Proper 16, Year A
August 27, 2017
Transformation of Consciousness, or
How do we confront our addiction to ourselves
Last week, there was a point in Cynthia’s sermon when I caught my breath. I had found myself leaning forward in my chair with my eyes closed, when she asked a question: “How do I get from thinking one way about stuff to thinking completely differently about the same stuff?” I wanted to grab my pen and start writing down notes, but I didn’t want to break the space.
That is a profound question, my friends: “How do we get from thinking one way about stuff to thinking completely differently about the same stuff?”
It is a question that lies at the heart of Christian practice, as a matter of fact. As you see in today’s reading from Romans, it is a quandary that St. Paul invites the fledgling Christian community to explore with remarkable images.
“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good, and acceptable, and perfect.” When you dive in and swim around in the Greek, it feels like this: do not merely adhere to someone else’s pattern of thinking, but lean in to a metamorphosis of your deeper understanding and discern—test—and actively engage in the situation, seeking wisdom and wholeness—the guidance of the Spirit of Christ.
It is our deep call to a mindful practice of faith within the Christian community, recognizing that active engagement and an openness to the Spirit of Christ calls us out of old patterns and ego-driven agendas. (It also calls us, therefore, into uncomfortable situations when our society insists on the old ways of thought).
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds…
In a February article in The New Yorker, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Elizabeth Kolbert reflected on this struggle and resistance to change in human opinions in her article “Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds.” I commend it to you.
She reflects on the way we actively resist changing our opinions about subjects—even when we are presented with facts that obviously contradict our strongly-held opinions. She argues that we cannot put full trust in our reason, because of what is called “myside bias.” “Humans,” two particular scientists point out, “aren’t randomly credulous. Presented with someone else’s argument, we’re quite adept at spotting the weaknesses. Almost invariably, the positions we’re blind about are our own.”
Two researchers make a salient point:
Where it gets us into trouble, is in the political domain. It’s one thing for me to flush a toilet without knowing how it operates, and another for me to favor (or oppose) an immigration ban without knowing what I’m talking about.
In a striking illustration that drew on the tensions in Ukraine,
Respondents were asked how they thought the US should react, and also whether they could identify Ukraine on a map. The farther off base they were about the geography, the more likely they were to favor military intervention. The median guess for Ukraine’s location was off by almost 2,000 miles.
Her point is this: “As a rule, strong feelings about issues do not emerge from deep understanding.” I think we all would agree that we all are swimming in that lake together at this point.
Her deep counsel is to encourage spending time learning, reading, thinking, and leaning into new insights…with a willingness to grow and be formed. She may as well have quoted St. Paul and his reflections on active, mindful engagement within a Christian community.
“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
It is important to point out that the word for “mind” used here with St. Paul is not just our shallow, rational, cognitive capacity—not just our reason. The word he uses is nous, that part of ourselves best imaged as a unified connection between our rational minds and our spiritual hearts…the union between these two that brings together, within us, a capacity for wholeness, for recognition of wisdom, for the development of an awareness of God’s presence within our lives. For the embodiment of a life of wholeness grounded in a contemplative posture.
If transformation is to take place within us—if the Spirit is to have room to move within us and aid us in our conversion—it will be in this unified space of the mind-in-heart.
So, a question we should ask is this: how do we cultivate this transformation within our community?
Last week, when our group was at St. Benedict’s Monastery in Snowmass, we were talking with Thomas Keating about this call to contemplative practice. Fr. Thomas, you may know, a Trappist monk who is one of the founders of the Centering Prayer practice within the broader Christian tradition, has literally helped millions of people delve more deeply into their practice of faith. He is 94 now, but he mustered up strength to share four days with us.
Our group was working with him and the other founders in discerning how this contemplative lineage would go forward in the next generation, how we will offer spaces of reflection and transformation within a struggling world.
Fr. Thomas wondered with us what language, what images, we could explore to help cultivate this process of transformation, this growth and conversion.
Without hesitating, he suggested that one of the greatest resources in the contemplative tradition is with the AA community. Alcoholics Anonymous—and one could say the other parallel addiction ministries—holds an important key for us all to explore.
Think about it, he said. You start off with an admission that you are frail and incapable of addressing this struggle on your own. You ask for guidance and help from a higher power (we would say God). You hold a community of support and accountability. You recognize the importance of having a discipline. You expect struggle as well as growth and conversion. You recognize your humanity in its weakness and in its enormous promise. You find hope.
He wondered with us what it would look like for the established Church to open its heart to this perspective, to this degree of spiritual practice—recognizing that we are all struggling. I went back to my hermitage and started writing.
Fr. Thomas’s reflection on the meaningfulness of AA and other addiction ministries is so helpful to me. Some are addicted to alcohol, others to other things. Some people seem to be addicted to strange, baseless opinions. Violence. Many, many things. In all these spaces of struggle, don’t we all yearn for transformation? These struggles are real. The pain is real. The truth is that we, as a society, are all addicted. We are addicted to ourselves. We are addicted to a sense of separateness, of hyper-individualism, of being over and against each other, of competitiveness, of a zero-sum mentality, of so often giving into fear and anxiety rather than leaning in toward the hope of Christ that is always waiting for us—even enveloping us. We are an addicted people…
And St. Paul’s image calls out to us in this struggle and becomes our own prayer of desire: “May we not be conformed to this world, but may we be transformed by the renewing of our minds, so that we may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
As we step into this new program year, or school year, it is my hope that this community goes even deeper into our practice of prayer, into times of silence and meditation, into spaces of pondering and praise…listening, ever listening, for God to speak to us, within us…giving us hope and bringing us closer together—and opening our hearts to an awareness of God’s life within us and our call to embody that life in the world around us.
May it be so…
 Elizabeth Kolbert, “Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds,” The New Yorker, February 27, 2017. Www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/02/27/why-facts-dont-change-our-minds?mbid=social_facebook. Accessed August 23, 2017.