Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher


Not yet, God, I’m reading about you

posted by Rod Dreher

I love the smell of used bookstores. The aroma of yellowing print and flaking glue in the binding is so comforting to me. In the old days, I used to visit them far more frequently, in part because I was on a grail quest. The idea fixed in my head was that the answer — actually, the Answer — to all my questions and existential anxieties could be found in a book. If only I could find the right book, with the right ideas, and consume it, all would be well with my soul. I associate the smell of old bookstores with the quest of my younger years. I also used to think and hope that I would meet my true love in a bookstore — which, in fact, happened!
Anyway, though I know better, I am still subject to believe the fallacy that the answer to all that troubles me is to be found in a book. The truth is that I’m looking for a reason not to pray. I am completely convinced that what I really need is to pray more, not read another book. I know this. I mean, I really do know it. But prayer — serious prayer — is hard. At least for me it is. My mind races constantly. I struggle to overcome my jumpiness, to focus, to yield to the Holy Spirit, to be meditative. It’s boring! But see, prayer is precisely what I need, not only because the Orthodox Christian tradition tells us that we must seek to know God noetically (and that can only be done through prayer), but also because the root of my anxieties lies in my restlessness, and inability to be still.
The Ochlophobist writes about the temptation [link fixed] to think that if we only read the right theological books, and enough of them, we’ll get closer to God. It’s a trap. Excerpt:

I don’t mean to suggest that the intellectual life and prayer are unrelated, or in a necessary competition against each other. That said, I have lived and worked in a lot of different environments in my life, dirty metal shop, homeless shelter, academic theological bookstore, and so forth, and without doubt or hesitation I can say that the persons I have known whose lives struck me as the least prayerful were those who cared a great deal about theology as a ‘subject,’ and that includes Orthodox whose beloved secondary literature tells them of the dangers of approaching theology as a ‘subject’ even as these very texts teach this by way of subjectivizing theology. There is such a thing as an addiction to theology as ‘subject,’ and it is ugly, turning the sufferer into a wraith. Becoming Orthodox and reading books about the dangers of approaching theology as ‘subject’ seems to have no bearing on the likelihood of developing such an addiction. Every would be theologian thinks his or her ideas are the safe ones.
There are no safe ideas, though, of course, there are good ideas and bad ideas, and correct ideas and false ideas. But you can be addicted to the good and the true in a manner which still chooses hell. Sexual intercourse is good and true. So is alcohol. So is food. They can all take you to hell.
I have known a few theologians who actually loved God, and I have seen the weariness in their eyes when they encountered persons (often students) whose love of theology as ‘subject’ drives their lives from one affectation to another.



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meh

posted March 21, 2010 at 3:50 pm


Rod, this could be the subject for your next book!



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Ivan

posted March 21, 2010 at 4:04 pm


Please fix the Ochlophobist’s link, Rod!



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JRS

posted March 21, 2010 at 4:33 pm


Wow. This post really hits home.
As a Lutheran pastor, and one who loves to read theology but struggles in my prayer life, I can relate.
I think you posted some time ago, Rod, about how for a writer life is never just life — it is always potential “material.”
For pastors and theologians, I think the same is true — and it is a danger. Even when reading scripture, I sometimes catch myself thinking about how I can “use” a text in my ministry. I’m fishing for material rather than letting the Word read me.
Thanks for a convicting word in these waning days of Lent (on our calendar, anyway). You’ve really given me something to think about — or better yet, pray about.
JRS



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the stupid Chris

posted March 21, 2010 at 4:42 pm


One of my favorite passages in “The Way of a Pilgrim” is where the Pilgrim observes that talking, reading and writing about God, as good as that is, isn’t nearly the same as having a relationship with God.
Which is why a life of “prayer, fasting and mercy” are so important. It’s instructive that none of those require advanced degrees.



