“Beyond the desert of criticism, we wish to be called again”
Paul Ricoeur, The Symbolism of Evil
Holy sand that heals? Stone fetish carvings that are alive? Desert monks who see visions? Wilderness weeds which cure? Entheogens that help you see God? Desert winds that bring sickness?
As we have journeyed together through the desert spirit places of the Southwest, have you changed? Has a deep place within you recognized anything here that has animated your soul?
Can you remember a time in your childhood when you read a book and the stories were so real that your imagination awakened with vivid excitement: all of this truly happened?
. Perhaps that book became tattered and worn by your frequent return into the realm of wonder.
However, as you grew older, the book fell back into a dark recess of the bookshelf. Perhaps, as you perused through childhood memorabilia at a later age, the book revealed itself, and your spirit stirred for a moment of precious memory, which soon passed, and the book returned to the shelf or to the trash bin. Or you began to read the story again with new eyes, admiring the old yet carefully created drawings, and phrases that you had at one time memorized. With new eyes you read again, and the story becomes alive. Perhaps you are now reading the book aloud to your child, or grandchild, and the eyes and ears of wonder in that child begin to radiate energy toward you.
This experience could be called “Second Naivete”, and French philosopher Paul Ricouer helps us to understand its deeper meaning.
I am grateful to Linards Jansons for his insight about Ricoeur’s three stages. In contrast with childhood storybooks, Ricoeur reflects on sacred texts like the Bible.
In the Pre-critical Stage, stories in the Bible like Creation, Adam and Eve, and Noah’s Flood are received as true accounts. This supernatural world is real. This naïve perception of the Bible was the norm in Europe until the Enlightenment of the 17th century. I reminded my world religions students that “myth” does not mean an untrue story. A myth is a story that describes who we are, how we came to be, our relationship to creation and with God.
The Enlightenment shifted the source of knowledge from the Bible to the Book of Nature. As people traveled to new lands, the exposure to other religions challenged rigid Christian Orthodoxy. Jewish and Christian scriptures were studied and analyzed in their earlier languages, rather than Latin.
We enter the Critical Stage. There is now a distance between the world described in the Bible and our world. There is distance between the porous, supernatural world and our own buffered world of Reason and the scientific method.
In the late 1960’s in seminary, as I prepared to be a parish priest: to teach and apply the spirituality of Jesus and the Bible, I encountered a brittle, dry, “desert of criticism” in the classroom. Analysis, suspicion and skepticism seemed to be the dominant stance as we studied the sacred stories of faith.
Linards Jansons reflects:
“….this is no ordinary desert, but a “desert of criticism”, an intellectual desert, part of our Western cultural topography. How did we get there? Should we be there? And who is this “we.” Our Ricoeurian proverb suggests that whoever “we” are, we are ready to move on. We wish to be “called”. By who? And why “again”. When was the first time? And why beyond the desert” Where are we now being called? Back from whence we came, or on to a new place.?”
Linards Jansons, What is the Second Naivete?
For many of us, the what next has faded out. We are distracted by enticing diversions. For some the sacred has no meaning because the stories were never told, or skepticism and Reason killed the faith. But I am convinced of the power of a Holy Longing, the deep desire within every human for direct, personal connection to the sacred.
Ricoeur’s Post Critical Moment suggests that we work with and carry the gifts of Reason and textual criticism; we explore the anthropology behind the text, story and sacred tradition; we consider explanations that speak to the world we live in now; and we continue forward with the journey, which is now an inner, intuitive, mystical path. All critical insights are welcome. We are not going back to the pre-critical medieval Europe. We are not stuck in the skeptical desert. We press on. I believe that the “call beyond” of Ricoeur is an inner voice that seeks to awaken inner eyes to perceive the sacred.
My friend and teacher, Walter Brueggemann shares:
“I was educated in historical criticism, as everyone was, to keep the text in the past and to presume that it had one recoverable meaning intended by the author. It became clear to me that I had to find a way, while taking historical criticism seriously, to move beyond it. By accident, I started reading about the theory of the imagination with reference to Paul Ricoeur. That led me to see that what we always do with the biblical text, if we want it to be pertinent or compelling or contemporary, is commit mostly unrecognized acts of imagination by which we stretch and pull and extend the implications of the text beyond is words.”
A Conversation with Walter Brueggemann, Bradford Winters.
In the late 1960s, during of the cultural transformation of America, I entered seminary in Berkeley, California. The Episcopal Church did not know what to do with young adult males who had experienced any spiritual awakening, so the Church sent us to seminary. Many of us came from that Pre-Critical Phase, with a naïve understanding of the Bible and sacraments. In seminary we faced the Critical Stage head on. The old Orthodox stance that the first five books of the Bible were written by Moses was replaced by Form Criticism, and the theory that various authors writing at various times wrote the Pentateuch. As we studied the gospels, we encountered scholars questioning the kerygma/teachings that really did come from Jesus and the overlay of tradition coming from the early Church. We were taught to be rigorous academics, which fostered a distant skepticism.
