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Queer Incarnational Mariology: The Doctrine of Creation

In feminist theology, Mary is often sourced as a liberative figure for women on the receiving end of patriarchal power. Delores Williams, author of Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, at once troubles and affirms this appropriation of Mary in light of its implications for both incarnational theology and the template of redemption. She argues that the typological rendering of Mary as the Victorian ideal—docile, innocent, and virgin—dehumanizes the black female experience by virtue of lifting up ideals that a racialized and patriarchal society make nearly impossible for black women to attain. As such, she does not plead for the inclusion of black women into this framework of the Mariological, but offers theological alternatives to undermine this paradigm altogether. The purpose of this essay is to argue that in order to honor the lived experiences of those who do not fit the Victorian ideal, we must figure both incarnation and redemption beyond surrogacy and the logics of atonement. To do so, I will look to the critiques and revisions Williams and M. Shawn Copeland make of classical Mariology and use Sallie McFague’s panentheistic doctrine of creation to argue for a queering of incarnational theology.

Copeland argues that the way in which Mary has been typified by Victorian values of “true womanhood” is not only problematic, but harmful for African-American women. In the context of enslavement, the Victorian figure of Mary sanctions female passivity to practices of white exploitation. And, not only that, but because of what Copeland calls “the libidinous economics of the plantation,”black women have not been able to live into the traits of the archetypal woman. During the Victorian era of the mid-nineteenth century, special attention was given to Mary’s sexual propriety and humble submission to the Lord. Copeland explains that slavocracy was an attack on black women’s identity, and therefore the figure of Mary as the model of true womanhood is not a truly liberative figure for African-American women. Not only were black women dehumanized; they were degendered and desexed.” Black women were reduced to mere body parts for the (ab)use of white men. Their bodies were used as sexual objects, as a means of generating economic profit, and as surrogate wombs for the reproduction of human capital. As Copeland makes clear, Mary as the Victorian ideal is a harmful model for black women that justifies and glorifies their histories of suffering.

Williams shares many, if not all, of Copeland’s concerns over the Victorian appropriation of Mary, and, as such, argues for a move away from Mariological notions of glorified surrogacy. To understand Williams’ alternative framing of Mary, it is helpful to explore her critiques of atonement Christology. As she describes, the theology of much of mainline Protestantism teaches that “sinful humankind has been redeemed because Jesus died on the cross in the place of humans, thereby taking human sin upon himself.” Given African-American women’s long history with surrogacy, this raises serious questions about the way most Christians have been discipled into imaging redemption. Williams maintains that theories of atonement view Jesus as the quintessential surrogate figure (or mother). Jesus suffers on humanity’s behalf the effects of sin in order to birth, so to speak, human salvation. Williams takes umbrage with this notion for its potential divinization of black female surrogacy. In other words, she posits that Jesus as a surrogate figure assigns redemptive value to the surrogate exploitation of black women’s bodies.

Williams offers a womanist reimagining of salvation that repositions salvific worth away from Jesus’ death and onto Jesus’ life of resistance. This is most prominently concretized in Jesus’ resistance to temptation in the wilderness (Matt 4:1-11). A parallel could be made here to Williams’ high view of Hagar’s wilderness experience (Gen 16:1-9, 21:1-9). This story “held [/holds] together black women’s positive struggle for autonomy, through resistance and rebellion.”She argues that black women’s salvation is assured not through Jesus’ death, but through Jesus’ “ministerial vision of life” that allows them to survive “the death of identity.” This Christology names the sheer brutality of Christ crucified, and in so doing, liberates black women to name their own oppression without an overweening pressure to view it as sacred. This, at the very least, weakens, if not problematizes, the argument Dr. Carter and others want to make that through the matriarchal conception of Jesus the patriarchy is definitively discontinued. Regardless of Joseph’s involvement or lack thereof, the very way Christ’s incarnation is imagined by the biblical authors is already gendered and patriarchal. What Williams wants to argue for instead is what we might call “queer incarnational Mariology.”

The very phrase “the Incarnation” points to the way in which divine incarnation has typically been framed as a singular phenomenon in the person of Jesus Christ. We could say this is a phallic incarnation in which God, as male, penetrates creation to reveal Godself. In this model, Mary is simply the womb through which “the Incarnation” occurs. Notice how this keeps Mary in a gendered place of submission. Williams wants to argue against gendered incarnational theology: “…[I]ncarnation also involves God’s self-disclosure in a woman: Mary. …The word was first made flesh in Mary’s body”—not through the body of Mary, but in the body. Williams refuses to embed Mary within patriarchal (read “Victorian”) gender normativity. She envisions Mary beyond gender categories of surrogate motherhood and places her in queered relationality to the Godhead. Donna Haraway says, “Humanity’s face has [long] been the face of man. Feminist humanity must have another shape, other gestures; … we must have feminist figures of humanity.” Williams does just this by reimagining Mary as the first sight of incarnation.