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baconboy

posted March 21, 2010 at 4:51 pm


Here’s the correct link to the essay: http://ochlophobist.blogspot.com/2010/03/on-theological-addictions-and-reading.html
And while I don’t totally disagree with him, there is always a risk of engaging in an anti-intellectual approach to God that often verges on the sentimental. But, as Aquinas puts it, “You cannot love what you do not know.” That doesn’t mean that knowledge alone is sufficient, but rather, as the essay suggests, there is an appropriate relationship between prayer/love and knowledge. There are plenty of people whose prayer lives have been improved by have attained a better understanding of who God is and what God has done. Heck, even Jesus announced his ministry by reading a text from Isaiah.



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Cecelia

posted March 21, 2010 at 5:07 pm


My first Benedictine retreat – I thought I would go stark raving crazy! The silence, the periods of meditation – too much for my restless nature. I took advise given at that retreat – for the restless among us prayer is a problem so take baby steps – get yourself ready to pray attentively. Benedictine advice – start with making yourself sit still and quietly for 5 minutes every day – extend that over time. It does work – you are in effect teaching yourself to be quiet and pray life will improve. I admit in the beginning 5 minutes of enforced stillness and quiet seemed like an hour.
On the bookstore topic – Rod – you are close to a great book store in Hope Pa near the Playhouse. Small store packed to the rafters with books of every sort. The only bookstore I have ever been to where they had in stock a copy of every single book written by Thomas Merton.
We have a plethora of second hand bookstores with tea houses appearing of late. There are four of them within an hour of me – lovely places.



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Zoetius

posted March 21, 2010 at 5:23 pm


So true.



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MMH

posted March 21, 2010 at 5:33 pm


I would second Baconboy’s comments, especially St. Thomas’s observation that we can’t love what we don’t know. Also, I think knowing, or working to know, is a part of loving with our whole mind. But, further, I find that for me it’s the flip side of “evil communications corrupting good manners,” that is, spiritual reading, whether theological, metaphysical, or more practical, helps remind me in an environment that is inimical to the holy, of the “one thing needful”.
Rod, I am amused at your idea that if you could only find that right book, all would be well with your soul. I’ve been feeling somewhat the same: if only I could find that right Meister Eckhart sermon or treatise dealing with the Trinity, I’d have some real understanding of it. And in spite of myself, I still almost believe this, deep down.



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Cecelia

posted March 21, 2010 at 5:49 pm


sorry – it is NEW Hope Pa and the book store is called Farley’s – has been there for about 40 years so it is something of a local institution.



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sigaliris

posted March 21, 2010 at 5:53 pm


Reading books on theology gives you the illusion that you know something about God, in somewhat the same way that reading books about sociology gives you the illusion that you now understand people. Or the way that reading a book about knitting means that you are ready to make a sweater. I could go on and on. I think what you really learn about by reading theology is not God, but theologians. There is something to be said for this from a cultural-historical perspective. I doubt that it will make you a better person, however.



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baconboy

posted March 21, 2010 at 7:01 pm


sigaliris, that’s an interesting claim. Out of curiosity, just what theologians have you read?



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Boz

posted March 21, 2010 at 7:17 pm


Rod,
True enough, but you’re making too big a deal about this. As Christians we believe we are body and soul. We pray like human beings, not angels. We need all sorts of aids to prayer–church buildings, Rosaries, even books. Do all these things become distractions? Yes, of course. But we’re not going to do away with them any time soon.



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naturalmom

posted March 21, 2010 at 7:42 pm


Like JRS, I find this post convicting. I’m struggling to improve my daily prayer life as well, but I’ve always been a “head person” and it doesn’t come very naturally to me. Quaker worship has been good for me in this sense. Quakerism is supposed to be an experienced faith, rather than a prescribed one. One of our founding mothers, Margaret Fell, had a moment of conviction that speaks eloquently to this point. I strive to bear it in mind when I get too intellectual about my faith.
(This excerpt begins with Margaret Fell recalling the words of George Fox as he preached. The opening words are his. The “me” in the text is Margaret, herself.)
You will say, ‘Christ saith this, and the apostles say this;’ but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of the Light, and hast thou walked in the Light, and what thou speakest, is it inwardly from God?” &c. This opened me so, that it cut me to the heart; and then I saw clearly we were all wrong. So I sat down in my pew again, and cried bitterly: and I cried in my spirit to the Lord, “We are all thieves; we are all thieves; we have taken the scriptures in words, and know nothing of them in ourselves.”



