The cultural roots of our political problems.
It’s become clear in the interim that things are not in good shape, that our problems are societal. The whole country is going through some sort of spiritual and emotional crisis.
College mental health facilities are swamped, suicide rates are spiking, the president’s repulsive behavior is tolerated or even celebrated by tens of millions of Americans. At the root of it all is the following problem: We’ve created a culture based on lies.
Here are some of them:
Career success is fulfilling. This is the lie we foist on the young. In their tender years we put the most privileged of them inside a college admissions process that puts achievement and status anxiety at the center of their lives. That begins advertising’s lifelong mantra — if you make it, life will be good.
Everybody who has actually tasted success can tell you that’s not true. I remember when the editor of my first book called to tell me it had made the best-seller list. It felt like … nothing. It was external to me.
The truth is, success spares you from the shame you might experience if you feel yourself a failure, but career success alone does not provide positive peace or fulfillment. If you build your life around it, your ambitions will always race out in front of what you’ve achieved, leaving you anxious and dissatisfied.
I can make myself happy. This is the lie of self-sufficiency. This is the lie that happiness is an individual accomplishment. If I can have just one more victory, lose 15 pounds or get better at meditation, then I will be happy.
But people looking back on their lives from their deathbeds tell us that happiness is found amid thick and loving relationships. It is found by defeating self-sufficiency for a state of mutual dependence. It is found in the giving and receiving of care.
It’s easy to say you live for relationships, but it’s very hard to do. It’s hard to see other people in all their complexity. It’s hard to communicate from your depths, not your shallows. It’s hard to stop performing! No one teaches us these skills.
Life is an individual journey. This is the lie books like Dr. Seuss’ “Oh, the Places You’ll Go” tell. In adulthood, each person goes on a personal trip and racks up a bunch of experiences, and whoever has the most experiences wins. This lie encourages people to believe freedom is the absence of restraint. Be unattached. Stay on the move. Keep your options open.
In reality, the people who live best tie themselves down. They don’t ask: What cool thing can I do next? They ask: What is my responsibility here? They respond to some problem or get called out of themselves by a deep love.
By planting themselves in one neighborhood, one organization or one mission, they earn trust. They have the freedom to make a lasting difference. It’s the chains we choose that set us free.
You have to find your own truth. This is the privatization of meaning. It’s not up to the schools to teach a coherent set of moral values, or a society. Everybody chooses his or her own values. Come up with your own answers to life’s ultimate questions! You do you!
The problem is that unless your name is Aristotle, you probably can’t do it. Most of us wind up with a few vague moral feelings but no moral clarity or sense of purpose.
The reality is that values are created and passed down by strong, self-confident communities and institutions. People absorb their values by submitting to communities and institutions and taking part in the conversations that take place within them. It’s a group process.
And when the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought sweet spices, that they might come and anoint him. And very early in the morning the first day of the week, they came to the sepulcher at the rising of the sun. —Mark 16:1‑2
Continuing Cynthia Bourgeault’s reflections, drawn from her book The Meaning of Mary Magdalene:
[Mary Magdalene’s anointing of Jesus] provides a powerful ritual access point to Christianity’s own deepest transformative wisdom. To begin with, it makes it virtually impossible to experience the Paschal Mystery in any other way than as an act of redemptive love. When Mary Magdalene is returned to her traditional role as the anointer of Jesus, a very important symmetry is also restored. We see that Jesus’s passage through death is framed on either side by her parallel acts of anointing. At Bethany she sends him forth to the cross wearing the unction of her love. And on Easter morning he awakens to that same fragrance of love as she arrives at the tomb with her spices and perfumes, expecting to anoint his body for death. He has been held in love throughout his entire passage.
As Bruce Chilton succinctly summarizes: “She connects his death and Resurrection.”  And she accomplishes this precisely by bracketing the entire experience in the parallel rituals of anointing. In so doing, Chilton adds, “Mary Magdalene established the place of anointing as the central ritual in Christianity, recollecting Jesus’s death and pointing forward to his resurrection.”
But what is it that she is actually pointing forward to? What is this Paschal journey from a wisdom standpoint? In the common understanding, Christianity has tended to view the resurrection as Jesus’s triumph over physical death. But for Christians in the wisdom tradition (who include among their ranks the very earliest witnesses to the resurrection) its meaning lies in something far deeper than merely the resuscitation of a corpse. Jesus’s real purpose in this sacrifice was to wager his own life against his core conviction that love is stronger than death, and that the laying down of self which is the essence of this love leads not to death, but to life. . . . Thus, the real domain of the Paschal Mystery is not dying but dying-to-self. It serves as the archetype for all of our personal experiences of dying and rising to new life along the pathway of kenotic transformation, reminding us that it is not only possible but imperative to fall through fear into love because that is the only way we will ever truly know what it means to be alive.
