years that God would give me some ounce of theological clarity, that God would give me some revelation into Godself that would make the doubt go away.

I wish I could tell my younger self that wanting this sort of clarity and certitude is actually a seeking of cosmic control—a flashlight to illumine the darkness of the open road of our ambiguous lives vis a vis unimaginably vast mysteries that we can never hope to comprehend (i.e., “Why do we suffer?” “Is Jesus the only way to God?” “Is there a God at all?”). But as someone who continues to walk the road of chronic illness, let me say that the darkness does us a favor by exposing control as an illusion. I think the reality is that sooner or later we discover that we can’t actually control what happens to us, only how we respond to what happens. And the grand project of our lives is to learn to surrender in gratitude to the great mystery of being. That means doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it’s control. If you can hear this now, then maybe the next time pain, anxiety, and doubt knocks upon your door you can have the courage to unabashedly invite it in, allowing it to transform you into someone who is ready to journey ever deeper into the mystery of the risen Christ.

Amen.

A Gift Worth Preserving

I mourn for this beleaguered Earth,

The only home we’ve known.

I stand with the Native Water Protectors,

But from behind the security of a Macbook.

I mourn for every sea creature with stomachs full of plastic,

Every newborn welcomed into a progressively toxic atmosphere.

What will it take to convince us of the grave importance of ecological preservation

Over the lie of capitalist consumerism?

Perhaps a child of our own

Rays of light through the desolate woods—

A gift worth preserving.

Trader Joes

Pushing what was now my full cart down the lonely bodily hygiene and animal food aisle, I looked to my right and saw the bag of dog treats that had so often been the meeting point of Lucy’s whiskers and my hand. It had been a little over a year since she died of a cancerous tumor that had grown around her spinal cord. It was a sudden diagnosis and a quick assisted death by euthanasia the following afternoon. I stopped for a moment, paused silent, and stood there looking over at those dog treats and the picture on the front of the Portuguese Water Dog. I recalled Lucy’s thick black fur and youthful energy, her realist sensibility and sassy resilience, her unconditional wagging of the tail regardless of how late I came home at night. I remembered the habitual twinkling of her collar tags as she would follow the sound of my guitar to find me playing alone in the living room. And I remember staying by her side as a young boy the day she came home from ACL surgery, nursing her with those same treats. Then, with that old familiar ache, I remembered with piercing accuracy how it felt to see her bed without her in it, to play my guitar and hear still the echo of those tags now imagined.

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Throughout middle school and high school, Lucy was one of my dearest friends, and I mean that. Due to a variety of health complications (acute insomnia being one of them), I was often forced to stay inside strung out on the couch even on the sunniest of days. Before I went off to college at Seattle Pacific University, Lucy would lay next to me on that couch never allowing me to sulk in my deep depression alone. She was always beside me to provide that quiet therapeutic presence that the deep intuition of an animal can provide. In retrospect, her unwavering presence in those dark moments was, for me, divine pedagogy. She was the face of God to me when I felt my supreme, disembodied, monarchical, retributive, and largely pagan notion of God dying before my very eyes. Lucy’s simple presence began to cultivate deep within me a curiosity about the panentheistic nearness of God’s presence that is now the fulcrum of my theology. I began to wonder if perhaps it wasn’t God’s presence that was absent, but my ability to perceive God all around me.

I recall the pain of losing Lucy—even now manifesting itself as both an emotional and physical ache that I feel in my lower jaw and upper abdomen—and I find that this conveys something fundamental about the nature of grief. Contrary to popular opinion, there is no clinical evidence that supports the concept of “stages of grief.” For some of us, grief comes and goes as seamlessly unmethodical as our daily transitions from moments of attentiveness to periods of subconscious daydreaming. Grief, as it turn

s out, is always unique to the individual and contextualized within sociocultural and sociopersonal dimensions.

In the world of grief theory, pet loss and bereavement is a remarkably uncommon topic of research. The overwhelming assumption is that pet loss is not as devastating as the death of a friend or a family member. However, studies have proven otherwise. According to a 2001 study, 90% of pet owners regard their pet as a valued family member, and grief studies show correlation with this fact. The same study reveals that while the death of a companion animal may sometimes be less traumatic than the death of a human, it can be “just as devastating as the loss of a human significant other” or even “far more intense.” This means that pet grief is as real as any other. One’s capacity to feel it is a testament to the sheer gift these animals are to us and to this world. The lack of research and literature on pet loss and bereavement could very well be evidence of a deficiency in Western culture to recognize the full sanctity of animals.

While the depth of pet-person relationships seems to be more widely acknowledged, pet bereavement is marginally understood or recognized. As a result, many are forced to painfully maneuver their way through the obstacles of their own profound grief and emotional debility without the assistance or solidarity of others. This is called disenfranchised grief and often it infiltrates the bereaved with an overwhelming sense of shame that they are grieving at the level they are for an animal as opposed to a human being. 

hans-stubenrauch-saint-francis-of-assisi-preaching-to-the-animals_a-G-1879477-4986398.jpgFrom the perspective of mystic spirituality, there lies the interreligious notion that all of life is intimately infused with the divine. Ohiyesa, a Santee Dakota physician, once said, “We recognize the spiritual in all creation, and believe that we draw power from it.” Within Christianity, Protestants tend to be more suspicious of the finite world, lest they render pieces of it idols. Within the mystic tradition, however, there is this desire to move deep within everything that has being to discover the light of God. Franciscan priest Richard Rohr says, “There are not sacred and profane things, places, and moments. There are only sacred and desecrated things, places, and moments—and it is we alone who desecrate them by our blindness and lack of reverence. It is one sacred universe, and we are all a part of it.” According to the German philosopher Max Scheler, “St. Francis [of Assisi] saw even in a bug the sacredness of life.” By devoting himself so fully to a life of poverty and asceticism, he began to see in all of creation a sign of God’s presence. Likewise, to the Christian mystic animals are worth the utmost gratitude, care, and love of human beings for they mediate God’s holy spirit. Therefore, to grieve for the death of an animal companion is a healthy response to the loss of what was a divinely saturated creature of God.

As I reflect, Lucy’s death has taught me that someone can carry a wound for an animal companion just as much and more as one can for a beloved human being. You can even cry, it turns out, in that dormant aisle of Trader Joes, and there’s nothing wrong about that. I miss Lucy, and always will. 

Come Inside

In more ways than one the past five months have silenced me. I simply haven’t found the energy or the words to voice my experience. This has been a season of immense pain, of learning, of hope, and of pain once more. It’s the sort of pain that isolates, apparently even from my own voice, as it seems this dark existential pit of being has no sufficient words. I have journaled mere details of my days without a hint of poeticism and started songs just to scrap them because they have become clichés. I’ve been desperately searching for something to catalyze my healing. But this… this suffering is persistent.

Journeying with me from Tacoma, Washington to Durham, North Carolina and the community of Duke Divinity School, this suffering goes with me more than ever before. I have said over and over again to my poor health, “This really isn’t a good time. Could you please leave me alone?” But at its core is this fundamental insistence on being experienced fully and without reprieve, to break me wide open for reasons unknown, and silence me at a crucial moment when I could be making new connections with new people.

I think there is simply no making sense of our suffering, you just learn to grapple with two fundamental options: resisting your reality or embracing it (not to be mistaken for enjoying it). Today I break the silence because I’m feeling ready to take up the latter. Perhaps our pain and suffering knocks upon our door not to taunt us away from fulfillment, but to befriend us and teach us all that it can about true love and true joy—those virtues that we culturally unlearn.

now silence your core

heed the knocking wound

and with a resounding breath

prepare a room for a resurrected heart

NK