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kristieinbc

posted March 21, 2010 at 7:59 pm


Rod, why don’t you voice your prayers through the written word rather than the spoken? Writing is your obvious gifting and, I am guessing, the means of communication you feel most comfortable with.



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sigaliris

posted March 21, 2010 at 8:39 pm


baconboy, are you really curious, or are you just hoping to disqualify me because I’ve said something to which you take exception? Come on, tell the truth and shame the devil. I am by no means an expert on the subject of theology. Some theologians I have at least sampled, in no particular order: Augustine, Aquinas, Maritain, Martin D’Arcy, Gustaf Aulen, Anders Nygren, Teilhard de Chardin, Jaroslav Pelikan, Raymond Brown, N.T. Wright, Hans Kung. Obviously it would be absurd to claim I really “know” Aquinas, for instance. I am just a lay person who wanted, earlier in my career, to understand this stuff. So, is that enough to give me the right to express a casual opinion, or do you think I need a PhD?



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Zoetius

posted March 21, 2010 at 9:32 pm


Sig,
After a couple of years reading your posts here I’d be willing to write you the letter of recommendation, not that it’d get you in, but I would recommend you.
Z



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baconboy

posted March 21, 2010 at 9:37 pm


Sigaliris, I was curious because I was wondering if the problem was that you were dealing with the wrong theologians, but didn’t want to make any assumptions (and I’m glad I did not). There are plenty of modern theologians who I think fit your description, for instance people like Gordon Kaufman or J.S. Spong — you really do learn more about them than you do about God. And I’ve seen their work do a lot of damage to the faith of students in seminary. But I’ve found that exposure to people like Augustine, Anselm, Athanasius, Aquinas, the Cappadocians, and others like them often has the opposite effect – it tends to deepen the faith of students because those theologians, for all of their challenges, seek to understand in a deep way what it means to have Christ as Lord and because the students have shared that experience they too want to understand it better — it flows out of real love for God. So given who you’ve read, I’m actually even more surprised at your statement, because it has been in direct opposition to my experience. I think that most of us can benefit from learning from people who have thought deeply about something, if anything just to teach us humility.
I agree that you can certainly learn a lot about a theologian from reading him or her (heck, Augustine practically invented the psychological autobiography), but I’ve never found that to be an obstacle to learning more about God at the same time. And even the ones I disagree with help me learn something about God, even if it is just not what to say.
And, to get back to original post, how one thinks about God does shape how one prays, when one prays, or even that one should pray at all. If one were to think about God as some kind of Cosmic Santa Claus (a pretty common way to think about God), one’s prayers will have a different tenor than someone who thinks about God as “that which none great than can be conceived” (to paraphrase Anselm). I know my studies have definitely impacted my prayer life. As Evagrius Ponticus put it 1600 years ago, “If you are a theologian you truly pray. If you truly pray you are a theologian.”



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sigaliris

posted March 21, 2010 at 11:31 pm


Thanks for your amiable reply, baconboy. I see I misjudged you and was snappish for no good reason. I’m sorry for that. I didn’t mean that one learns nothing from theologians. I think you can actually learn a lot from the quality of their thought and the personal reflection that goes into how they think about God. Certainly, the structures of mind built by these men do inspire humility in me. But, in the end, I think that they can’t really teach us much about God, because God is not available for observation. A historian with whom I was familiar was once asked how he would define history. An eager student said, “History is an account of what happened.” The historian then replied, “No, history is an account of what people said about what happened.” In the same way, I think that theology is an account of what people have said about God. Theologians can only interpret, infer, and extrapolate. They tell many stories of fabulous lands, their wonders attested by the finest authorities. But if you ask them for a map to actually go there, they have nothing to offer. In the end, I have found it frustrating and saddening. I felt that I learned more from people like John of the Cross, Meister Eckhart, Julian of Norwich. But even they can’t describe so much as allude to. Perhaps, to be fair, I should reveal that at this point, after 50-odd years of striving, I’ve given up on the project of faith. I’ve quit trying to make religion work. So you must try to forgive the note of cynicism in my comment.
Hey, thanks, Zoetius! I think life may be too short for me ever to write a dissertation, but I appreciate the thought! ; )



