Applying the compassionate infrastructure (New Year’s reboot)

And we’re back.

When I first started this blog in September I had pretty grand designs for what and how I was going to write here. Looking back, I think more often than not I was responding to some idea of what I should write.

Because my work is teaching math in a progressive setting, I always feel bound to return to that theme. There’s good work to be done there, and it’s helpful to reflect on it because it is a lived experience that grounds all of my ideas — but I’m interested in more than that.

I’m inspired today to reflect further on what a theological engineer might do. I admit I chose the title because it had a nice (albeit polysyllabic) ring and captured an aspect of my life story that I don’t think many share: I’ve trained as an engineer and as a theologian. I feel the influence of both. while my undergraduate engineering work was a while ago, because it came first in my adult life it has undue influence over how I approach everything else.

  1. I’ve already spoken about systems, the unity that connects diverse parts into a coherent whole.
  2. I also consider an application of heuristics — not procedures but reliable, discreet methods used strategically to approach complicated problems — a legacy of my engineering training and something I’ve applied often in thinking of theology and psychology.
  3. Engineering thinking is dedicated to efficiency, economy, and design, and I see in this a relationship to poetry (at least analogously) and thus to a major mode of suggestive teaching that pervades both Buddhism and Christianity.
  4. The description and application of dynamics (fluid, thermo-, elctroc-, etc.) in engineering has its mirror in studies of theological dynamics (especially in pastoral work) and psychodynamics (in clinical work) — and these especially describe the relationship between material and energy transfers, in engineering, or the relationship between body and spirit in theology and psyche and body in depth psychology.
  5. Engineering is a reflective human endeavor, focusing on those dynamics between matter and energy to develop products and processes to improve human life — theology is also uniquely human (animals may experience gratitude and intuit the inter-relatedness of all things, but theology needs words), and brings together the revealed and reasoned sources of truth to foster aliveness in a community, even a secular community.
  6. Engineering is a little uncomfortable in an academic setting, or so its seems, given its relationship to praxis, to experiential rather than theoretical learning. Theology, we might say, finds its classical expression in academic settings — but then again, when it is most useful and dare I say authentic, it is never far from faith-as-practiced, from ritual and prayer and meditation, and from the way the transcendent approaches and is present to us in our daily lives.

Theology is reflection on our encounter with each other and the spiritual nature that lives at the center of our lives. The engineering of theology applies this compassionate infrastructure for the good of all beings (and is ready to point out when theology or religion work against this purpose).

So — I’m the theological engineer.

Writing this, it occurs to me that my cross-disciplinary move integrating theology and engineering is accompanied by another, somewhat more common one: I’m trained in Christian theology but practice as a Zen Buddhist. So I will often dance across the boundaries and speak in analogous terms, for instance:

  1. practice/faith
  2. Dharma/Gospel
  3. koans/parables
  4. emptiness/grace
  5. karma and illusion/sin and death
  6. compassionate response/righteousness
  7. not knowing and bearing witness/kenosis and kerygma
  8. awakening and saving/repentance and salvation

So, yes, I’m a Buddhist — but still, that I can even hold up these two systems for comparison, as a result of my Christian training, makes it hard to say that the distinction between the two is the only thing that matters. Their interrelation (and apparent conflict) in my life story and in the realm of practice and faith, are more interesting.

I came to Buddhism with an unconscious set of theological assumptions inherited from Greek and Hebrew thought, the philosophical grab-bag that is Western Christianity. Whether I liked it or not, I read Zen as a (forlorn, angsty, wonkish) member of Christendom: raised somewhat in the Catholic Church, in a post-Enlightenment/secular milieu that is not as separate from Medieval Christian thought as we’d like to think.

My understanding of Buddhism must have been Christian-tinged — but then! as my Zen practice grew as I began my formal study of Christian theology, I accessed Christian ideas through Zen practice! How could the loving immanence of God, the presence of the Holy Spirit, the giftedness of grace, and the dramatic pivot of repentance be separate from liberation, emptiness, Buddha-nature, and the turning from illusion to the truth right in front of one’s eyes, when the bottom of the bucket falls out?

All of these, not just ideas but experiences — they’re not the same, but they’re not separate, either. The tension between these two still drives me as it did when I first began on my religious journey — just without the stress of thinking I have to figure it out all on my own, that I labor alone for my own justification and salvation. Paul says: I don’t even judge myself. And the Buddha said, I and all sentient beings enter the way together. And my favorite honkadori:

before they realized
they didn’t need to cross —
were helping others across —
did they think you crossed it alone,
the ocean of suffering.

I’m a Buddhist now, but I wasn’t converted, I was called to a deeper personal practice of something more intimate to me than I am to myself, as Augustine says; an intimacy with not-knowing which is closer to the truth, as the Zen story says. My Christian study speaks to me in a language I understand, while my Zen practice speaks to me — just that. My Zen practice speaks to me, and I listen.

So, theological engineering and dual-belonging, Christian-influenced Buddhism: these are two axes I live along, and write about.

There’s a third here and it’s in my work as teacher. I think I can start to describe this as the tension between knowing and not-knowing, of what teachers have to offer students and what students know already, of the kind of space that facilitates learning, and of the relationship of transcendent realities to the every day of the classroom. This informs most of my writing on teaching math, but also my interest in any one who works as a helper — what are the motivations and the dangers? What are we getting out of it, and what should we put into it? How do we best serve others, how do we take care of ourselves? This is my third line of approach.

And just because no system is perfect: I love New York and it is my home. So sometimes I’m going to write about that.

Elaborating on my About Me seems appropriate for the start of the year.

But now — right straight ahead, not-knowing.

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