Tuesday, June 12, 2007


Marva Dawn, Joy in Divine Wisdom: Practices of Discernment from Other Cultures and Christian Traditions (Wiley, 2006).

How is one supposed to make wise decisions in difficult situations? What is 'God's will' for my life?

Wise discernment is a very valuable tool for Christian living - or any kind of living for that matter. Problem is, in Western individualistic cultures we are often denied access to collective wisdom. This is the essence of Marva Dawn's most helpful book: she takes us to African, Asian, Latin American and some other 'traditional' cultures, suggesting that they have much to teach us in this important area.

Marva Dawn is an erudite person, familiar with grass-roots spiritualities and Christian mystics (but not, in this book, with Christian theologians - except for Bonhoeffer - which might be to her and our advantage on this topic). And she's prolific, with about 20 books published in the same number of years (one co-authored with Eugene Peterson). She tells many stories - some of the most moving about her own struggle with cancer and kidney disease. She's also traveled widely, thus testing her theories/ theologies in many settings.

She starts with grace: 'In humility our good choices are made possible by our gracious gift-giving God.' And two universal practices: listening to our dreams and 'waiting in silence'. Then she suggests we take words seriously: 'As Abraham Heschel notes, in our time words no longer commit their speakers to live them'. God's Word in Scripture is of paramount importance: with the Celts Marva Dawn urges us to place Scripture above reason and tradition, learn large parts of it by heart, and live according to its guidance.

She moves then to a core area of her thesis: if we are to live wisely we must 'rectify names', that is, 'call a spade a spade' in the context of a community's gathered wisdom - essential for discerning 'real realities'. Further, we must have a passion to 'live with purity of heart in accordance with our focal concerns'.

Next, let us prioritize virtues and morals such as sabbath- keeping, eschewing societal 'control' in terms of consumerism, living quietly to rest our 'chattering mind', the prayer of 'listening' - all classical 'spiritual disciplines'.

Her chapter on communal discernment is brilliant, especially her description of Mennonite practices. They have traditions of silent waiting, listening, writing down Spirit-guided thoughts, and sharing these with others - practices which are antithetical to the 'business meeting' methodologies of Western corporations and churches. Consensus is a preferred outcome to a 'majority vote' in this process.

In two chapters - on hospitality/welcoming and reconciliation - she underscores the kind of character out of which we make our best decisions. Then she faces the reality that we make our choices against the backdrop of a broken, sinful world: 'good and godly decisions are not easy; our very discernment processes might sometimes cause us suffering, even as they force us to ask whether we are willing to undergo more struggles because of the choices we might make.' So we need to belong to a community that is willing to enter into our suffering and to enfold us in its celebrations. Rainer Maria Rilke said it well:

O tell me, poet, what do you do? - I praise
But how can you endure to meet the gaze

Of deathly and of monstrous things? - I praise.

Because of our human limitations and ignorance, there are no 'surefire methods' but if we employ all these approaches/disciplines together we will be more likely to discern choices from God's perspective.

Rowland Croucher