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Finite Sufferers: The Human Condition

An Interview with Todd Pickett

Dr. Todd Pickett discusses literature, spiritual growth, Christian psychology, and more.

Dean of Spiritual Development, Biola University
October 9, 2013

The Table: Your work is deeply connected to human growth and formation. In your experience, how do people grow?

Todd Pickett: A book length response could only begin to do this question justice. I’ll say two things, however. First, we are relational beings, and we must be loved into change. Most of our sin and dysfunction has come from our defensive strategies, trying to secure ourselves in the absence of the deep belief that we are loved. And since only God can love us perfectly, that relationship is the deep center of our growth. Second, we need to see or construe the world truly at the deepest possible level, inscribing our worldview into our very bodies through the habits and practices we perform before God and within our communities (e.g., the church).

The Table: Your background is in Classics and English literature. What has a study of human thought and writing, old and new, taught you about the human condition?

TP: Finite sufferers. Those are the words that come to mind when I think of the human condition as framed through narratives—tales, novels, and poems. I think it was Kierkegaard who said we are finite creatures with an ability to imagine the infinite, whose pursuit of the ideal is always complicated and frustrated by our weakness and limits. As a result, we constantly feel the gap between our lives now and what we imagine they could be (I’m pretty sure my dog Winston doesn’t experience that). Add to this that we live in a web of life, where we must “suffer”—in the old sense of the word—all that happens around us and to us, from the powerful and tenacious formation that happens to us as children to the inevitable losses we experience as we age. Nearly all narratives, therefore, are U-shaped, where a character who woke up that day expecting to carry on with their agendas suddenly must “suffer” something or a series of things that takes him or her down a different direction—a father’s ghost returns (Hamlet), an inheritance comes out of nowhere (Great Expectations), a wizard comes to town (The Hobbit). How people “suffer” these kinds of events, how they struggle down through and emerge from them, is the arc of most stories. And this is rather like life, although life is certainly more complicated than the most complicated story. Whether that suffering can be redeemed depends upon the larger story of which I see myself a part. That’s where the paschal, metanarrative of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection comes in—itself a U-shaped narrative.

The Table:  How can the practice of reading and reflecting on great literature form the human heart?

TP: Stories are certainly trainings in desire, whatever else they may be (and that includes the mini-stories of a poem, metaphor, or image). They appeal to our imagination (the almost unconscious way that we “image” the world), which is arguably the basis of our desire. Stories that we feel capture us do so because they are resonating with our experience of the world, shaping how we construe the world in our deepest places—the heart.

The Table: What are some examples of literature (human or divine) that has changed you?

TP: For me, Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov unpacks a world where shame and guilt drive much of human life, demonstrating that we must despair of ourselves if we are to really receive the gospel deeply. I think that’s true. In terms of more modern fiction and poetry, I would say Wendell Berry’s works show the goodness and beauty of a life lived simply and honestly, inspiring me to flee the madness of machines and consumerism. Have these works really changed me? I think that depends more on my response to the work—what I do when I close the book—than the work itself. I guess in Dallas Willard’s terms, they have given me “vision.” It remains to be seen whether I have the “intention” and actually follow the “means” by which transformation into that vision can take place.

The Table: What’s on your reading list these days?

TP: This summer I read James K.A. Smith’s Imagining the Kingdom, William Dyrness’s Theological Poetics, Malcolm Guite’s Faith, Hope, and Poetry, Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary, and The Physical Nature of the Christian Life (Brown and Strawn). All of these ask—from a spiritual, historical, psychological, or neurological perspective—have we not underestimated the power of narrative, image, metaphor, and symbol in the formation and deep structure of our lives? Could it be that we are formed more powerfully by these deep orientations than by conscious thought? And how can our thinking move from the so-called head to the heart, and, finally, into the body?

The Table: What religious practices or liturgies do you find most profitable in fostering spiritual growth? Spirituality doesn’t seem like a one-size-fits-all sort of thing, but are there consistent patterns of effective practices?