Within the context of the resurrection, then, anointing becomes the ritual most closely associated with the passage from death of self to fullness of life, from egoic alienation to “union on a higher plane.” As such, it conveys the very essence of Christianity’s transformative wisdom.
And its gatekeeper is Mary Magdalene.
Cynthia Bourgeault has spent years studying Mary Magdalene, one of Jesus’ closest apostles, often conflated with a prostitute. Cynthia reclaims Magdalene’s significance as Jesus’ beloved companion and a model of authentic love.
Christ is not Jesus’s last name—an obvious but so-often overlooked truism. It means “the anointed one.” And however much his followers may have wished for the ceremonial anointing that would have proclaimed him the Davidic Messiah, the fact is that he became “the Anointed One” at the hands of an unidentified woman who appeared out of nowhere at a private dinner bearing a jar of precious perfume and sealed him with the unction of her love. . . .
I believe that the traditional memory of Mary Magdalene as Jesus’s anointer . . . holds the key to . . . understanding . . . the Passion as an act of substituted love. It also . . . offers a powerful ritual access point to the Christian pathway toward singleness and “restoration to fullness of being.” If we are fully to avail ourselves of Mary Magdalene’s wisdom presence today, it will be, I believe, primarily through recovering a wisdom relationship with the ritual of anointing—that is, coming to understand it . . . as an act of conscious love marking the passageway into both physical and spiritual wholeness.
Her passion has transformed her into one of the initiated ones. And in The Cloud of Unknowing, the author recognizes this same quality of passion as the key element that not only frees Mary from her sins but catapults her into unitive consciousness and a state of continuous beatific communion:
When our Lord spoke to Mary as a representative of all sinners who are called to the contemplative life and said, “Thy sins be forgiven thee,” it was not only because of her great sorrow, nor because of her remembering her sins, nor even because of the meekness with which she regarded her sinfulness. Why then? It was surely because she loved much.
. . . Even though she may not have felt a deep and strong sorrow for her sins . . . she languished more for lack of love than for any remembrance of her sins. . . .…
Have you ever wondered why creation happened in the first place? Or, like the old philosophical question, why is there anything instead of nothing? Many of the saints, mystics, and fathers and mothers of the church have said that God created because, frankly, God (who is love) needed something to love. To take that one step further, God created so that what God created could then love God back freely.
If you’re a parent, compare this with your relationship with your children. Probably your fondest desire, maybe at an unconscious level, when you first conceived or adopted a child was “I want to love this little one in every way I can!” Perhaps you thought, “I want to love this child so well that they will love me in the way that I have loved them.” Your love empowers them to love you back.
I think this is what God does in the act of creation. God creates an object of love that God can totally give Godself to that will eventually be capable of loving God back in the same way, in a free and unforced manner.
The Franciscan philosopher-theologian John Duns Scotus (1266–1308) taught that Christ was “the first idea in the mind of God” (or the “Alpha” point, Revelation 1:8 and elsewhere), not an after-the-fact attempt to solve the problem of sin. The Gospel, I believe, teaches that grace is inherent to the universe from the moment of the “Big Bang” (suggested in Genesis 1:2 by the Spirit hovering over chaos). This cosmic Christology implies that grace is not a later add-on-now-and-then-for-a-few, but the very shape of the universe from the start. The Christ Mystery (Inspirited Matter) is Plan A for God—and not a Plan B Mop-up exercise after “Adam and Eve ate the apple.”
We were “chosen in Christ before the world was made,” as Paul puts it (Ephesians 1:4). It was all “determined beforehand in Christ” (1:9). Human sin or human-made problems (13.8 billion years after the Big Bang!) could not be a sufficient motive for the Divine Incarnation, but only love itself, and even infinite love! The Christ Mystery was the blueprint of reality from the very start (John 1:1).
God’s first “idea” was to pour out divine infinite love into finite, visible forms. The Big Bang is our scientific name for that first idea, and “Christ” is our theological name. God never merely reacts but always supremely and freely acts . . . out of perfect and gratuitous love. Anything less is unworthy of God.