Category Archives: biblical literalism

Emily Dickinson & “Internal Difference”

In one of my favorite Dickinson poems, quoted a few days ago, she describes a descent into the interiority of one’s soul where is found “internal difference where the meanings are.” In modern terms this descent is an openness to one’s unconscious which is given us if we start paying attention to the whims and fancies that pass through our mind…including those that are unsavory…as well as to dreams.  It also involves enough “self” awareness to begin to ask, “Why does this always happen to me” as we recognize repeated patterns of behavior in our life and find the courage to tolerate the suspicion that it is not necessarily someone else’s fault. But focus on this subterranean dimension of life is dangerous to those who have spent their life on the surface, busying themselves with the baubles that life tosses their way, “like kittens given their own tails to tease.” (Goethe)

This adventure was described by Dante at the beginning of The Inferno as a journey into “the deep forest” for in the forest conveys a childhood fear of getting lost; and, on this journey one pretty well has to “get lost” at sometime.  Here is an excerpt from a W. H. Auden poem which describes this risk:

Heroic charity is rare;
Without it, what except despair
Can shape the hero who will dare
The desperate catabasis
Into the snarl of the abyss
That always lies just underneath
Our jolly picnic on the heath
Of the agreeable, where we bask,
Agreed on what we will not ask,
Bland, sunny, and adjusted by
The light of the accepted lie.

*********************************************************************

ADDENDUM–I am about to diversify with this literary effort of mine.  In this blog I plan to focus more on poetry and prose.  Below you will see two other blogs of mine relevant to spirituality and politics which have lain dormant for most of the past five years.  I hope some of you will check them out.  However, the boundaries will not be clear as my focus is very broad and my view of life is very eclectic/inclusive/broad-based.  Yes, at times too much so!

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

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

 

Meaning and Meaninglessness

The subject of meaning teased me in my youth though it never was allowed to flourish until I started college and began to escape biblical literalism.  This escape was into a gradual appreciation of the metaphor which didn’t fully materialize until a prescient friend gave me a copy of Shakespeare’s sonnets and W.H. Auden’s collected poetry in my mid thirties.  My life has not been the same.

Meaning involves intricate and intimate experience with difference.  Until one encounters meaning, he lives in a sterile universe of sameness usually marching lockstep with those of a similar orientation to life.  A quest for meaning inevitably leads one to a face-to-face encounter with meaninglessness for the one cannot exist without the other.  For example, there is no blue without non-blue.  Now I have been blessed as my venture into meaninglessness has been gentle for it can drive one stark raving mad.  I think I am fortunate to have what the poet John Keats described as “negative capability,” the ability to live with pronounced self-doubt, insecurity, and emotional fragility.  It is no accident that since the gift of poetry in my mid-thirties I have been immersed in poetry and literature for there I find metaphor which allows me to find an anchor in what would otherwise be an overwhelming mystery, a mystery that the linear thinking in which I was stuck for 35 years cannot abide.

One of my most beloved poets is Emily Dickinson and she wrote a poem which so beautifully captures the internal descent where this meaning is found.

There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes –
Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –
We can find no scar,
But internal difference –
Where the Meanings, are –
None may teach it – Any –
‘Tis the seal Despair –
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air –
When it comes, the Landscape listens –
Shadows – hold their breath –
When it goes, ’tis like the Distance
On the look of Death –

The Simple “Complexity” of Spirit

I have deep conviction that life is essentially a spiritual enterprise; or, as someone has said, “We are spiritual beings having an human moment.”   But to be honest, I’m hesitant to even use words like “spiritual” for in my culture they too often refer to jargon and rhetoric which I now see as ideological bondage described by the Apostle Paul as, the “letter of the law” which he described as spiritually lethal.

Bear with me here as, in my hubris, I attempt to define “spirit,”  to put into words that which is Ineffable and therefore beyond the grasp of language. The human ego is driven to attempt to but this Essential into words, to capture that which always eludes the effort to grasp it.  This is the existential dilemma of human beings, having in their heart an intrinsic drive to find meaning only to eventually to discover that the Ground of our being where meaning is found is always beyond our ego’s effort to capture, and therefore “own” it.   This obsession eventually brings us face to face with the experience of humility in which we have the opportunity to accept that this “Ground” is present in the very quest that drives us and is satisfied when we begin to resign from the “beseeching” of the ego and rest in the comfort of Grace, in the knowledge offered to us by W. H. Auden that “the Center that we cannot find is known to the unconscious mind.  There is no need to despair, we are already there.” Or, to put this wisdom in biblical terms, we must come to realize that God is “the author and the finisher of our faith” so that at some point we give up the efforts of “the flesh” to earn salvation, be this effort intellectual or moral endeavor.

