A Theology of Resiliency: A Reflection

When distilled into its finest pieces our universe has no mechanics to ground the depth of human experience. Powerful emotions, such as love, or existential desires, like justice, have no elementary particle. There are no atoms of hate or quarks of mercy. Yet human beings have evolved into creatures of symbol and creativity that participate every day in acts of spiritual creation; namely, a will to meaning which elicits a physical difference in creation. Facing a clockwork universe, “I rebel, therefore we exist.”[1]

In the context of a spiritual humanist theology, when I choose to wake up in the morning motivated by a radical agape impacting others, I take the invisible (love) and make it visible (charity). This does not happen through magical or miraculous intervention, but through a recognition of and participation in an interconnected reality.[2] My caritas emerges as a holy act that shifts the course of the universe: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, forgiving the enemy – none of which makes sense in a mechanistic reality. This is at the core of spiritualities like the Christian call to love my enemy and do good to those who hate me.[3]

And it is the root of a spiritual humanist theology of resiliency. It is a panentheism of participation where the ground of being exists in all creation and is at work in active partnership through all creation. When my belief and faith in justice bends the arc of history, I engage with the holy. Because through my will for justice (which exists in concept) I have breathed new life into the world (by creating justice). I become a conduit for an underlying divinity that isn’t outside of space and time but intimately connected to it. God is in and of the machine.

Neurologist Victor Frankel, who survived the holocaust, wondered how some human beings held hope in the depths of the worst of suffering. He found it was rooted in an unwillingness to give into despair. That despite even the horror of a concentration camp, “We must never forget that we may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation, when facing a fate that cannot be changed.”[4] A refusal to accept the terms of the universe and rather create something new.

Human resiliency then is a psychospiritual practice, rooted in our DNA and cultivated in community.[5] It resists passive and active events of oppression and harm. It grounds powerful prophetic action, like Rosa Parks refusing to relinquish her bus seat in Montgomery, Alabama sparking the civil rights movement in the United States. And Sophie Cruz, who at five years old had the courage (and community) to deliver a letter to Pope Frances in his visit to the White House, advocating for a change in immigration law and becoming a face of the immigration reform movement.[6] It embodies a range of spiritually motivated events of resiliency, even from the smallest of decisions like waking up in the morning committed to being a force for good in the world.

Because it is only through my actions that good, or love, or justice, or mercy, will ever take place in the world. They will not emerge from a metaphysical beyond, or be captured in a neoplatonic form made manifest. My actions exist as a sacrament: an outward symbol of an inward grace. Grace being my recognition of my own existence and inheritance as undeserved and unearned, which inspires from me a stance of gratitude paid forward into the world. A theology of resilience recognizes the worth and dignity of all, inspires empathetic action in the face of suffering, and is grounded in the psychospiritual power found in all creatures of symbol and creativity that will benevolence into existence.

[1] Camus, Albert, and Anthony Bower. The Rebel An Essay on Man in Revolt. Vintage Books, 1956.

[2] King, Martin Luther, and James Melvin Washington. A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: HarperOne, an Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2006.

[3] Luke 6:27, NRSV

[4] Frankel, Man’s Search for Meaning

[5] Levine, Saul. “Psychological and social aspects of resilience: a synthesis of risks and resources” Dialogues in clinical neuroscience vol. 5,3 (2003): 273-80.

[6] The Washington Post, “Meet Sophie Cruz, 5-year-old who gave the pope a letter because she doesn’t want her parents deported,” September 23, 2015. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/local/wp/2015/09/23/meet-the-5-year-old-who-gave-the-pope-a-letter-because-she-doesnt-want-her-parents-deported/?utm_term=.c823f004272d

Back to school.

854990I’ve successfully completed my first class at Seattle University! Huzzah! Take that all you people who… well… actually were quite supportive of this crazy idea. The class was STMM 5530: Pastoral Care Skills, which is usually ten weeks long but because it was a summer session, was compressed into five days. Ten women and one man (me!), from six different faith backgrounds and three different degree tracks, came together to help each other learn how to listen. It felt more like a retreat than a grad school class.

9398Learning how to listen may sound easy, but we tread into some deep emotional, spiritual and psychological waters. There were five required texts for the course and all needed to be read before the first day of class. Armed with theory, in class we discussed how family history, genetics, society, ethnicity, culture and religion all came together to fashion our behavior, specifically how we react in anger, fear, guilt and depression. In order to bring healing, we needed to understand brokenness; specifically, our own.

tumblr_lqeip8nsdz1qcn6k7o4_250We formed triads, and twice a day each of us had a turn at being an observer, listener and speaker. All sessions were video recorded. We were to review our listening sessions and critique our own behavior: How am I sitting? What kinds of questions am I asking? Am I looking at the speaker? How are our chairs positioned? What does my voice sound like? How am I using my facial expressions? We also had constructive feedback from peers and instructors.

105909-Black-Dynamite-now-this-is-som-gQ4KNone of the class was role play. As the speaker, we needed to respond from the heart. Some topics of discussion were: “Who are you and why are you here?” “What are your limitations and strengths?” “What aspects of your family were most difficult?” “What excuses do you use to avoid self-care?” “Where does your anger come from?” “How do you react to conflict, and why?” “How do issues of power and vulnerability affect your life?” It may seem crazy to be able to honestly speak this kind of personal truth to complete strangers.  Thankfully, I had two amazing women in my triad who made self-disclosure incredibly easy.

gif-8The goal of all this is to begin fashioning a sense of pastoral presence; a way of being fully attentive to a care-seeker in a way that affirms their worth and dignity as a human being and provides a safe environment from which to begin healing. I learned this requires an enormous amount of self-examination and self-knowledge. It demands that I be the servant-leader. I also learned there is a scary amount of power that comes with ministry. I’m thankful that I’ve chosen a school which teaches the responsibility, compassion and humility necessary to use that power in a way that respects and honors each individual person I meet.

I can’t wait for the fall semester.