The Scattering Integrative Life
August 10, 2021

Can it be that it has been two whole years since I contributed a Theopolis Post! I had been pursuing the topic of integration: “Seeking Integration in a Fragmented World.” I had defined “integration,” simply, as creative putting together. I had posed that seeking it calls for a fundamentally integrative epistemology (M Polanyi), as well as a fundamentally integrative metaphysic (DC Schindler). I had connected my thesis with some of artist Makoto Fujimura’s, especially regarding making, and kintsugi. I had suggested that the good life, of communion with the real, involves integration intrinsically. I had noted the fundamentally integrative shaping encounter of the gaze of the mother, as well as the regard for the other also entailed. In my last post, I had presented esse, the actual and active presence that cores reality, the claim that is the Christian doctrine of creation. I saw this as “putting things together.” I also saw myself as wrapping up the inquiry.

– Good thing! The intervening months have been scattering, to say the least! At the time I was recovering from a long stint with pneumonia. A couple weeks after the August 2019 post, I announced my phasing toward retirement from Geneva College, immediately shifting my attention to the future. Covid descended upon us all in March 2020, scattering the pieces of our lives.

The next month a door opened for me to move to a home in my daughter’s neighborhood. I embraced this prudent opportunity, only just possible because of my phasing retirement. I dredged up, disposed of or packed into boxes every single item I own. July 7, 2020, Steubenville, Ohio, became my address: only an hour drive, but two states away, from where I have lived and worked. This last year I have commuted, or zoomed, to teach my phased load. In May 2021 I became Emeritus Professor of Philosophy. Only this month—this week—does my full-time Geneva post officially end.

This transition has removed me a distance from friends and colleagues and community. I find myself in a new status, a new financial arrangement, a new state, a new home, a new locale, a not-yet-known ultimate chapter of my life and of my work. My very identity feels up for grabs.

I have been scattered. The pieces of me have been strewn about. Even though this transition is a good thing, even though I chose it, it is a disintegrating. The Psalmist’s lament is apt: “I have become like a broken vessel.” (Ps 31:14) (Surely this is the kintsugi verse!)1 In the words of a contemporary song, it is an unmaking.2

Seeking integration, obviously, involves living it. We seek to be integrated persons—to live an integrative life. But a signature feature of an integrative life proves to be, disintegration. On the path toward integration, we feel ourselves, at points, unmade. To be oneself undergoing integration just is going to involve a disorientation, scattering. I have been comparing my psyche to a motor whose clutch is disengaged from one set of gears, unsure in this between-times which set of gears is next.

This is not to say that integration is a misguided ideal. I think that it is the ideal. That’s just why scattering is uncomfortable and we hope not the final state of affairs. Life essentially involves “pulling ourselves together,” as Dionysius expressed so well centuries ago.3 The real itself invites our journey toward integration. Life began with the most concentrated centering in this: the mother’s smile. Life is a journey toward the supremely integrative face of God.

There is a primacy to the real in its integrative, inexhaustively rich, depths—as opposed to modernity’s exaltation of the meaningless bits. We find ourselves in all corners of our lives, irresistibly, journeying integratively toward the beautiful, the good and the true. –Even as we undergo—and consent to—scattering and reconstellating.

Nor is this scattering to be identified with the fragmentation fomented by the modernist epistemology and anti-metaphysics. The resulting milieu of our modern age actually eschews integration and exalts disintegration paradigmatically, to the end of mastery. Rather, this is a scattering meaningful in light of and as a doorway to farther integration. People fragmented by modernity require this other sort of scattering in order to integrate.

My point is that integration lived involves a scattering. We find ourselves disoriented. For a time, we lack any ground for moving forward. An unmaking, even if we have chosen them, (has to) appear beyond reason.

The scattering holds some things for us to do and be and affirm. First, we may hope. We may hope that it is a season. We may choose to believe that the scattering invites a fresh, profounder, integration. I believe that this is part of what it means to live out that the real itself is integrative.

Second, we must let go. Letting go is a sort of consent even to the scattering. Consent is a highly sophisticated, exclusively personed, act. (“She gave her consent,” we say . . .) Scattering may be instigated by the real itself: bad things, and even good things, fragment our hitherto integrated world. But even though the real instigates, we must still say yes to it if we are to move on. We have the option of rejecting it—a matter of pride or of despair.4 To say yes calls for deep humility to receive a proffered gift. Again, this “yes” lies at the heart of the let-the-be that just is the real. I said yes to retirement, and to the move. And I am walking it out.