It is my contention that queer incarnational Mariology throws open a new horizon of Creator-creation non-duality. This gets to the heart of what is at stake for Sallie McFague’s understanding of creation as “God’s body.” She says, creation is “like” the incarnation. Jesus Christ [and I would argue Mary] is the lens, the model, through whom Christians interpret God, world, and themselves.” This is an incarnational understanding of the doctrine of creation where God is found in the “flesh of the world” (not identical to it, but present in it). It is a critique against radical dualisms between spirit and matter and places sacred worth on all people regardless of gender or race, every creature great and small. There is no room for notions of surrogacy or atonement when embodiment is the reality of God. Incarnation, therefore, becomes a cosmic reality in which Mary participates. She is the touchstone of queer incarnation.


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 once again 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 (or 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.



The Doctrine of Election

Honor God in all

Or miss the seraph whisper,

“You are chosen too.”


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.


Sin: A Theology of Death

Why do people die?” It’s a question all must inevitably confront, and, if we are to live without paralyzing anxiety, a question all must paradoxically embrace and transcend. To pretend to know the answer to this question of why anything exists then ceases to exist is to perpetuate our enslavement to what Peter Enns calls ‘the sin of certainty.’ Obviously, we can never know why we die, only that we do in fact die. However, to ask this unanswerable question is crucial in learning to live beyond it. For all its virtue, the Christian Church has largely failed to accept this notion. Christianity has historically attempted to solve the mystery of our dying by conflating sin and death—just look at the theology of substitutionary atonement. This is largely rooted in particular Christologies that embrace the doctrine of original sin to a dehumanizing extreme. It’s crucial, then, that this outdated paradigm for understanding our finitude be deconstructed and provided with a more expansive alternative.

In confronting the absurdity of our questions we begin to wake up to better questions. To ask, “Why is there something instead of nothing?” is a sort of prerequisite to ask the more pressing question: “What do I do with this one life I’ve been given?” In the same way, to ask, “Was Jesus truly the Son of God, the Messiah that the ancient Jews eagerly awaited?” is to discover the deeper and more imminent question that Amma the Hugging Saint most profoundly posed: “The question is not if there is a God, but if there is suffering.” In learning to ask the latter, one can devote themselves to alleviate the sorrows of the world without needing to answer an impossible question about the divine nature of Jesus. As Chris Stedman, assistant Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University, writes, “The ability to act selflessly for others transcends religion.” What he points out is that activism is not contingent on belief. Sure, it informs the way we act in the world, but it doesn’t presuppose our ability to act. That notion is just used to trap non-theists in religious prejudice. Secular humanists arrive at this basic notion more naturally than even the most progressive Christians do. Faith is clearly learning to live without knowing, and until the Church embraces that, it will continue to perpetuate damaging theologies that attempt to provide firm answers to the fundamental mysteries and tragedies of life.

The question, “Why do people die?” is not a question of imminent significance—a better question might be, “We’re all going to die, so what do we do in light of this?” Unlike the former question, this is one that can indeed be answered because it doesn’t hinge on objective truth. Here, we could explore the infinite responses to this simple question from the diverse perspectives of every world religion and nonreligious philosophy, and they would all be subjectively right for the sheer reason that there is no singular “right” answer. But for our purposes, we turn to the Christian perspective as a starting place.

Paul famously said, “For the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23 NRSV), but let’s ponder that for a moment. Is death actually related to human sin? If so, the implicit corollary is that sin is somehow related to deaths that are not clearly related to human sinfulness (e.g., the death of an infant or the assassination of Gandhi). What’s clear is that people need to have the ubiquity of human suffering acknowledged theologically, and perhaps this is in large part why the doctrine of original sin exists in the first place. But the Church would do well to tread carefully here because such sin-based Christianity is so concerned with explaining suffering through original sin that often it forces the justification of such suffering. Stanley Hauerwas thoroughly explains why this is problematic: “If we try to attribute these terrible results to God’s secret providence, that cannot help but make God at best a tyrant and at worst a cosmic torturer. What we must finally do in the face of… suffering…is to show the patience that does not try to discern any ‘purpose’ behind suffering, but without in any way caring less for [ourselves and others].” [3] Death is tragic, but it’s not a result of sin. That’s a crucial distinction. If this isn’t recognized, the Church is in real danger of disenfranchising those who suffer against their own will and lose the people they most dearly love. We will, in short, explicitly or covertly blame them for their adversities. It’s of incredible importance, then, that death is acknowledged as a phenomenon built into creation, but not synonymous with sin.