TP: Well, all Christians are called to the classical, biblical practices of prayer, service, worship, fasting (or detachment), chastity, confession, study, etc. But there are still choices to be made within the context of the individual. For instance, Richard Foster, in his book, Prayer, identifies at least thirty different kinds of prayer in Scripture. How do I know which practice of prayer to engage more intentionally in a particular season of my life? This is where we need to discern with the Spirit. My own calling recently has been to trust God more, to be freed from worry and the selfishness that worry causes. What is called centering prayer (to “be still and know” that He is God, Psalm 46:10) has become an important rhythm for me in that journey.

The Table: Christianity has a long history with contemplative practice. What is the role of contemplation in personal growth? What is the meaning of contemplation, psychologically and spiritually?

TP: The term “contemplation” has both general and specific meanings. Generally, contemplation is a “beholding,” a gazing upon or chewing upon something that allows it to go deeper than thought, to become an image or relationship embedded in our hearts, from which our life flows (Proverbs 4:23). It is an extension of what the Scriptures call “meditation”—as in Psalm 48:9, “Within your temple, O God, we meditate on your unfailing love.” And this suggests that contemplation is relational. It is not just thoughts about God, but placing ourselves, as it were, “before Him.” We behold Him as if He were actually here (which He is). This is Paul’s prayer, that we would know the love of Christ in a way that “surpasses knowledge”—which is a relational knowing (Ephesians 3:19). Put another way, in contemplation we are practicing the command to “be still and know” that He is God (Psalm 46:10). Like other practices, contemplative practices have developed from seeking to understand how we might carry out certain commands of Scripture. Christian practices of contemplative prayer, then, are simply ways we make ourselves available to the Spirit, whose work it is to give us the capacity (“power”) to know God more deeply and intuitively (Ephesians 3:16).

The Table: Is there a theological or psychological distinction between the mind and the heart? How should we understand the difference between these two aspects of our inner life?

TP: When we see these terms, it’s tempting as moderns to assign “mind” to the activity of thought and “heart” to feeling. However in Scripture, the heart includes the activities of thinking and feeling, as well as choice (the will). In fact, more often than not, the heart in Scripture thinks, as in Proverbs 23:7–8, where it says, “As a man thinks in his heart, so he is.” We should not draw a hard line between thought and affect (feeling) in Scripture, or in life. Both participate in knowledge. When used on its own (“mind of Christ,” I Corinthians 2:16) or in conjunction with heart (“your hearts and minds,” Philippians 4:7), the term “mind” may be highlighting one’s deep belief, one’s intuitive as well as reasoned perception of the world, which includes the appropriate feelings or affect (like trust) that deepen our discernment.

The Table: What understanding of the human heart must we have to engage in intentional, thoughtful soul care?

TP: The heart is the place of deep belief, our “unconscious theology,” where what we really believe lives. With this in view, Proverbs 4:23 urges us to “watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flows the springs of life.” In other words, we should know what is in our heart because our lives simply flow from that—for good or for ill. While we may sincerely believe the truths we hold, still there are beliefs that lie at a deeper level still. For instance, I may believe in God’s providence, that He is in control and seeks my good. However, my anxiety may tell me that this belief in God’s providence does not go all the way down in me. I may find I don’t trust Him with my whole heart. That’s good information, and something that may become a calling for me, whether for a season or for a lifetime.

The Table: How do you understand the integration of psychology with spiritual formation?

TP: Among other things, psychological study and therapy attends to our relational histories, how these have formed us, and how they affect, even unconsciously, our view of God and relationship with Him. If Christian spirituality is about my spirit living in dependence on and communion with God’s Spirit, then the wisdom psychology brings to our relational dysfunctions is crucial. Our memories, wounds, fears, addictions, or attachments—all of which are aspects of our psychology—also have a direct affect on our relationship with God and others. And usually to some degree, these operate on us below the surface of our normal awareness. Psychological study and therapy can bring much of this to light in helpful ways that open us to the Holy Spirit’s deep work of healing and sanctification in us.

The Table: Who are your spiritual mentors?

TP: I’ve been undoubtedly blessed by my colleagues at the Institute for Spiritual Formation at Talbot School of Theology, whose words and lives continue to mentor me. I’ve also had two spiritual directors in the last ten years who have been crucial to my ongoing formation. And, of course, there are a host of authors.

The Table: What is the proper posture or disposition of a person seeking spiritual transformation?

TP: That’s easy: humility, springing from the awareness of one’s need. I can do nothing apart from God (John 15:5).

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