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godisaheretic

posted March 22, 2010 at 12:16 am


let’s see…
there are no known facts about God.
so theologians invent opinions about their factless main topic.
God, IF you are there, why do you put up with this?
wait…
I know…
God, if you really exist, stop me from finishing thi



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Siarlys Jenkins

posted March 22, 2010 at 12:19 am


I heartily agree about used bookstores. The Strand in New York is the closest thing to heaven I expect to find this side of eternity, except maybe if Renee ever agrees to marry me. I like Howard’s in Evanston also, and Renaissance Books has a branch in the Milwaukee International Airport, which I highly recommend if you ever pass through, and can afford relatively high prices for a rather good selection.
Theologians… I almost agree with Sigarilis, but I haven’t given up on the field. I don’t believe any human being alive has ever come really close to knowing what God is. My father used to tell a story about some people who found an angel tangled in a telephone wire and refused to help the angel get free without a promise to tell them what God is like. Reluctantly agreeing, the angel began “First of all, she’s black.”
All God ever really told us is “I AM.” Good enough. Some few people have been granted, or have achieved, some limited insights, and those, limited as they are, were extremely frightening. Plenty of people have indulged in further speculation. Most of that is just human speculation, but there are some gems to be found. After all, I can’t grasp much of what there is to God, so maybe what someone else grasped will be helpful, tiny as it also is. I am by far the most quiet and still of the people at a small Pentecostal storefront church I often attend, but sometimes I learn something from Sister Vanessa’s frenzied dance, or the fervent way she sings “I Need Thee, Oh, I Need Thee.” She sees something I don’t, and it may be real. I used to get Christmas cards from a friend who is a Catholic priest, with quotes from Thomas Merton; they were beautiful and inspiring, but when I tried to read a whole book… not so much. There are great quotes from St. Augustine, but I wouldn’t take “City of God” as an authority for my life.



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Richard

posted March 22, 2010 at 7:52 am


One of my favorite Peter Kreeft jokes is the one where a theologian gets to the heavenly gates and is given a choice of going to heaven or going to a lecture about heaven, and he chose the lecture.
Contemplative prayer IS hard – but as Kreeft himself suggested, the way to do it is to do verbal prayer better. And one of the best ways to do verbal prayer is to pray over the Bible. The Psalms are, after all, God’s prayer book written for us.
I know your ‘struggle’ and will pray for the Spirit to strengthen you.



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Richard

posted March 22, 2010 at 8:25 am


Something I forgot earlier: prayer is real contact with Almighty God. His awesome nature, His holiness, the reverence and humility that are required when we approach Him – these are daunting things. The fact that he loves us so much that He gave Christ to the world – though wonderful beyond description – is also a bit scary, in that it requires us to ask some serious questions about ourselves.
Reading about God and listening to podcasts from great speakers are two things I enjoy, but they can (in my case at least) become a substitute for the more important prayer. Seeking God’s face and His will for my life. Asking for grace and strength. Submitting our whole selves to Him. That’s why i think prayer can be daunting at times – what if He shows me or tells me something I don’t want?



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Roland de Chanson

posted March 22, 2010 at 9:23 am


Siarlys Jenkins: There are great quotes from St. Augustine, but I wouldn’t take “City of God” as an authority for my life.
I agree. Augustine was required reading in the theology courses (also required) when I attended a Jesuit university.
What I gathered from all that was that “Tolle, lege” refers to one particular Book. You can pretty much dispense with the rest. Also, that abandoning your mistress can change your life. In hindsight though, I am contrite about my girlfriend at the time.
And I do think Pelagius got a raw deal.



