One of the loudest refrains I perceive in the Bible is the message that good spirituality means giving everything away. It is a radical concept that begins in an obvious way with material things, especially those that we have in excess. The wisdom here is not too difficult for me to grasp: one cannot meet the Lord if s/he is wrapped up in the routines of acquisition and hoarding.
But, this is only the beginning. The teaching reaches down much deeper than the critique of riches and speaks in some totalizing fashion to the very essence of personal being. It seems to say to me that good spirituality involves letting the self be so entirely poured out of the ordinary instincts and behaviors of self-consciousness and self-preservation, of the self qua self, that it is capable of receiving the inpouring of God’s wisdom and light.
Put another way, the self has to condition itself to receive that which is genuinely extrinsic, that which is outside itself, and that encounter cannot occur so long as one is self-absorbed. This insight, of course, is not exclusively biblical or Christian. Indeed, it is perhaps the most common point of agreement among all the great spiritual traditions.
From a critical feminist perspective, however, I find that over the years I have grown somehow to resist this teaching. For those women and men on the downside of dominant theopolitical norms and structures, self-definition and autonomy have never been an option. The temptation to self-centered existence, if it exists at all, must mean something very different in contexts where some selves are systematically crushed and exploited by others.
If the crushed selves do not engage their instinct for self-preservation and autonomy, they will not survive. By way of example, I am thinking here of the powerful voice of Nujood Ali in I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced (New York: Broadway Books, 2010), the courageous young woman behind Yemen’s reform movement against forced and child marriages. From my admittedly Western, feminist perspective, it would be hard in any sense to see her struggle for a safe and full, human life as anything less than a divine impulse toward liberation. That impulse begins with the recognition and articulation of the self qua self, which must first be constituted before it can be abdicated.
I want to believe that the inpouring of wisdom and light must surely not first require suffering, but then I am halted by the crucified Jesus as definitionally Christian Wisdom. I think of the Beatitudes, which attach blessing and wisdom to poverty, grief, and pain, and I realize we are dealing with a profound conundrum. In ways, I think frustration over suffering that could be avoided, especially that which is politically, theologically, systemically imposed on some human beings by others, complicates the ability to (want to) experience constructive privations of the ego.
And, yet, I compound my burden and compromise my ability to respond constructively when my heart is hardened by indignation, righteous or not. One must learn, I think, somehow to find oneself in the emptying; and, when all the colluding distractions are drained away, there only the naked human remains. The challenge is to value such naked humanity in its essential frailty and poverty as not only our humble origin but also our crowning glory, with each self-gift made magnificent because vulnerable, fleeting, incomparably unique, and cosmically rare.
When I was a child, I somehow got hold of a religious tract whose cover was a picture of Jesus standing outside the door of a home, knocking. He was wearing a long, white gown; shoulder length, caramel-colored hair; and he was softly illuminated by a golden outline. His bright red heart was shining through his gown, and he seemed at once patient yet persistent. I have pondered that image a long time, and it teaches me, in a distinctively Christian manner, that someone was and is always waiting.
There is someone who needs something, and the need is glowing with urgency and purpose. The bell will keep ringing, even if I should manage to slip out for a while to grab the mail or to run to the store. I will eventually have to open the door and become host to my guest. Over the years, I have begun to wonder if maybe I am not my own guest ~ patient, persistent, knocking, glowing with heart aflame, waiting for me to open the door.
Natalie Kertes Weaver, Ph.D., is Chair and Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Ursuline College in Pepper Pike, Ohio. Natalie’s academic books include: Marriage and Family: A Christian Theological Foundation (Anselm, 2009); Christian Thought and Practice: A Primer (Anselm, 2012); and The Theology of Suffering and Death: An Introduction for Caregivers (Routledge, 2013). Natalie is currently writing Made in the Image of God: Intersex and the Revisioning of Theological Anthropology (Wipf & Stock, 2014). Natalie has also authored two art books: Interior Design: Rooms of a Half-Life and Baby’s First Latin. Natalie’s areas of interest and expertise include: feminist theology; theology of suffering; theology of the family; religion and violence; and (inter)sex and theology. Natalie is a married mother of two sons, Valentine and Nathan. For pleasure, Natalie studies classical Hebrew, poetry, piano, and voice.