Category Archives: American religion

Lao Tzu, Emptiness, and Protestantism

Lao Tzu (6th century BCE) first introduced me to the paradoxical dimension of reality.  One stanza of his Tao Te Ching, #11, grabbed my attention before I really knew where it would lead me.  Here is my favorite translation of that wisdom by Witter Bynner:

Thirty spokes are made one by holes in a hub,

By vacancies joining them for a wheel’s use;

The use of clay in moulding pitchers

 Comes from the hollow of its absence;

 Doors, windows, in a house,

Are used for their emptiness:

Thus we are helped by what is not

To use what is.

This ancient Chinese sage realized that there is a hidden dimension of life which is the essential dimension of life but is recognized only to those are attuned to the subterranean regions of the heart.  This hidden dimension is described in the Christian tradition as the spiritual realm.  But the Christian tradition, especially here in the West, has erred by not appreciating the true essence of spirituality as emptiness, and fashioned a spirituality which is merely a thing among other things, an object among other objects.  Western thought has objectified the world and its spirituality has, therefore, been reduced to a rational enterprise that has no room…in most circles…for the wisdom of Lao Tzu. What has happened, therefore, is that spirituality has become a “graven image” which the Old Testament rather sternly prohibited. This subtle “idolatry” is particularly so with Protestantism which does not emphasize mysticism and meditation which places value on the quietness of the mind.

 

I ran across a beautiful poem today on Facebook which brought these thoughts to mind, a poem which was shared on the page of Parker J. Palmer, a noted member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quaker):

WHAT ELSE by Carolyn Locke

The way the trees empty themselves of leaves,
let drop their ponderous fruit,
the way the turtle abandons the sun-warmed log,
the way even the late-blooming aster
succumbs to the power of frost—

this is not a new story.
Still, on this morning, the hollowness
of the season startles, filling
the rooms of your house, filling the world
with impossible light, improbable hope.

And so, what else can you do 
but let yourself be broken 
and emptied? What else is there
but waiting in the autumn sun?

 

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Thomas Mann Offered Prophetic Word to the U.S. in 1947

Literature can be a portal into the human soul.  As the current political and cultural drama continues to unfold in my country, it has been so interesting to stumble across observations from ancient…and not so ancient…cultures whose insights were so relevant to what is unfolding now in the American psyche.  The human soul is constant.  It never changes.  Oh yes, the historical moment changes but the human response to circumstances of any moment always reveal common themes.  Here I wish to share a lengthy excerpt from Thomas Mann’s 1947 novel, “Dr. Faustus,” which is very relevant to present day America:

We are lost…the war is lost; but that means more than a lost campaign, it means that in very truth WE are lost: our character, our cause, our hope, our history.  It is all up with Germany, it will be all up with her.  She is marked down for collapse, economic, moral, political, spiritual, in short all-embracing, unparalleled, final collapse.  I suppose I have not wished for it, this that threatens, for it is madness and despair.  I suppose I have not wished for it because my pity is too deep, my grief and sympathy are with this unhappy nation, when I think of the exaltation and blind ardour of its uprising, the breaking out, the breaking up, the breaking down, the purifying and fresh start, the national new birth of ten years ago, that seemingly religious intoxication—which then betrayed itself to any intelligent person for what it was by its crudity, vulgarity, gangsterism, sadism, degradation, filthiness, ah how unmistakably it bore within itself the seeds of this whole war!  My heart contracts painfully at the thought of that enormous investment of faith, zeal, lofty historic emotion; all this we made, all this is now puffed away in a bankruptcy without compare.  No, I surely did not want it, and yet—I have been driven to want it, I wish for it today and will welcome it, out of hatred for the outrageous contempt of reason, the vicious violation of truth, the cheap, filthy backstairs mythology, the criminal degradation and confusion of standards, the abuse, corruption, and blackmail of all that was good, genuine, trusting, and trustworthy in our old Germany.  For liars and lickspittles mixed us a poisonous draft and took away our senses.  We drank—for we Germans perennially yearn for intoxication—and under its spell, through years of deluded high living, we committed a superfluity of shameful deeds, which now must be paid for…with with despair.  (Thomas Mann, “Dr. Faustus”)

Submission is a Risky Business!!!