Third, we may quiet ourselves into presence and attentiveness. This is my foremost experience in this time of my own scattering. When I have listed my main reasons for retirement, I have felt that contemplative presence needed to be foremost. The real is after all the Let-there-be, the esse, of God, in all its palpable particularity. The least I can do is slow down and pay attention.5

My new home features a proper front porch.  There is also a tiny back deck overlooking the heights of this bluff next to the Ohio River, as well as my tiny garden’s profusion of flowers. I sit soaking in the dawns and dusks. I love the train whistles and church bells rising from the valley. Especially I love the wheeling overhead dance of the chimney swallows, whose exuberant home seems only to be the heights of air.

Retirement shouldn’t be thought of as doing nothing. Or if it is, we should follow Dallas Willard’s injunction that this is a capacity—a “greatest spiritual attainment”—which we should cultivate.6 Being still, an extravagant squandering of moments, actually feels timelessly enduring. In an unmaking, a scattering, compelled to wait for a graced reconstellating, stillness may seem to be all we can muster. But it turns out that God himself comes in this presence. “I have become like a broken vessel . . . You hide them in the secret place of your presence.” (Ps 31)

My attentive presence may prove to be a doorway to fresh integration. In my new book, Doorway to Artistry (also a recent mini-course for Theopolis Institute), presence coincides with our consent to the real’s hospitable gesture of welcome.7 And then it can open the way to a profounder reconstellating. But I have come to see that in a way, nothing needs to result in order for the presence to be somehow the main act. But in grace, it does.

All this means that the integrative life is ever one of mystery. Not some ultimately frustrated, futile, effort, but rather inexpressibly profound depths which signature that we belong in this presence as in our native land. G. K. Chesterton wrote: “This at least seems to me the main problem: how can we contrive to be at once astonished at the world and yet at home in it?”8

The integrative life involves disintegration, an unmaking, a letting go. In the scattering we may compose ourselves to attentive presence. Even—especially—in being still, we sit in the mystery which proves to be our home. Mystery marks the deeply integrative life.

Esther L. Meek, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Geneva College, as well as a Fujimura Institute Fellow Scholar. Her books include Contact With Reality:​Michael Polanyi’s Realism and Why It Matters; A Little Manual for KnowingLoving to Know: Introducing Covenant Epistemology, and Longing to Know: The Philosophy of Knowledge for Ordinary People.

  1. I continue to reflect on Makoto Fujimura’s thought and work. See my earlier post, “Kintsugi Integration.” The Japanese kintsugi aesthetic captures beautifully the scattering that proves essential to integration. Cf. Fujimura, Art + Faith: A Theology of Making (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2020), 103. ↩︎
  2. Nichole Nordeman, “The Unmaking.”  ↩︎
  3. Dionysius, The Divine Names IV.10.708A: “The beautiful and good is to be desired and to be loved erotically and to be loved agapaically, and it is by the [the good and beautiful] and for its sake that the inferior love erotically [their superiors, those of the same rank, their inferiors], and each thing erotically loves itself by holding itself together (‘synektically”), and all things do and will all the things that they do and will by desiring the good and the beautiful. ↩︎
  4. Dan B. Allender, The Healing Path: How the Hurts in Your Past Can Lead You to a More Abundant Life (Colorado Springs: Waterbrook Press, 1999), ch. 1; David J. Kettle, Western Culture in Gospel Context (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011), 29. ↩︎
  5. Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters (New York: Harper & Row, 1985), 85. Poet Mary Oliver writes, “. . . just pay attention . . . this isn’t a contest, but a doorway . . .” (Thirst: Poems by Mary Oliver; (Boston: Beacon Press, 2006). ↩︎
  6. Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God (New York: HarperCollins, 1997), 358. ↩︎
  7. Esther Lightcap Meek, Doorway to Artistry: Attuning Our Philosophy to Enhance Our Creativity (Eugene, OR: Cascade Press, forthcoming). ↩︎
  8. G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy. ↩︎
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