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Geoff B

posted March 22, 2010 at 10:37 am


In the Orthodox tradition, true knowledge, true theology, comes from God through prayer. It is not really a matter of “get your truth from whatever source you like best.”
Partially for this reason, last fall the “beer and books” group that I had with a few other men decided to give up meeting to discuss books, but rather to get up early on Tuesdays and pray the Matins service in church. While I miss the great conversations and hanging out with those guys in the previous format, I think we are doing something better now.



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Tikhon

posted March 22, 2010 at 11:26 am


I couldn’t agree with you more, Rod. I have the same besetting sin! It is difficult to TRULY pray. I compare the excitement I feel when reading a new book to how I feel when I pray… why don’t I feel the same excitement when I pray? I should! Good grief! I am encountering Almighty God and all the saints and angels through my icons! My priest back in Oklahoma often preached on this subject–our difficulty in prayer and our tepidity when we pray. Certainly something that I need to improve on. Thanks for your thoughts.
Oh–one story to leave you with:
A starets was speaking with his spiritual child and the man mentioned in passing that he had begun reading the Fathers of the Church with great interest. The starets, upon hearing this, became very surprised and clearly concerned about this new behavior. He responded to his spiritual son, “For every hour you read the Fathers, you should pray at least two hours.”
What a great line, right? It really emphasizes the importance of LIVING one’s faith as opposed to just THINKING about it. Lord have mercy on me a sinner.



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Siarlys Jenkins

posted March 22, 2010 at 11:38 am


Wow, Roland and I agree twice in one day. Pelagius seems to me to have been a sort of doppleganger to Luther. Both encountered corruption in what was established in their day as The Church. One fought corruption by demanding good works, the other by denying that good works counted for anything. Both had sound Scriptural foundations for their assertions. Neither one was complete. Rejecting both as heretics neatly epitomizes what can go wrong with a hierarchical church, although one must add that the most consistently congregational forms of church governance also are infiltrated by politics of some sort. In theory, a vote of the congregation reflects the gestalt of each individual’s study of Scripture and the actions upon each and all by the Holy Spirit. But, in theory, God communicates the same way, with utter perfection, to the Bishop of Rome. At least in the congregational format, those who suffer the consequences participate in making the decisions.



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Franklin Evans

posted March 22, 2010 at 12:22 pm


I’m reminded of the answer Hillel the Elder gave about the Torah: That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary. Go and study it.
Theologians are the commentary in this context, methinks. The danger, as it were, is in losing sight of that on which the commentary is being written or spoken.
From my Pagan POV, prayer (as an aspect of meditation) it that which prepares us to obtain value from the commentary. If the prayer is focused on the commentary instead of opening one’s self to the core message, then it will be mostly noise that distracts rather than quiet that aids the listening.



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Geoff B

posted March 22, 2010 at 7:09 pm


Franklin Evans: When you mention a commentary’s “core message” as distinct from the commentary itself, what does this mean? Is this a (gnostic) secret knowledge that, if you have the right insight or frame of mind, you are able to discern? Or, like a Platonic form or ideal that stands behind or above the physical thing in question? I’m not being snide. I really just want to understand what you mean. Thanks. GB



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Franklin Evans

posted March 23, 2010 at 10:24 am


Geoff, no “snide” taken. Good question, actually.
My first reaction was that you read too much into what I wrote. On reflection, it comes down to a personal relationship with that which is being meditated upon or prayed over, and while that fits (arguably loosely) under “gnosis” I don’t agree with the label.
Since I’m in haste, I’ll fall back on Hillel’s apparent intent: The core message is there for you to discern, but if you think it necessary to read all of the commentary in order to discover the core message, chances are excellent that you will either miss it or be very old before you find it. :-) And on a serious note, you will not find the connections between the commentary and the message, at least not accurately.



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meh

posted March 24, 2010 at 7:58 pm

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