The Journey From Ascent to Descent

[NOTE: During my 2022 Study Leave, I am considering various aspects of wisdom and the role of integration as discovered in tools such as the Enneagram and Spiral Dynamics. Blog posts during this time are intended to fold into the greater learning around this theme.]

Wisdom is often conceived as something to which we ascend. It makes sense to me as one who lives in this world as a Seven on the Enneagram. I am always looking upward to the expanse above me, seeking greater freedom with fewer limitations. So it makes sense that I would want to ascend to these greater heights.

As a matter of fact, it is easy for me to function in a world that is built on the notion of ascent. We want to ascend up the corporate ladder … we are perpetually looking for the next self-help, self-development tool for our career … we are looking for pathways to being better citizens, better partners, better spouses, better lovers, better parents, and (my favorite) better grandparents. If we are being truthful, we are looking for the pathway beyond being better … we want to be the best!

And that is the pitfall in seeking a deeper spirituality … in seeking a deeper wisdom. The pathway we most desire does not lead us where we think it does. Likely, it is the pathway we most fear that becomes the pathway that leads us to the deepest connection with God, with other people, and with all of God’s creation.

You see, the greatest spiritual wisdom is not something we attain by ascending; rather, it comes to us from descent. My deeper understanding of the life of Jesus is that he understood the path of descent as the path toward wisdom and the deepest possible connection with a God whose name is love and who seems deeply preoccupied with the divine task of provision.

What that means for me is that my desire to “ascend to God” is not the truest pathway to God.

This lesson, for me, is something that begins early in my education and ministry. While in college, I was assigned to write a thesis paper for a Hebrew Bible course, and the specific text I was assigned was Genesis 11:1-9 … the story known as the Tower of Babel. This story is the conclusion of the primeval story, which comprises the first 11 chapters of Genesis. In the story of Israel, the first historical figures mentioned are Abraham and Sarah, a story which begins in chapter 12. Because I believe God is always trying to show me something more, that study has continued throughout my ministry with a fascination for how this one story defines so much of what is happening in the world today.

So the story of the Tower of Babel is, at first glance, a story about how we got our multiple languages, but it is so much more than that. The story, you see, is the people who have one language and who are seeking to build the tallest tower with its top in the heavens. Their fear was being weakened and scattered abroad. They wanted access to all knowledge and all secrets at all costs. In verse 4, we are told: “Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.'” 

Building the city or the tower is not the issue for God in this story. The issue here is that they are seeking to reach the heavens in order “to make a name” for themselves. They are operating from the egoic center that is focused on ascension. Whether it is construed as individual or collective ego, it is egocentric, nonetheless.

Using the model of the Enneagram, the ego is what keeps us focused on our fears and our limitations. It is what reacts adversely to stress, and it is what moves us onto the path of “dis-integration” as opposed to the path of “integration” [these are key words for my current research and writing, by the way]. What this means is that the ego is seeking to ascend to a safe place, yet it is doing little more than just entrenching itself into lower levels of consciousness.

What then is the best pathway forward?

So in my study of the Tower of Babel, I was soon drawn to another parallel, which even the editors of the Revised Common Lectionary have utilized. It is the connection between the story found in Genesis 11 with the story of the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost found in Acts 2.

Luke (who writes both the gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles), shares a very clear image of the apostles who have remained in Jerusalem. I know that other gospels take at least some of the apostles back to Galilee, but this is not the case with Luke where we hear the story of Jesus’s ascension and hear Jesus say, “And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised, so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” (Luke 24:49).

Luke’s image of the apostles is one of what I would call “hopeful vulnerability.” They are told to stay in a place where they are extremely vulnerable … few followers of Jesus would feel safe in Jerusalem following his execution. But they have experienced this risen Christ, and they staying huddled together … we are told “in a house” … when the day of Pentecost arrives. Think of an open-air house with passersby all around.

Luke tells us that Jewish people from all over the various lands had returned for this festival of Shavuot, which is both a festival of the first of the wheat harvest and later the celebration of the giving of the Law (Torah) to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Shavuot is directly linked to Passover, and it occurs on the fiftieth day after Passover. The Greek word for 50 is πενήντα (penānta), and the festival is Πεντηκοστή (Pentācostā).

As this day arrives, the apostles are gathered together, and we are told that the Holy Spirit descended on them. They then are moved to begin speaking and testifying to what they know about Jesus, and as they begin to speak, this incredible thing happens. No matter from whence the people had come or what language they spoke, they could hear the apostles (all of them) speaking in their own language. The language barriers were broken down, and there was again only one language … the language of Christ … the language of the divine.

But it began, not with the disciples seeking to make a name for themselves. It began with them huddled and vulnerable. It was not ascent in any form … if anything, it was descent. The complete giving up of themselves into whatever this thing was that the Holy Spirit was doing in them … risking torture and execution in the very act of opening themselves up to the power of this new common language.

By my thinking, it is the language of descent … of going down into the depths of God much as a seed falls into the earth and dies with the hope that it will bear much fruit (see John 12:24-25). In a world focused on ascending up ladders and using “power over” kind of language, these passages and this message make little sense. But in the language of descent, we soon find ourselves on a journey that leads to the greatest spiritual depth.

So I invite you to go with me … downward … to the place where we give ourselves up entirely for God. When we choose to give up the struggle to “make a name” for ourselves, we will find ourselves standing alongside Jesus, and we will discover the capacity to see … to function from higher levels of consciousness. If we then look closely, perhaps we will see … become conscious of … a new reality. It is the reality that our name is already made … perhaps even written … in the Book of Life!

4 thoughts on “The Journey From Ascent to Descent

  1. Pastor Jeff,

    Thanks–as always–for your teaching. This lesson reminded me of a story I wrote as a present for my wife, maybe 20 years ago. It was about a young couple who fell in love and got married. The young man had a curious habit: he would go walking in the country lane every evening and search the ground, saying, “I feel as if I have lost something and I must find it.” His loving wife joined him on these walks, but she looked up into the sky and told him stories about the stars and the pictures they formed. They did this every evening for decades, until they grew very old. The wife had become very frail. One evening she told her husband she could not join him for their walk. The old man was sad but had an idea. “I will carry you,” he said. “I will cradle you in my arms so that you can look up and tell me about the stars.” Off they went, the old man cradling his wife in his arms as she told him about the stars. As he looked down, the old man saw the reflection of the stars in her eyes. What he had been searching for had been with him all those years! Perhaps our problems are about striving to find, when what we need to do is to look and see.

    Terry McLean

  2. I am looking forward to more posts on descension. I can definitely relate. I hope you are enjoying your study leave!

    1. Thank you, Susan. I am certainly enjoying this much-needed leave. This is something that I have longed for. And you are one of my greatest wisdom teachers precisely because you understand descent.

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