With the empowering aid of God’s Spirit, we aim to be consistent in prayer, to consistently love, be consistently kind, consistently forgiving, and so on. When, however, we cling to unchanging dogmatic consistency of doctrine or religiophilosophical worldview, our development is arrested. God, infinite Love, Source of all that is, is far too complex for any theological box. It was that sort of closemindedness to which Emerson referred in this oft-misquoted passage:
“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. — 'Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.' — Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.”
— Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” Essays: First Series, 1841
Walt Whitman expressed the same sentiment:
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
– Walt Whitman, Song of Myself, Section 51, 1892
The root meaning of “contradict” is to “speak against.” We need to learn how to speak against the self that existed yesterday. A self that does not change is stunted, numb to the transforming stimuli of an infinite cosmos. That which is not growing is dead. At some level, we know this intuitively. We speak of “growing in Christ,” of “spiritual formation,” of wholeness and actualization. Many of us long for authenticity, to discover and embrace our authentic selves. While hopefully being consistently kind and loving, we learn the necessity of questioning everything. Humility necessitates the possibility that I may be wrong.
We refer to a “false self,” and a true or authentic “Self.” By the latter, we mean the genuine essence of who we were created to be, stripped of the personas we adopt to fit into families, clans, and societies. We aim for consistency of civil behavior, but not consistency of image or belief. Too many of us take what we were taught by organized religion, package it neatly, and shelve it along with other boxes labeled “recreation,” “vocation,” or “family,” taking each down as is convenient. Too many of us have an image of ourselves we seek to uphold at all costs.
In what is often called “the first half of life” (not really a good term because it doesn’t refer to chronological age), it is necessary to create a persona. We take on an identity – we adopt definitions of ourselves from our environment. We define ourselves as, for example, a middle class, college educated, married, parent, school teacher. We are all those things, and this is how we see ourselves.
In the so-called “second half of life,” we are often challenged about those personas. We might experience a financial reversal, win the lottery, or get divorced. Perhaps we experience a significant loss, or our kids leave the nest. Maybe we develop health issues or retire. In some cases, a “mid-life crisis” develops. A scandal in our faith community might challenge our faith. Or, maybe we’re just deep thinkers. Whatever the catalyst, we begin to question. We’re confronted with an existential question: Who am I really? If I’m no longer defined as spouse, parent, or teacher, who am I? If I’m navigating life successfully, I start to realize that those were all personas. They are roles I play and things I do, but none of them are me.
In my case, I have been a pastor, a psychotherapist, a college professor, a hospital and hospice chaplain, a life-coach, and a spiritual director. I’m also a spouse, parent, grandparent, sailor, writer, poet, abstract artist, bird-watching dog owner. For a long time, I defined myself by those roles. It was especially hard on me psychologically when I was no longer “Pastor Larry.” I still teach Bible classes and some people refer to me as “pastor,” but I don’t pastor a traditional brick and mortar church. I’ve come to realize that those are all roles, vocations. There’s nothing wrong with any of them, but they are not me.
Now what? Here, we have a choice. We can go on as we were, sinking dully into old age; or, we can take up the challenge to discover ourselves. Like replacing a dilapidated building with a new structure, our work begins with demolition.
In the Hebrew Bible, YHWH told Jeremiah,
“Now I have put my words in your mouth.See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,to pluck up and to pull down,to destroy and to overthrow,to build and to plant.” (Jeremiah 1:10)
Deconstruction comes before construction. Otherwise, you’re just patching up the old personas.
The deconstruction of our false, albeit important, identity involves questioning. Question everything. How do I know I exist? Is there a God? How do I know? If there is a God, what is God like? (Not, what was I taught about God?) What is the purpose of life? Why am I here?
Questioning long-held beliefs can be threatening. Clergy invoke warnings of hell-fire. To question cherished dogma can feel like a betrayal of parents, family, tribe, nation, God. Better to dull the brain with sports or entertainment.
Tragically, some people begin the demolition process and give up by throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. They resign themselves to meaninglessness, sink into despair, or decide to “eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”
For those with the courage to push through, abundant life opens up. We become aware of our connectedness to all creation, we connect with the Source. We discover that the Source is God and God is omnibenevolent, tender, empathetic, and ever-forgiving. We learn to love ourselves. We learn to really love all others (even enemies). We learn to love nature. We learn to love the Creator. We discover that God is not just out there, large and in-charge, but intimate, within, a soft and close as our breath.
How do we push through?
Listen to alternative voices. Hear the wisdom of feminine, indigenous, oppressed people. Listen for the truth in other cultures and belief systems.
Read extensively over a broad range of subjects – history, natural science, psychology, philosophy, theology, politics. Read extensively. Read critically. Read with an open mind, but don’t believe everything you read.
Discuss, share your thoughts, struggles, ideas with others who are also seeking truth.
Engage an experienced, wise, spiritual director who will walk with you through the deconstruction and reconstruction process. That is not a short-term commitment. Spiritual direction often continues for life because we never stop growing.
I’m pretty much of the opinion that everyone could benefit from having both a spiritual director and therapist. My preference for the latter is someone who practices depth therapy, psychoanalysis, which is concerned with transforming the personality, not just shifting thoughts or behaviors (although that too is beneficial).
In her diary, Joyce Carol Oates wrote, “Who can tolerate that most tiresome of bourgeois values, consistency?” How very dull to have all the answers. Periodically, beliefs need replacing or upgrading, so load the new operating system, get the latest hardware. Grow. Learn. Stretch. Challenge. Question. Push back. Seek truth. That which is true cannot be destroyed, and the result is awareness of your genuine core self, which brings deep peace and contentment.