Category Archives: American religion

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!

The American Civil War Still is With Us

Yesterday I addressed the issue of systemic trauma that often occurs from economic disparity.  This issue is personal to me as I grew up in the American South, the state of Arkansas, and my family was impoverished for the first 10 years of my life or so.  As I aged I began to become aware of the social atmosphere of where I lived and as I entered college years and became engrossed with the social sciences I began to scrutinize the socio-cultural context which had shaped my life and realized that this context was, in turn, shaped by historical processes that long preceded my arrival on the stage of life.

Study of history taught me of the social disruption of the Civil War in the American South and the profound sense of loss and alienation that swept the former Confederate states as they began to grapple with this “tragedy” that had befallen them.  One conceptualization of this despair is known to historians as “the myth of the lost cause” and my studies quickly showed me how this despair had created the sectarian Baptist denomination that was the bedrock of my spiritual life.  The multi-generational despair gave rise to a religion of hopelessness disguised as “belief in Jesus.”  (I will attach a recording of an old hymn that vividly illustrates this issue.)

Another relevant term to this cultural atmosphere is dispossession.  Civil War Era Southerners felt they had been dispossessed of what was rightfully theirs, that “big government” had intruded and taken away their god-given way of life part of which was slavery.  Their sense of entitlement had been gravely imperiled. And this fear of “government intrusion” is still very much present as evidenced in our recent election.  Related to the experience of dispossession is the existential terror of alienation, of not belonging, and the hope that a “strong man” would appear on the scene at some point to right these wrongs and, “Make American Great Again.”  And, if that did not happen, comfort was found in the firm knowledge that God would make things right in the after life, punishing those who had brought this injustice on a “god-given” way of looking at the world.

Still another important dimension of this atmosphere is a deep-rooted suspicion and fear which often found expression in paranoid fantasies.  I subscribed, and promulgated my fair share of these fantasies and recall well how reassuring they were to me, allowing me to focus on an external enemy rather than address the deep-seated insecurity and fear that I now know terrorized my heart.  Fear is part of life and even a necessary part for survival.  But when fear is a guiding force in a culture, it shapes the lives of the children so that they have no reality other than one that is fear-based and their coping mechanisms are usually not healthy.  Mine were not.  Obama was right eight years ago when he was overheard describing some people as “clinging to their guns and religion.”  He had no problem with “guns” or “religion.”  He knew that “clinging” was the issue, that it reflected an existential loss that is only temporarily and superficially assuaged with weaponry or a moribund, sterile, “letter of the law” version of Jesus.

Here is a recording of the hymn that I mentioned above.  And, as I listened to it just now, the tangential demons of hopelessness, fear, and despair were resurrected in my 65 year old heart.  Listen to it and you’ll see what I mean.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zD1IPUlMdlU

 

 

 

Spirituality in Cultural Captivity

When working on a Master’s thesis in history at the University of Arkansas in the 1980’s, I focused on American religion, specifically the fundamentalist Christian response to the influence of modernity in the late 19th century.  One book I stumbled across me was entitled, “Churches in Cultural Captivity” by John Eighmy which described how the Southern Baptists had unwittingly been “captured” by their culture, disobeying one of their basic maxims, “To be in the world, but not of the world.”

Any spiritual tradition faces the peril of enculturation as any spiritual truth has to be conveyed through human contrivances like ritual, art, and language.  The essence of spirituality is a dimension of the human experience which is ineffable and therefore not accessible through these or any other cultural contrivances.  These contrivances are but pointers to the spiritual dimension of life but immediately they are likely to fall prey to people who will take them literally, who will not allow these symbols to make any ingress into the depths of the heart where they can be meaningful.  Language, for example, will never get beyond conceptual formulations, words and phrases (i.e. jargon) which rattle around in the cavern of the mind and have all the value of what the Apostle Paul called a “sounding brass and a tinkling symbol.”  Or, to borrow from comedian Jerry Seinfield, they will amount to, “Yada, yada, yada.”

Often these sterile thoughts and ideas rattling around “up there” might contain great value.  But if they are only ideas, devoid of any engagement with a heart that is connected to a body, they will only be dogma and usually will serve the purpose of satisfying some cultural dictate.  One simple cultural dictate is simply to fit into the comfortable confines of the tribe which in my case meant “getting saved” and becoming a Christian.  Furthermore, these sterile ideas will likely gain power to the point that they make the individual extremely amenable to the prevailing sentiments, values, and more ways of the prevailing cultural milieu.  Thus, early in my spiritual life, it was definite that women should be submissive to their husbands and stay in the home, that blacks were inferior to whites and should be kept “separate but equal” with not so much emphasis on that “equal” part, that everyone who did not subscribe to our biblically correct view of the world was likely to spend eternity in hell.  For, when spiritual truth is only conceptual, i.e. “the letter of the law”, there will be no internal discernment and one is likely to be innocently imbibing what the Apostle Paul called “the wisdom of this world.”  This does not make these people “bad people” it just means they have been captivated by their culture and have not allowed the spiritual wisdom of their tradition to sink down from the head into the heart.

Spirituality of this fashion will always be very formulaic, legalistic, and judgmental.  This is a cognitive faith, one that is emphasizes thinking over the affective dimension of life, the phenomenon described by the Apostle Paul as “the letter of the law.”  These are the people who Jesus encountered in the person of the Pharisees and he immediately saw right into the “foul and ragged bone shop of their heart” and called them hypocrites.  That quotation was from the poet W. B Yeats who also noted, “Oh God, guard me from those thoughts men think in the mind alone.  They who sing a lasting song must think in the marrow bone.”  Yeats saw the dilemma of the “disembodied word” and those in whom their words have not become “enfleshed” are apt to practice great evil though always in the name of what is “good” or “godly.”  This is a matter of experiencing an integration between heart and mind so that we don’t merely talk a good game, but our behavior “speaks” a good game.  Or, as I heard Richard Rohr say one time, “Speak the gospel everywhere you go; and, if necessary use words.”

These “gospeleteers”, whose daily functioning draws from a mélange of rhetoric in their heads, can’t act for any purpose beyond themselves for they cannot see one.  They “have eyes to see, but see not; ears to hear, but hear not.”  These are not necessarily bad people.  They are merely people who have been enculturated too well and/or have never stumbled across a church or spiritual teacher who challenged their spiritual preconceptions, forcing an encounter with subterranean regions of their heart.  This makes me think of a fear that Ralph Waldo Emerson voiced in the 19th century, the fear of coming to the end of his life and realizing that he had not really lived his life at all.  Or, to put it in the words of Jesus, “What shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world and lose his own soul.”  Jesus was telling us that if we spend out whole life only skimming along on the surface of things, especially in the realm of spiritual things, we will have lived without every tapping into an authentic dimension of our own life.  He was saying, for example, that if we spend our whole life “christianized”, we will miss the point and experience of being a Christian.

Jesus was not and is not about fire insurance.  Jesus was about getting God “down from heaven” onto the earth, expressing his graciousness, kindness, and love as his Presence is woven into the very fabric of our being.  That will not leave us as some damn Christian geek running around bible-thumping and trying to make you see the world like he does.  Even more so it refers to the “working” out of an imminent deity that Jesus taught is within us already, as in when he reminded us, “the Kingdom is within.”

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A VERY NECESSARY CAVEAT:  I am using terminology from one particular spiritual tradition.  Remember, “the word is not the thing.”

 

S