I have something I like to call an ontological disorientation. I have a tendency, on various levels, to lose my sense of position concerning my identity, my sense of self, and my sense of self-value. I can’t quite figure out what the ground of my being truly is or where to place my identity. I constantly try to find my self in my capacity to produce, my ability to succeed, and in the expectations of others. I define myself according to what I can do, make, achieve, etc.
My tendency has been to follow Batman’s motto from the movie Batman Begins. In a climactic moment in the film, Bruce Wayne (played by Christian Bale) in his Batman disguise, is confronted by Rachel Dawes (played by Katie Holmes), his lifelong friend and romantic interest. She wants to know the identity of this dark knight before he vanishes forever, so she asks for his name. In dramatic fashion (and, for some reason, with an awkwardly gruff voice), Batman responds, “it’s not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me.” And you know the irony of that line, as it appears in the movie, is that despite his claim the line itself reveals who is underneath—not just a function or mechanism (“what I do”) but a person, a name. In the moment shrouded in mystery, the name is revealed. “Bruce?...” she utters, just as Batman pulls his cape over his face and leaps into the night to save the day.
“It’s not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me.” I’ve tried to live by this. But the only problem is, it’s crap. I’ll even go as far as to say it is theologically deprived. It’s not what we do that truly defines us. To reduce one’s definition, one’s identity, to some list of achievements or roles, or even to some code of conduct, is to reduce the person to a function. If Batman’s philosophy is to identify human beings as functions, then Martin Buber’s personalistic Philosophy (most clearly articulated in his book I and Thou) begs to differ. As he sees it, when we engage in relationships merely on the basis of human action, with some motive external to the relationship itself, reducing the person to a function, we miss the reality of who they are and we miss the true engagement of human relationship (yes, this is also Andy Root... of course). The core of this philosophy is a certain ontology, one which claims human identity not as “what I do” or what we can achieve, but as rooted in being. Our being which precedes our doing is actually what defines us. This philosophy, though I rarely am able to apply it in real life, has been a great gift to me. But the window through which I received this gift originally was not Andrew Root or even Martin Buber, but Sabbath theology.
When I was a Freshman at Azusa Pacific University, studying Youth Ministry, I took my very first course in theology. My professor was Dr. Dennis Okholm (incidentally, a Princeton Seminary Alumnus) who was deeply rooted in Benedictine spirituality (Dennis Okholm wrote a book entitled Monk Habits ...haha, get it?... and it’s worth checking out) and also had a deep appreciation for the Sabbath. He refused to assign coursework to be submitted on Mondays because he wanted to encourage his students to practice the Sabbath every Sunday, even in college! He talked about Sabbath rest and its centrality to Christian spirituality. He even talked about its great potential to transform Western society. As I went through his course, enjoying it more and more as it went on (Eventually I switched majors and became a theology major... I guess I liked it a lot) and surmounting quite a respect for him and his spiritual practice, I began to ask my own questions about the Sabbath. What could sabbath do for me? Following his recommendation, I picked up a book called Keeping the Sabbath Wholly by Marva Dawn. Drawing off of deeply theological sources, including Abraham Joshua Heschel, Dawn wrote of Sabbath rest and the freedom received in the practice of ceasing.
I tried it for a while. I took Sundays as a day for nothing. I ceased from work, eventually I ceased from buying and selling, I even lit a candle every once in a while. As was promised by Okholm and Dawn, I found it to be a liberating practice, one which began to affect the rhythms of every day. Work was no longer for work’s sake. I was working toward rest. Or perhaps more appropriately speaking, I was working toward the celebration of work, God’s work, a work which precedes me. I don’t know if I knew it then, but I believe that what liberated me was not so much the rest itself—as mere rejuvenation for more work—but it was what rest had to say about me. “It’s not what you do...” I can hear the Sabbath say... “it’s not how much you make, how smart you are, or how successful you can be... It’s the God of grace, the very ground of being, that defines you.” I was liberated from doing and thus I was free to be. I was not a mechanism or a function, I was a human being. Sabbath, both as a practice and as a theology, changed how I thought of myself and it began to change how I thought of the world and other people. The world was no longer an object of my consumption but a fellow subject of God’s grace. People were no longer mechanistic... the guy at the checkout counter was no longer just the guy at the checkout counter... he was a person, the beloved of God. It was wonderful! It was amazing!... and it lasted for about 3 months.
I don’t know exactly the reason or reasons why I stopped doing it. Perhaps it was the difficulty of refraining from work when there was so much to be done. Perhaps I fell into rigidity and the practice became a task in itself—perhaps it was just too much work to cease from work. Or perhaps it just got too hard to explain it to people, to get other people on board, and too hard to do it alone. For whatever the reason, I slowly abandoned the practice. I still talked about it every once in a while. I still glanced occasionally at Marva Dawn’s book (usually with some guilt). And I still gleaned from it the aforementioned ontology, but I forgot (or neglected to remember) how to actually practice that ontology.
I know that Batman is wrong. In my head, I know it. I know that my identity is not in my actions or my abilities. I know I’m more (or less?) than just a function. I know that my identity is found in my relationship with God, in my beloved-ness. I know I can’t be defined by a set of roles or tasks or accomplishments... But I don’t know how to live like that anymore. I’ve neglected to remember how to keep the Sabbath holy and how to keep it wholly. I have failed to think my way into this ontology. I am still ontologically disoriented. And I believe that my only hope is the grace of Sabbath rest, to live it, the reception of that which the Sabbath has to say about me, about us, about the world. And if this is the only hope for me, then surely it is also the only hope for my life in ministry.
My prayer for this semester, as I engage in two courses on spirituality, is that through my rediscovery of Sabbath rest, in the context of community, I’ll be liberated from my need for success (but please not the hard hard way!), from my disorientation, and from my tendency to believe Batman. My prayer is that especially now—now that it seems that my life depends on my success—I might learn to value the valuable things and to value myself not only in what I do but as a person, as a name, as Wes.