So what’s the alternative? How can Christianity inform the way we live in light of our death? What does Christianity have to offer us as finite creatures on a tiny rock of finite resources hurtling around an inhospitable void? It is, in its stark simplicity, Christ. Of course, for some, Christ has been so minimized that those seeking a more expansive worldview have rejected him entirely. Often one of the negative consequences of the doctrine of original sin is violent atonement theologies that are often used to say one’s suffering can be redemptive. This is dangerous and bad theology. Jesus’ act of redemption was a once-and-for-all act and none of us are called to replicate that in our suffering. The search for meaning-making out of suffering is an important one, but it is never appropriate from a third party perspective to impose upon another person a redemptive value to their suffering.

What the Church of the twenty first century needs is to move away an a priori reading of reality and reconceive of a cosmic Christ. Most of religion is ideological; it operates from a top-down model of God that is stuck in the pre-Copernican cosmology of a three-tiered universe. But what if Jesus came to enhance our humanity, to point us to a larger reality of God, and not as a one-time phenomenon, but as a manifestation of the Word (the “cosmic Christ”) that has always been right there in front of us waiting to be seen? This would enable us to see God in the ordinary and to honor God in “the least of these” (Matt. 25:40 NRSV). Jesus could become, for us, the doorway to perceive everything as shot through with the glory of God, to see that every bush is burning and always has been. Teilhard de Chardin said, “Everything that rises must converge,”[4] meaning that greater consciousness and greater evolution is always a step towards greater unity. This Jesus transforms our psyche, expands our consciousness, and invites us to draw closer to one another, to be more deeply and fully human, not to atone for some unforgivable, inherited sinfulness. Until we conceive of this cosmic Christ, Christians will continue to conflate sin with death, sin with disability, sin with miscarriage, sin with chronic illness, and sin, quite frankly, with life, thereby perpetuating the disenfranchisement of those who so painfully endure suffering against their own volition. 

[1] This is a phrase that Peter Enns coins in his book The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires Our Trust More Than Our “Correct” Beliefs (New York: HarperCollins, 2016). It is used to describe the evangelical tendency to retain theological certitude at all costs when the Spirit may be inviting us, through our questions and doubts, into a richer faith with greater spiritual depth. Insisting upon the order that we were fed in the earliest stages of our faith journeys makes us love order; it does not make us love Jesus.  
[2] Chris Stedman. Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious (Boston: Beacon Press, 2012), 109.
[3] Stanley Hauerwas. God, Medicine, and Suffering. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990), 89.
[4] From Teilhard’s essay “Omega Point” in which he lays out his theory of cosmogenesis, or evolution of the world. For Teilhard, the universe is in a state of progression in which human consciousness and evolution will ultimately converge, reaching its cosmic apex with the Omega Point, the Logos that was revealed through Christ. Some argue that his cosmogenesis errs dangerously close to transhumanism and the idea that prioritizing longevity of life through biotechnology is the real source of our salvation, but this is taking his theory to an extreme. Teilhard articulates a panentheistic reality in which Christ “comes again” whenever we are able to perceive the spiritual through the material world.

Trader Joes

Pushing what was now my full cart down the quietly untouched 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.

I stopped for a moment and just stood there looking over at them 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 after she came home from surgery and 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.

You can carry a wound for a child, a parent, a dear friend, even someone you’ve admired but never met. But I’m finding just as well that your heart can break wide open for an animal—indeed, for a dog; and it turns out that you can cry even in that cold, dormant aisle of Trader Joes.


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


The Dragon

In Chinese culture, dragons represent traditionally masculine traits like strength and ferocity, but also perseverance, divine spirit, and success through overcoming hardship. For years now I’ve had large dragon tapestries on my bedroom walls and they’ve meant different things to me along the way.

Let me begin by giving a very brief backstory. Towards the end of elementary school and all throughout middle school, I was a victim of racist bullying. To be honest, it’s not something that I’ve given much thought until rather recently with the Black Lives Matter movement. Coming to terms with my own experience of racism has allowed me to better understand the racism of others and work to shake off its roots in our American culture.

My sophomore year of college, I bought my first dragon tapestry at a street market in Fremont, Seattle. I bought it simply for its aesthetic qualities, and didn’t think too much of it. But this was also around the time that I began to reclaim my Chinese identity. I proudly put up my dragon tapestry as a way to remind myself of my Chinese heritage and that I was proud of my family’s history. Looking back, it was also, in large part, a personal permission slip to give up the grudges I had held for so long against the racist bullies of my childhood.

When I moved to Davis, California I met someone who introduced me to a sort of mythic iconography where, in a visible place in your house, you put an animal or beast that represents your weakest traits, and the objective is to have this rich dialogue with it that becomes instinctual as you face the challenges of life. Essentially, one listens to it and learns from it not so much in an attempt to become it, but to become better as a result of it. I found this idea really fascinating. After all, I never fully identified in what the Chinese Dragon symbolized. I had, for the last six years or so, battled with weakness as a result of chronic insomnia and uncorrelated chronic fatigue. I knew that I had already found the perfect beast for this project, and so I decided I would give this iconography a try.