Being submissive is part of being a human being.  Something as simple as subscribing to the social contract requires a submission to restraint, the failure to do so resulting in the problems our President demonstrates for us daily.  And submission is a fundamental tenet of most religions.  A friend reminded me this morning that Islam means “submission” and Muslim extremists have certainly taken that seriously!  And in the Christian faith we also see obvious examples of “submission” to God that has nothing to do with any “God” that I know of.

The problem with submission in these two religious traditions is that the word is not looked at closely, paralleling an equally grievous problem that the one looking at the word is not looked at closely.  By this I mean, when we approach religious tradition, we approach it with baggage and have the predisposition to interpret this tradition only in accordance with this baggage.  That means we will interpret it in terms of unconscious needs, many of which can be ambivalent at best and many just abysmally ugly.  Therefore, submission is often a “surrender” to an idea of God that is simple and self-serving and therefore subject to the abysmal darkness.

This notion itself puts on the table the essential dimension of spirituality that I’ve spent most of my life oblivious to.  It is complicated.  It is so complicated because it is a matter of the heart, a matter that addresses the inner most depths of our being which are totally beyond the grasp of simple reason, making it even beyond the grasp of this futile effort!!!  Approaching spirituality from this perspective is humbling because it requires realizing at some point…and this is tough to put into words…we aren’t even doing the approaching but it (i.e., It, or He, or She) is approaching us.  We are in the grip of a mystery, the mystery of life, and “submission” to this mystery will involve some daily surrender in which we understand that we don’t have any complete knowledge of what is going on but a firm conviction that there is “some method to the madness” of the life we are living and are witnessing others live, even in the cosmos itself.

Nikos Kazantzakis in his book, “Report to El Greco,” wrote, “We must surrender to a rhythm not our own.”  This mistake that many religious people is that they “surrender” or submit to ideas that are very much just the rhythm they already are and, calling it “God” allows their ego to take this delusion and practice their arrogance. This does not necessarily make them “bad” people.  It just makes them human.

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Two other blogs of mine are listed here which I invited you to check out:

https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/

https://literarylew.wordpress.com/

https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/

Language is Nuanced and Contextual

Ben Carson is now on stage with Trump, playing his part in the daily clown show.  He almost immediately made a splash when in his first speech after taking office as Housing and Urban Development Secretary described slaves on slave ships as “immigrants.”   When he was immediately criticized over this statement, he responded with, “Look up the definition of immigrants.”

Carson is another demonstration of the Trump administration’s lack of appreciation of nuance in language, reminding me of the former Supreme Court jurist, Antonin Scalia who argued, “The constitution means just what it says.”  Conservative politicians, and theologians, are literalists and do not consider the contextual dimension of words.  Though these very same persons will readily argue that one who cries “Fire” in a theater does not have the right to do so, that venue being one one “context” which is relevant to the use of words.

Carson replied in response to critics of his observation, “Look it up in the dictionary!.”  He is right, “immigrant” means someone moving to another country.  However, the notion that a black person in the bowels of an 18th century slave ship was an “immigrant” is just absolutely ridiculous.  And, though this is only obliquely related, let me show you a photo of Ben Carson and Jesus in his household, the nuances of which are highly comical.

If only I was skilled with photo-shop, you would soon see a picture of myself with Jesus and Buddha on either side of me, arms around me and myself with a beatific smile.  This photo is such a stunning example of how Ben Carson, and so many of the Republican Party, have no idea of how they are coming across to the onlooker.

