In general, attention is a tending of the ego toward an intentional object, toward a unity which “appears” continually in the change of the modes of its givenness and which belongs to the essential structure of a specific act of the ego… it is a tending-toward in realization. The realization which is brought into being with the turning-toward, the starting point of the realization of the act, is the beginning of a continuing realizing directedness of the ego toward the object…

The original tendency of the process, along with what has accrued to it from what has been realized hitherto, is fulfilled phase by phase, and it is at the same time extended as a tendency and exhibits new stages of fulfillment. This continues, up to an “end” or breakoff point, which may have the form of “and so forth.” The beginning, therefore, has an intentional horizon; it points beyond itself in an empty mode, which is filled only in subsequent realizations.

-Edmund Husserl, defining “attention”

In rough summary (and technical simplification), any time we are paying attention to something, that attention implies we are seeking something, waiting for something to unfold. That “something” is here indeterminate, but the ego’s movement is toward fulfillment in subsequent realizations.

What’s the upshot here for Christian experience? There isn’t much of one directly, besides implying that human beings are affective, seeking, and fundamentally ecstatic (“out of stasis”) creatures. Husserl was talking only about individual encounters with sensory phenomena, but perhaps his definition of “attention” here suggests an analogy with attention in the sense of lived religious experience.

“Set your minds on things above”, the writer of Colossians urged his audience, “not on things that are on earth” (3:2). If attention, in this sense, implies expectation, what do we expect from the things on which we set out minds? Which “things above” should be objects of attention?


Any dwelling on something implies an expectation from it – new facts to come to light, new understandings, new emotional hues to come to light. We set our minds on an idea to allow it to present new ways of understanding ourselves or our experience or the world; we give attention to a poem to discover fresh nuances of meaning or valences of emotion. We set our attention on a person in anticipation of new encounters with his personality, new things to learn from what she says, new ways of seeing something, a perspective we never could’ve gained left alone.

The parts of the Christian message we set our minds to similarly have internal horizons which unfold before us as we contemplate them. What do we expect, for example, from Christianity’s code of moral obligations and responsibilities, its ‘shoulds’ and ‘shouldn’ts’? Among other things, Calvin found in the law an inspiration to love and good deeds, as a “whip to a lazy ass.” Luther found, most centrally, condemnation: dwelling on the Law shows the gap between its requirements and our actions, showing our actions, by contrast, to be those of sinful people. Many, in dwelling on God’s Law, are anticipating not a revelation of God’s character or our own sinfulness, but rather a growing-into its requirements on our part. The Law’s referent, in that case, is not the one in need of rescue, but rather the one with the potential for personal or ethical growth.

The Word of forgiveness, on the other hand, has its own manifold possible promises, which focus our attention. Do we dwell on it so we can feel entitled to moral license – is license what we expect? Certainly, that’s part of it for me. Do we expect a divinely-sanctioned word telling us to chill out, because nothing really matters anyway? That’s part of it for me, too.


The good news, in terms of our expectations from doctrine, is that what actually unfolds may be different from what first attracts, and holds, our attention – which is frequently projection. Quite possibly, one of the Holy Spirit’s faculties is allowing doctrine to interrupt, and suspend, the framework – consisting of often-sinful motives and expectations – we bring to it. Thus someone may approach the Law for years, in a fundamentalist church, primarily waiting for it to unfold the reality of new, better, morally improved self. Despite the narrow expectations of our attention to it, the Law as something outside of us, and at least partially immune to our projections, may cut against the grain of our intention. Sometimes, for example, it takes years of trying to be a ‘new, better me’ in order to actually hear the Law’s condemning voice – to see the light it casts on us which reveals us as sinners.

And grace, similarly, can cut against intention. Does that really mean I can do whatever I want to and God will still forgive and love me? It’s asking the wrong question, to be sure, but anyone with a robust pneumatology would feel few qualms over answering: yes, it does. Such a synecdochal view still gets someone in the door; I may only see a sculpture from one angle, but if that view is compelling, I will walk around, examine other complementary parts, struggling, all the while, to constitute a perfect and harmonious whole in my mind. Whichever facet draws people in – desire for moral license, heightened possibilities for moral self-improvement – the Spirit does work. Cranmer, unsurprisingly, said it best:

But if the profession of our faith of the remission of our own sins enter within us into the deepness of our hearts, then it must kindle a warm fire of love in our hearts towards God, and towards all others for the love of God – a fervent mind to seek and procure God’s honor, will and pleasure in all things – a good will and mind to help every man and do good unto them, so far as our might, wisdom, learning, counsel, health, strength, and all other gifts which we have received of God will extend – and, in summa, a firm intent and purpose to do all that is good, and leave all that is evil.

-from Ashley Null, Comfortable Words: Thomas Cranmer’s Gospel Falconry in Comfortable Words, in which Null develops the metaphor of “allurement”

Such a kindling of our hearts cannot be manufactured as a starting-point for belief. But whatever motives we honestly do bring to the table, if recognized, may work as the Spirit’s instruments to allure and lead us.