Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Spiritual Experimentation

I'm convinced that our lives offer profound opportunities for experimentation. There is some truth in the cliche, "There are no unsuccessful experiments." The value of an experiment is not "success" or being proved right, but is instead the process itself. In the spiritual life, we're always in the process of self-discovery, which requires a willingness to question even our sense of ourselves. By God's grace, we certainly hold onto what is most important, but life nonetheless takes us places we might have never thought we would go. To grow obviously requires change. Thus, something we thought was extremely important may eventually need to be cast aside, but its value as an experiment, as a creative act or venture, nonetheless remains. This can be extremely painful, but a recognition of the experimental qualities of life can be helpful. Perhaps this is some of what the great spiritual masters have in mind when they talk about detachment.

In Western culture, we value being firmly convinced of our own truths; to be caught in a self-contradiction is considered the greatest of evils or shortcomings. Witness what happens to a politician who contradicts him- or herself. Foucault (not necessarily a spiritual role-model) had a much more interesting conception of his life's work: he only engaged in studies that would profoundly force him to re-evaluate his position about a given issue throughout. If he had finished the work without changing (i.e., contradicting himself, in some sense), he would have thought the experiment not radical enough. I think this is in general a helpful assessment. While I'm not advocating some sort of libertine freedom to do whatever we want in the name of experimentation, I think finding our true selves in God requires a willingness to change, to contradict ourselves perhaps, to make mistakes but learn from them--to experiment.

5 comments:

Paul Corrigan said...

John thank you for posting.

I like what you describe about Foucault, that if he didn't contradict himself he didn't feel like he had grown enough. What is an essential intellectual and spiritual disposition: to be willing to examine oneself and change!

I also particularly like your exposure of this dark side of us: "we value being firmly convinced of our own truths." I find that I even value being sure about how unsure knowledge is. Ah! The kind of work you're discussing in undoing this tendency is one that requires humility.

I also find, though, that such intellectual growth, even on spiritual topics, can become addicting, on one hand, and exhausting, on the other. Sometimes I find that I need to rest with (and beyond) my tentative knowledge in order to grow deeper with deeper kinds of Knowledge.

To be able to do this is to be comfortable with a measure of the self-contradiction you're talking about.

living stones said...

John, I love what you say in this posting about experimentation. These words of yours particularly struck me: "I think finding our true selves in God requires a willingness to change, to contradict ourselves perhaps, to make mistakes but learn from them--to experiment." I believe we need each other to sustain this kind of experimentation in becoming our true selves, that we can't do this without a community working together to develop a culture of experimentation open and responsive to God. I'm grateful for your investment in this process!
--Rickey

Matt said...

I quite enjoyed this post.
discernment, paradox and tension--very important things in a living faith.

Daniel said...

John, thank you for sharing! I agree-too often we get caught up in defining ourselves, wearing labels, and taking sides. I desire to live out the tension you've described, and, like Rickey said, I'm thankful for a community to lean on that values spiritual dialogue and experimentation.

living stones said...

John, Thanks for this thoughtful reflection. This sentence of yours is significant to me, "By God's grace, we certainly hold onto what is most important, but life nonetheless takes us places we might have never thought we would go." I want to hold fast to the good (the important) and I want to grow. The key part for me means to embrace God's grace. My heart is encouraged as I participate in the process joined in community. Thanks again and blessings--Anna

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