This brings up the subject of meditation, a dimension of prayer which is usually dismissed in Protestantism as it is antithetical to Protestantism’s obsessively rational approach to Spirit.  Meditation brings one to recognize the limitation of rational thought, a recognition that teaches one the value of thinking but simultaneously the value of recognizing, and experiencing that there is more to spiritual endeavor (and to life) than rationality.  The most powerful expression of this insight I’ve ever run across was provided by Shakespeare when, in Hamlet, King Claudius was on his knees in prayer, offering these words, “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below.  Words without thoughts never to heaven go.”

So, how have I done in defining Spirit?  Failed miserably huh?  Well, good.  Then I’ve accomplished my purpose.  Life is a spiritual enterprise and rational understanding of it is completely beyond the grasp of our finite mind.  When this understanding and experience of finitude begins to sink into our ego-ridden consciousness, we are brought to our knees…so to speak, or perhaps literally.  For then we begin to embrace the incomprehensible Mystery of life which, paradoxically we recognize always has and always will Graciously embrace us.  “There is a Divinity that doeth shape our ends, rough hew them how we may.”

ADDENDUM–I am about to diversify with this literary effort of mine.  In this blog I plan to focus more on poetry and prose.  Below you will see two other blogs of mine relevant to spirituality and politics which have lain dormant for most of the past five years.  I hope some of you will check them out.  However, the boundaries will not be clear as my focus is very broad and my view of life is very eclectic/inclusive/broad-based.  Yes, at times too much so!

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

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

 

 

Negative Capability, Humility, & Politics

For 40 years I’ve been keenly tuned into literary wisdom, often memorizing tons of poetry and prose, some remnants of which remain today but only those which resonated with the deepest recesses of my mind/heart.  Facebook offered me one gem yesterday that will stick with me, from Gore Vidal, “The unfed mind devours itself.”  That took only seconds before it fluttered down into the inner-most depths of my being and I understood what he was saying.  All of us have a mind and it is always incorporating “stuff” from our world but by nature this “stuff” is then incorporated into our reality by our ego’s self-serving grasp and thus we skew it to merely reassure ourselves of our premises.  For example, when the earth was assumed to be flat, any “rational” intellectual of the day took this as an unquestioned assumption just as when I was a youth in the South I never doubted my culture’s wisdom that blacks were inferior to whites and should “get back in their place.”  This does not make practitioners of conservative tradition “bad”; it just makes them human and therefore capable of “badness.”

But Vidal was challenging us to consider that a mind trapped within the premises that constitute its “reality” can metastasize, and slowly eat away at its very core, devouring itself, or as Shakespeare put it, “feeding even on the pith of life.”  A mind imprisoned in this dark world has not ventured to explore its parameters, its boundaries, and to tippy-toe into the world of the liminal where “what is ‘out there’” and “what is ‘in here’” is not so clear and distinct.  This is the very heart of spirituality but when “spirituality” consists of dogma (“well-worn and ready phrases that build comfortable walls against the wilderness”–Conrad Aiken), even spirituality has drifted into the domain of the ersatz and is the very antithesis of the teachings of persons like Jesus Christ.

This is the “willful ignorance” spoken of in the New Testament (2nd Peter).  Terry Eagleton, reviewing “The Limits of Critique” by Rita Felski in the current edition of London Review of Books declared, “The closest one can come to the truth is a knowledge of one’s self-deception.” This knowledge is the awareness of a penchant to be “wrong,” that one “sees through a glass darkly” and inevitably will lead to inevitably to the pain of disillusionment occasionally as the flicker of light burns through some of our ego’s obfuscation.  This is related to poet John Keats’ term negative capability which is the ability of some individuals, usually writers or artists, who can delve into the realm of ambiguity and uncertainty and not live enslaved by religious or philosophical certainty.

But the willful ignorance noted by St. Peter is an unconscious blindness to even the possibility of knowing that one might be deceived.  One cannot handle even the notion of being wrong. This problem is relevant to the Dunning-Kruger effect though I’m hesitant to use this that term because it refers to “stupid people” and my focus here is people that are often very bright and not stupid in the least.  These are merely people who lack some version of “negative capability,” their “non-literary” version being my recognition that negative capability is not for everyone and that in fact the world could not with function with too much of it!