In 1970, I began parish ministry in Laguna Beach, California, amidst Hippy drug culture and the first encounters with homeless people and immigrants. Ministry pulled me out into the community to respond to human need. As St. Francis taught, “Preach the Gospel at all times, and when necessary use words.”
The first twenty years of preaching sermons was more of an academic exercise for me: exegesis/research on the cultural context of the scripture at the time it was written and how to apply those teachings to our own lives, with witty anecdotes.
That all changed in 1990, when I began spiritual direction with Sister Jeanne Fallon of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange. At a very troubled, depressing time of life, in the first few years after Erik’s catastrophic illness, I was searching, and an inner voice was calling me forward.
Sister Jeanne encouraged me to begin the year-long program of the Spiritual Exercises, created five hundred years ago by Saint Ignatius of Loyola, a Spanish mystic. So, it began. The curriculum involved meditating every day on a passage from the Bible. After an initial period of deep self-reflection on my humanity and relationship to the Creator, I progressed into the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. I sat in silence for thirty minutes every day, after reading the assigned scripture. I invited Jesus to be with me and open my imagination and draw me into the scripture. This was not a calming experience. Rather, inner conflicts, anger, and grief flowed to the surface, like flotsam and jetsam after a shipwreck. After each meditation I wrote down in a journal what I heard God saying to me. I met with Sister Jeanne every week to reflect on what this encounter with scripture and Jesus meant to me.
As I consider the insights of Paul Ricoeur, this year of meditation changed my life. The old skeptical distance faded. I had direct experience of the presence of God in Jesus. I listened to the words of Jesus as if they were spoken for me to hear today, for the first time
We are “called again” to the place of wonder that we once knew many years ago. Ron Rolheiser shares:
“We do this by making a deliberate and conscious effort at assuming the posture of a child before reality. We must work at regaining the primal spirit, a sense of wonder, the sense that reality is rich and full of mystery, that we do not yet understand and that we must read chastely, carefully, and discriminately, respecting reality’s contours and taboos. Concomitant with this effort comes the deliberate and conscious attempt at purging ourselves of all traces of cynicism, contempt, and all attitudes which identify mystery with ignorance, taboo with superstition, and romance and ideals with naivete.”
“Saying ‘Yes’ to Santa Claus”, Ron Rolheiser.
In our visits to these desert spirit places, asking for the Holy Presence to be with us, in silence and solitude, our primal senses will open in remembrance of our natural communion with all things.
G.K. Chesterton created this poem:
When all my days are ending
And I have no song to sing,
I think I shall not be too old
To stare at everything;
As I stared once at a nursery door
Or a tall tree and a swing….
“A Second Childhood”, G. K. Chesterton
I have my own guide into second naivete in our disabled son Erik. I am walking with Erik after dinner, a one-mile saunter around the Big Block. The full golden October moon rises over the hillside to our right. I hold Erik’s hand, as his gait is unsteady. Although his brain is heavily scarred by disease, he has remarkably strong hearing. Every slight sound stimulates his response: a chuckle at a breaking branch, a sour frown at a barking dog. He hears everything. As we walk, he says little, but his senses are on high alert. There is mystery and wonder out there in the darkness. As we walk around the Big Block, orientation to the moon changes. Several times we stop and look up at the starry night.
“Where is the moon now, Erik?”
“Over there”, pointing with his finger.
We walk on into the night-blooming jasmine scented night.
“Where is the moon, now, Erik?”
“Erik, did you move the moon again?”
He raises his index finger upward to the moon and moves it.
“I like it!”
May your own journey through these desert spirit places of the Southwest awaken memories of innocence and an embrace of Homecoming.
“A Conversation with Walter Brueggemann”, Bradford Winters, Image Journal, Issue 55. https://imagejournal.org/article/conversation-walter-brueggemann/
http://www.anglicantheologicalreview.org/static/pdf/articles/brueggemann.pdf “Where is the Scribe?”
“Saying ‘Yes” to Santa Claus, Ron Rolheiser, OMI, May 3, 1984.
The Collected Poems of G. K. Chesterton, (Classic Reprint), Forgotten Books, 2017.
What is the Second Naiveté? Engaging with Paul Ricoeur, Post-Critical Theology, and Progressive Christianity, Linards Jansons, p. 349.
Paul Ricouer, The Symbolism of Evil, trans. Emerson Buchanan (Boston: Beacon, 1969), 349.