ADDENDUM—This is one of three blogs that I now have up and running.  Please check the other two out sometime.  The three are: 

https://wordpress.com/stats/day/literarylew.wordpress.com

https://wordpress.com/posts/anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com

https://wordpress.com/posts/theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com

The “Battle for Truth” in the U.S.

The Battle for Truth in the United States continues to amaze me, given that I grew up with the Superman TV series where the Man of Steel was the champion of, “Truth, Justice, and the American Way.”  Currently we see a daily display of the overt dishonesty of the Trump administration and the Republican Party and watch our nation flounder almost haplessly before this demonic presence. And, I’m not surprised that the “truth-telling” does not come from within the establishment.

I just stumbled across timely wisdom from Vaclav Havel, the former Czechoslovakian writer, playwright, turned political leader who in 1989 led the Velvet Revolution which toppled the Communist regime.  Listen to what he said about how the toppled authoritarian state had manipulated with overt dishonesty:

He states that ideology, “builds a world of appearances trying to pass for reality.”  The oppressive regime “touches people at every step but does so with its ideological gloves on. This is why life in the system is so thoroughly permeated with hypocrisy and lies…the lack of free expression becomes the highest form of freedom…the banning of independent thought becomes the most scientific of world views.  Because the regime is captive to its own lies, it must falsify everything.  It falsifies the past, it falsifies the present, and it falsifies the future.  It pretends to respect human rights.  It pretends to persecute no one.  It pretends to fear nothing.  It pretends to pretend nothing.”

It is no accident that this “truth-telling” in Czechoslovakia came from a voice from the artistic community.  Those within the political establishment are not capable of recognizing the truth, must less proclaiming it.  And those in religious circles are usually ensconced in the echo chamber of religious dogma and have no use for a voice from the outside, such a voice being intrinsically threatening to its established hierarchy.

In my country today it is not the church and certainly not the political establishment who is “speaking truth to power” like those in the arts and entertainment community.  Late night comedians like Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah, Seth Myers, Samantha Bee and James Cordon are left with the task of vividly painting a picture of how our present “emperor” has no clothes on.  Evangelical and fundamentalist Christian leaders have completely fallen under the spell of Trump and will never dare to admit they have made a mistake.  For, they like Trump, cannot acknowledge making a mistake of the magnitude of the one they are making.  Oh, sure they can trot out a canned spiel of being “a sinner saved by God’s grace” but it is another thing to have to stare face to face with how your ego has led you to pledge your troth to the embodiment of everything that is anti-thetical to the cause of Christ.

ADDENDUM—This is one of three blogs that I now have up and running.  Please check the other two out sometime.  The three are: 

https://wordpress.com/stats/day/literarylew.wordpress.com

https://wordpress.com/posts/anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com

https://wordpress.com/posts/theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com

 

Hiking the Appalachian Trail.

In 2009 this phrase entered the English metaphorical lexicon as a synonym for having an extra-marital affair.  The Republican Governor of South Carolina, Mark Stanford disappeared from office for a suspicious amount of time and no one could fully account for his absence.  His staff at one point, under mounting pressure, finally explained that the governor was “hiking the Appalachian Trail” and could not be reached.  Shortly thereafter it was revealed that he was in Argentina cavorting with his sexy paramour.  Thus an apt metaphor for “cheating” came into our language. Stanford had to resign from the office and submit to the humiliation of the press, especially the late-night comedians who pilloried him for his hypocrisy.  Being an outspoken supporter of “family values” and moral propriety, his hypocrisy was apparent to all.  He was a broken man.

But now he is back in Congress as an outspoken Republican critic of Donald Trump while most of his party continues to cower before the “sound and fury” of Mr. Trump, all of which “signifies nothing.”  Sanford describes himself as a “dead man walking,” noting how that he lost everything and knows how it feels and so now has nothing to lose.  Circumstances of life, I like to call it that “bitch reality, slapped him in the face and he managed to find the courage to accept the loss of face and emerge with a newly found humility.

