A Radical Modesty

  1. Paths to Human Maturity: by David Field
  2. A Radical Modesty: a response by Peter Leithart
  3. Paths of Maturity: a response by Uri Brito
  4. Learning Wisdom From the Serpents: a response by Alastair Roberts
  5. A Crisis, Not a Conversation: a response by Douglas Wilson
  6. The Conversation Continues: a final word from David Field

David Field’s proposal is initially jarring: Christians should seek wisdom to mature in Christ from outside Christianity, in psychoanalysis and the practices of Zen Buddhism. Reformed Protestants should seek wisdom far outside the Reformed world, in the testimony of the Desert Fathers, who were not Reformed. It’s a radical proposal.

Then David disarms. He doesn’t propose that we “adopt” these pathways but that we “investigate” them. We’d “do well to take a look.” At least, he says, they pose fresh questions to Scripture, perhaps highlighting things we’ve missed. It’s a modest proposal, an invitation to dabble and window-shop. Who could argue with it?

 Well, lots of people: Christians who claim that the Bible is our only source for psychological insight, Christians who emphasize the antithesis between Christian and non-Christian thought, various species of the genus VanTillian.

As it turns out, the modesty is only skin deep. As David explains the “prima facie case” for his proposal, his radicalism shows its face. He out-Bibles the Bible-only types, opening an expansive horizon for investigation along a Biblicist pathway. 

Consider one thread of his case: Do breathing exercises have a role in Christian maturation? Yes, because “God’s Spirit and (therefore) the human spirit and self are described as breath; God breathes into dust to make Adam; Christ breathes upon the disciples to empower them with the Spirit; our breath and our life, our breath and God’s life are inextricably tied to one another.” Later he elaborates:

Our breath is God’s life in us and it is our life and our self. To breathe out is to lay out our life, to give up our self, to allow our spirit to return to God. At the end of our out-breath, we are in momentary ‘death’ and then if God gives us another in-breath, we live again. He gives us his purposeful energy / our self and life in the new in-breath with the expressed intention that we should not hold on to it but let it go once more in loving service of others. Indeed, to try to hold onto our breath / self would be to lose it.  As we breathe in, we are ‘inspired’ with the life of God.  As we breathe out, we ‘expire’, letting go of our life into obedience, praise and service.  In this breathing in and out, we ‘conspire’ with God – in a shared purpose and shared rhythms which take the world from one degree of glory to the next.

Notice what’s happening here. David starts by taking the creation of Adam with what some will regard as naïve literalism: Man becomes a living soul because the breath/Spirit of God is breathed into him. Our spirits are breath because God’s Spirit is breath and we are made in His image. Our inmost self is “God’s life in us.” We are dust animated by divine breath. 

For David, this isn’t a poetic flourish. It’s the truth about man, tied to the inextricably physical fact that we must breathe to live. Say what you will about the intake of oxygen and the outflow of carbon dioxide. The essence of breathing is a rhythm of sacrifice, of laying down life in order to take it up, of receiving life we do not have in ourselves; breathing is a dance of divine inspiration, deathly expiration, glorifying conspiration. 

Along this line of reflection, David has, and has not, left the Bible behind. At first, it appears that Scripture serves as little more than springboard; much of what David says might be described as “natural theology,” drawn from steady observation of the simplest of human experiences. But his account of that experience is shaped at every moment by the Bible; every claim is theologically charged. Breathing is death-and-resurrection; and so it is also the radical self-denial of discipleship; and so it is also transfiguring union with God. And all the while, David is talking about breathing– not “spiritual” breathing, or breathing as a metaphor for something less gritty and earthy, but breathing. The entire paragraph aims to provide a theological account of the practical power of controlling, holding, pausing our breath. Biblical and natural realities snap together like pieces of a puzzle – provided we doggedly cling to the Bible as fundamental anthropology.

And that pathway opens up countless other possibilities. Aroma therapy? Levitical offerings raise soothing aroma to Yahweh’s nostrils; priests had to be perfumed to enter Yahweh’s house; the Bride of the Song of Songs, in her self-offering, exudes fragrance, she is stirred by the fragrance of the king, and winds carry fragrance from the garden of their love to the corners of the earth; we are the aroma of Christ, life to those who believe but an aroma of death to those who do not. None of this is “mere metaphor.” It provides a prima facie case to explore aroma as a psychological gift.

Music therapy? The Triune God, the late Robert Jenson said, is a great fugue, and creation and humanity are variations on the harmonies of Triune life. Music is sacrifice; music presupposes royal mastery of the creation and the self; music has prophetic power. The Spirit conforms us to Christ the Singer by inspiring psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. With most of the ancient world, we have every reason to believe that music has a role in re-tuning the discordant soul, offering another pathway to human maturity.

Liturgical therapy? Years ago, Oliver Sacks described, with his unmatched vividness, a catatonic man who curved outward only when a priest visited the ward to say Mass. Shouldn’t we expect that patterning our bodies to praise will knit divided souls and bodies into one?

As for the Freudian side of David’s proposal, we can follow another line of biblical teaching, the New Testament’s accent on “free speech” (parresia). Paul boasts that he doesn’t have to hide behind a veil, as Moses did. He can speak with boldness because the Spirit has written on the tablets of the hearts of his hearers, allowing them togaze with unveiled face at the glory of Jesus (2 Corinthians 3). 

But it’s not merely apostles who speak freely in the church. “Confess your sins to one another,” James exhorts us (5:16). As David emphasizes, the church is called to be a community characterized by “radical,” “maximal,” “extreme” honesty, where sin is to be openly confessed, forgiven, forsaken. It’s a community of timely silence, not the silence of speech’s absence but the silence that opens space for speech, the silence that is the condition of possibility of free speech. We’re children of light, living in the light of God that is the light of self-exposure, the light that exposes what’s in the darkness, the light that turns everything it shines on into light. Freed speech illumines, and so brings fresh possibilities for insight.

Here’s the genius of David’s proposal: Freud and the Buddha can illumine our pathway to maturity because of, not in spite of, our radical Biblicism. We follow the Bible wherever it goes to find our pathway to the place we want to be: Deep in the deep weird.

Peter Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.