I bought another dragon tapestry at a tibetan store downtown. I paid the quiet and mysterious store owner, rolled it up, put it in my backpack, and biked it all the way back to my apartment.

When I got back, I surveyed the room, looking for a good place to put this new dragon. There was hardly any room in my bedroom for such a large sheet.

“Maybe I’ll put it downstairs in the kitchen. Better there than nowhere at all.”

So I walked it downstairs and found that there was definitely no room for it there, especially since I had another tapestry on the wall, which I had forgotten was there. So I brought it back upstairs to my room.

“Maybe I shouldn’t have bought this,” I said to myself.

I really thought there would be room. I laid down on my bed for a moment out of physical fatigue and looked up at an empty ceiling, and there, just like that, I had found both the physical space for my tapestry, and the perfect location for such a habitual practice of mythic iconography.

That year I spent countless miserable nights awake with insomnia looking up at a dragon on my ceiling, and, call me crazy, but I think I became a better person for it. On those nights I would look up at my dragon and he would stare down at me and we would talk. Many times he would mock me and my weakness. He would tempt me to give into hopelessness. He would say, “You’re not a Chinese! You can’t overcome your suffering!” But I would think back to the stories of my grandparents, and remember where they came from and where they ended up. Poverty, prison camps, providing for their entire families just to be deserted by them, then going to college on their own dime, becoming successful lawyers, starting a family and paving the way for the life that would one day be mine. This history was also my history.

A year later, the dragons are up in my bedroom in Tacoma. This is the room where I continue to suffer with insomnia, and where my conversations with the dragons continue. I’m learning to identify with them more and more because I feel that in some small way I really am overcoming my hardship by facing my suffering. It’s through this long and consistent battle with insomnia and fatigue that the importance of fiercely loving myself and powerfully standing up to hopelessness becomes so clear to me. I simply cannot survive if on top of my suffering I am tearing myself down in my own heart. Although the Dragon is, in many seasons, my nemesis, he is also my teacher. He is teaching me that I can in fact become a lot like him, although it might take the subversion of the traditional model of power and success (hint hint… Jesus).

This week I am not at home. I am in Winthrop, WA with my father and there are no dragon tapestries here. But last night, I had insomnia again and discovered that there was one hiding in the shadows.

2:45am. I leave my room. It’s better not to stay in one’s bed tossing and turning all night because of negative conditioning. So I go to the dimly lit living room where the fire place is still on. I sit for a moment with my head down in defeat.

“Why me? What did I do wrong today to throw off my sleep cycle? Why the hell can’t I just be like other people and sleep like a normal human being? My vacation with my dad is going to be ruined if I don’t sleep.”

And like an avatar from another reality, this dragon suddenly appears with a fierce gust of wind directly above me to my right. I look up at it and it says,

“You’re weak! You will never know success. You will never be able to help others if you yourself are in need of help! You embarrass me. You bring no honor to your family. You are worthless!”

It takes me only a few seconds tonight to spit back with my own sleep deprived but fiery conviction.

“No!! Dragon, don’t you see? This is the only way to retain my true identity! Without facing my own pain I will never come to see the true gift that my life is. For as long as I drink this cup of suffering, I proclaim my victory until it comes.”

The Dragon usually gives up when I start to make parallels to my experience with the scriptures of my faith tradition. In this moment I feel victorious. However, to be honest, I felt a little lonely once the Dragon left. I enjoyed having a conversation partner at that late hour, even if it was a bit of a contentious dialogue.

I realize that the Dragon stops talking to me when I have all I need to accept my conditions, retain my power to see myself as beautiful and worthy, and remember that I contain a piece of divinity, a piece of God’s sacred spirit inside of me. I’m thankful for that because I need every reminder I can get that all the tools for success, for inner peace, are already within me. This capacity for love and peace is in me because it’s in all of us. I believe that. And I’m trying to infuse every facet of my life with this belief and am endeavoring to live like it moment to moment authentically whether it’s with my experience as an insomniac, my service to others, my friendships, my letting go of grudges, or my relationship with my family. To unlock these treasures within us requires only a subtle shift in perspective, although it has dramatically huge implications. For me, that has everything to do with the way I view my suffering in the context of success.

As Rumi said over seven hundred years ago, what cleans the dirt is dirt itself. It’s only in my present circumstance of my chronic insomnia that I have begun to understand this. What if the “dirt” of our finite, mortal lives is actually the path to heal and transform the dirt we see in the world? The exploration of our own dirt, our own ugliness, hate, aggression, fear, and weakness is where the journey begins. May we find our own creaturely teachers and tempters, and may it be a journey of healing for each and every one of us.