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Sunday, August 13, 2017

Lectio Divina as Post-Modern Worship

Few initiatives in my one-and-only Ministry have been as risky and as necessary to the unfreezing of our faith tradition as offering Lectio Divina as weekly worship.

Lectio Divina is a four-stage process that seeks to engage the whole person
Lectio Divina is Latin for 'divine reading', and is a fairly ancient and rather monastic way of approaching scripture. It offers a method of reading any text as way of prayerful practice. I say 'any text' because, in our pluralist way, we have put together a 'wiki' of influential readings (democratically sourced) to draw from, and these 100 or so have been bound together in no particular order in a large, hard-copy volume.

"Risky" first, because it can be perceived as Christian reconstructionism. While the Latin name and the big book may appear a bit old-high-churchy, Lectio Divina, stripped of Bible and personal God, is no more Christian (and far less Catholic) than lighting votive candles, which we happily do weekly at Sunday service.

Beyond surface impressions, what makes this practice truly risky is that it is a 21st-century Post-modern project in a church still largely stuck in late 19th-early 20th century Modernism. For those unfamiliar with these philosophic terms, here is a quick precis:
As a post-modern approach relates to words, texts, and their meanings, we need to admit that language and meaning are fluid and arbitrary. They are “messy”, because they're subjectively experienced and subject to pressures of culture and personal experiences within those cultural settings. Only power decides which readings of a text are objective, privileged, or 'right'.

A word or phrase, for example, may have connotations for a reader that the author never intended, but that does not make them wrong. Your experience is your experience, and your subjectivity is real.

Lectio Divina encourages exploring and developing your subjective experience through lateral thinking, free associations, and personal narratives prompted by a reading. It discourages rational analysis, whose object is to assert the superiority of the reader over the text, first by 'cracking' the text open like a walnut to extract the useful message, and second, by prevailing over the offered text by agreeing or disagreeing--as if one's approval were the only arbiter of value. It hardly needs pointing out that these twin modernist drives seek to exploit and to subjugate through 'reason', which alone leads to universal, objective truth, which is necessarily 'good'. If only that were true...

The problem of course is that the modernist world-view--where language is transparent and the signifier (the word) equals the signified (the thing or concept)--has been utterly exploded, not merely by advances in both philosophy and physics in the last 50 years, but also by anyone who is prepared to be honest about the way we experience the world.

"This is not a pipe" is true...it's a rendering of a pipe. The difference between signifier and signified is critical.
The inner world of each of our subjective consciousness is a universe in itself, and one worth exploring. The multi-dimensionality of our consciousness is predicated on the recent revelations of quantum mechanics: the universe goes infinitely outwards and inwards, and what's 'out there' and what's 'in here' are both infinitely complex and deeply interconnected. Thus, your experiences, associations, feelings, and mental images of pipes will be different from mine: neither is more valid. So, respect for a person's inner life is necessary, and may be the underlying metaphysic of our first UU principle: "The inherent worth and dignity of every person."

There are three challenges in Lectio Divina. First, being willing to get past the ego's desire to dominate the text, pull it apart, and assert and defend a 'meaning'. Second, becoming a psycho-naut. Freed of the lenses of judgement and criticism, you can boldly go where you've maybe not gone before--letting the text interrogate you, rather than the reverse, and expanding your stock, culturally-formed responses by 'accessing all areas' of the bottomless universe that is you.

Third, and perhaps hardest to cultivate, sharing what random associations and lateral connections you've dredged up with a room full of other people doing the same thing. This takes time, for it relies on daring and trust and the building of a safe space within which to offer what is deeply and particularly inside you to become common knowledge. And when people do share such things, listening and accepting the truth of their experience without judgement or comment., we can grow in compassion and acceptance.

How is this worship? Easy: it 'raises to worth' truth, generosity, humility, grace, and cultivates respect and compassion for each other. Indeed, as someone said of Lectio Divina, you come to find that "Listening and Loving are closely related."

How is it a challenge for UUism? Again, easy: there is an underlying assumption in Modernist thinking that all reasonable beings will come to the same coherent, humanistic conclusions. That justice looks the same for everyone. That objective truth exists 'out there' waiting to be discovered if only we could just think more rationally.

The science and philosophy of the last 50 years has made this a nonsense. The trouble is, UUs are caught in transition between these two world views. The latest UU thinking has for example, rejected the Modernist "Freedom, Reason, Tolerance" mantra in favour of a recognition of the greater complexity and convergence implied in the words "Generosity, Imagination, and Pluralism".

Lectio Divina, though a practice of that past, shows a fruitful way of engaging the contemporary religious life without Modernist delusions.


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