Disillusionment is painful.  It is particularly painful for those who are outspoken proponents of moral virtue and political correctness.  Such hypocrisy now abounds in the Republican Party and they have unwittingly elected as President the very epitome of dishonesty, insincerity, and moral depravity.  They now have the opportunity to use the words of the cartoon character Pogo and humbly lament, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Sanford declares he now has nothing to lose.  And he doesn’t.  The Republican Party needs to find that same humility and simply admit, “We made a mistake,” uttering the words that Trump is incapable of uttering.  And, furthermore, the entirety of our country needs to find this humility as Trump’s election is a reflection of the American soul and not merely the soul of those who voted for him.  We now have a learning opportunity before us.  Let’s see what happens.  Usually in these circumstances the wisdom of W. H. Auden is relevant, “And Truth met him, and held out her hand.  But he clung in panic to his tall belief and shrank away like an ill-treated child.”

(If you want to see more details about Govenor Sanford’s fall from power and rebirth, see the following link:  http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/02/mark-sanford-profile-214791)

It’s a “Come to Jesus” Moment

A “come to Jesus moment” in popular culture has come to mean to face a day of reckoning about circumstances that have been ignored to the point where they can no longer be disregarded.  The image draws from fundamentalist Christianity where “Come to Jesus” meant, and still does mean a moment of reckoning with God and an acknowledgement of one’s short comings.

Though no longer a fundamentalist Christian, I still think that the bromide, “Come to Jesus” still has value if one can approach the matter with a critical view, not only of the bromide itself but of the one who is using the bromide.  In other words, if one can overcome an innate, ego-driven aversion to “self” awareness, especially when it comes to matters of faith.  For most of my life the concept of “come to Jesus” has meant “come to viewing the world as I do” and now I see clearly the narcissism and tyranny of this mind set.  And, it has nothing to do with Jesus.  It has to do with an ego which exercises so much control over an individual, or group of individuals, that the narcissism inherent in the desire is not apparent.  At some point this dishonesty, this “bad faith” is likely to give rise to a powerful voice who will articulate the repressed anguish and rage of millions who are in the grip of this daimonic energy and promise to “Make America Great Again.”  Oh, my….Hmm.  What could I have reference to there?

The issues before us as a species are, and always have been spiritual and that is where “Jesus” comes in.  But by “spiritual” I do not mean the superficial sense with which I was indoctrinated.  By “spiritual” I refer to a dimension of the human heart that lies beneath the surface, down in the guts where words like “spiritual” fall short of actually apprehending the matter.  It is too convenient to keep “spiritual” on a superficial level of conscious, rational intent where we can have a false certainty of what we are doing and then, often, lamely announce, “God is leading” or “God has raised this man up.”

By “spiritual” I mean coming to a place where we recognize, and feel, that ultimately, we are implicated in a cosmic mystery which we can never totally understand with our rational mind and those “certainties” which consume us just might not be any more valid than those who have other contradictory “certainties.”  To put this in terms of my country’s interminable Congressional grid-lock, it would mean that Republicans and Democr ats would each recognize they see only “through a glass darkly” and resolve to put aside their petty differences and focus on monumental challenges that our country faces.  But when certainty grips any one party and/or their constituency, there is no solution because that would require the humility of recognizing, “Uh oh, I was not as much right as I thought I was.”  That would mean acknowledging from time to time, “I was wrong” which is something that Donald Trump, and many of his followers, are characterologically incapable of doing.  This would require spirituality that was something other than self-serving dogma.  This would require something other than the “prayer meeting” hosted by Congressman Louie Gohmert in his office last week where the evil forces they were trying to cast out of Congress were the one’s who were inspiring their self-indulgent display of hypocritical piety.  “With devotions visage and pious action we sugar o’er the devil himself.”  (Shakespeare)  Oh my, how wonderful it was to know that I was pious and to give others an opportunity to see it on display!