by Wendy Farley. Louisville, KY: WJKP, 2005. ISBN 0-664-22976-X. Pb., 208 pp., $19.95.
On the back of Wendy Farley’s new book, The Wounding and Healing of Desire, the brief description of her project uses appropriate descriptive language like “inspiring” and “passionate” to invite the reader into this beautiful work. The description ends by calling Farley’s book a “theological memoir.” If this categorization entices you to pick it up and read it, then I am happy with the choice of genre the publisher made. As a theologian, however, I find the description unsatisfying even as I grope for an alternative way to capture what Farley has accomplished. Indeed this book does pour forth from an intimate integrity that connects her experience with the way she constructs theology. Her project, however, is more ontological than it is a narrative of or theological reflection on her life.
This book is primary theology; it is a text that describes our human condition in a new and unique way. It brings clarity and connection to foundational theological problems, and it creates new grounding for discussion and further work. I was engaged by her fresh and fine descriptions just as I am when I read a classical theological text.
Perhaps most striking to me, however, was how this book ministered to me as a human being. If Farley’s phenomenological descriptive method rests in her hopes that she might elicit a spark of recognition from her readers, then I can say whole-heartedly “mission accomplished.” There was indeed a resonance for me as a life-long Presbyterian, as a woman, as a theologian, as a pastor and as a believer. My own formation and my own struggle to be someone who can claim God’s promise of abundant life for myself were unpacked with a clarity and a compassion that stirred my soul.
This book is important not only because it addresses humanity in our deepest spiritual need, but also for the gap it bridges between contemplative practices and a Protestant theological ethos that has privileged the intellect along with atonement imagery. She does not simply accomplish this herculean task of crafting a convincing argument for how contemplative practice can serve as a corrective to the shortfalls of the Protestant theological tradition. She also disturbs a less well-defined dismissal of contemplative practice that resists these spiritual disciplines as too inward or too selfish or “new age.”
For Farley, Buddhist practice and Buddhist philosophy allow her to engage and understand Christian categories with fresh eyes–eyes that can see with more depth the way the Christian tradition engages humanity not just as sinful, but as wounded. The Buddhist constellation of suffering and compassion helps her to step out of the traditional vocabulary of the Christian faith that interprets humanity almost completely through the sin-guilt-forgiveness cycle. Her bringing together of sources as disparate as folk music, Christian mystical theology, and Buddhist philosophy allows her to construct a definition of our condition that is more expansive about our woundedness and our suffering than the more juridical models that one traditionally associates with Christian theology. Her substantive descriptions, in turn, allow her to mine the tradition’s understanding of divine power.
Farley’s work escapes the potential danger of being esoteric or inaccessible with the groundedness of her descriptions of our created nature. She describes us as “strangers and dangers to ourselves” who are “addicted to pain relief” (Farley, pp. 36, 53.) The manifestations of our affliction are brought into clear relief in her treatment of terror, rage, addiction, and temptation with remarkable insight. Knowing ourselves, for Farley, involves also being in contact with our primary identity as “flames of Christ.” This facet of our identity is difficult for us to maintain in our awareness. This imago dei in us, however, should impress upon us that we are “worthy of happiness.” (Farley, p. 10)
This book is a treasure trove of wonderful images that bring into focus possibilities for practices and proclamation that can make churches more healing and transforming places in our broken world. Farley’s work is a gift to theologians, pastors, preachers, teachers, believers, seekers, and quite simply to humanity in general. May this poetic treatment of our condition help us all to see “the light within us [that] shines through the cracks …” (Farley, p. 164.)
Marcia Mount Shoop is associate pastor for education at First Church in Oakland, Calif.