But when “negative capability” is squashed to the extent that all vestiges of it are obliterated, the result will always be an arrogant certainty which will be some version of, “Let’s Make America Great Again.”  And when this ego need metastasizes to some point, some version of Isis will appear on the stage be it Nazi Germany or the extremism of the hinterlands of modern day evangelical Christianity.

I want to include a brilliant observation by Hannah Arendt from her book, “The Origins of Totalitarianism.”

Just as terror, even in its pre-total, merely tyrannical form ruins all relationships between men, so the self-compulsion of ideological thinking ruins all relationships with reality. The preparation has succeeded when people have lost contact with their fellow men* as well as the reality around them; for together with these contacts, men lose the capacity of both experience and thought. The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.

A Believing Cynic Looks at Faith

 

CONFESSIONS OF A BELIEVING CYNIC

The election last month, and the conservative support of Donald Trump, really rattled my cage spiritually and helped me to understand more fully the origins of my faith.  These origins were very childish, but then how can “origins” be anything but childish.  We started out as children and most of us were introduced to faith in our very early childhood.

But, “ When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”  The Apostle Paul realized that maturity in every dimension of life brings a changing perspective.  Without the ability to change, one will inevitably spend his/her life trapped in what Ronald Laing described as a “post-hypnotic trance of early childhood.”  In this trance, we will bask in unexamined assumptions with a naivety that is dangerous to the whole of our life.

But here I want to address naivety in faith, an exploration which required delving very deeply into spiritual/religious cynicism, an exploration warranted by the recent Presidential election.  Cynicism will jeopardize one’s faith but I have found that by venturing into this jeopardy one’s faith can be deepened and broadened, though it has cost me the certainty which I had when as a child; for in my youth I had so readily imbibed dogma, the “letter of the law.”  This loss of certainty, which I see as a perquisite of meaningful faith, did cost me my religion/faith in a certain sense as I had to learn to approach the Bible, faith itself and even my own identity with a critical perspective.  I could not do this until the middle ages of my life because my identity was too tenuous to subject itself to criticism, a “criticism” which from the perspective of the the Apostle Paul can be seen as an ability to let “the Spirit of God” penetrate into one’s depths and there be “a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.”  This process taught me the wisdom of, I think, Richard Rohr, “God is the best way of avoiding God, Jesus is the best way of avoiding Jesus, the Bible is the best way of avoiding the Bible.”  For when we bask in early childhood certainties, God, Jesus, and the Bible will only be seen conceptually and therefore devoid of any “spiritual” dimension.  The “letter of the law will predominate.”

Cynicism taught me to recognize the dilemma of “believing in one’s own belief” which is basically trusting in reason which, upon closer scrutiny, is merely trusting in one’s own ego-ridden self.  And the ego does not want to relinquish its grasp in any part of our life, certainly in the area of faith.  No less a conservative Christian luminary than Oswald Chambers in his Collected Works warned against the fallacy of “believing in one’s belief or having faith in one’s faith.”

“Believing in one’s belief” is the subtle procedure of keeping faith confined to reason and, in the safety of the resulting imprisonment, one can have his head/heart filled with gospel jargon which will then be abutted by even more jargon.  For, one’s cognitive life will be the rattle of sterile jargon careening around inside one’s head.  Cynicism has given me the ability to follow the admonishment of a bumper sticker I often quote, “Don’t believe everything you think.”  I now realize that when I was believing everything I was thinking I was merely an echo chamber, living in a context of other echo chambers which protected me from any critical view of my faith, of my “self.”  And the “self”, when imprisoned by the ego, does not tolerate any criticism as our President-elect illustrates on an almost daily basis.  When the ego-ridden collective echo-chamber grows large enough it can even gain political and social power, necessitating that someone or some groups will inevitably be left out.  The ego only knows exclusion, “us vs. them.”

Truth and a Mall Santa Claus

A street preacher, already notorious in Amarillo, Texas, disrupted a shopping mall’s Santa visitation with children recently, loudly announcing to them, “Santa Claus is not real.”  There is no doubt he was very sincere in what he was doing; for, yes, Santa Claus is not “real” but that does not mean his tradition in our country is not valid for little children.  But he demonstrated the wisdom of the bumper sticker I’ve been obsessed with recently, “Don’t believe everything you think.”

This gentleman believes he has the “truth” and that the “truth” most boldly proclaimed because hapless parents lack the spiritual depth he has or they would not subject their innocent children to this falsity.  And this illustrates the dilemma of “truth” and the danger that occurs when one is “filled with the spirit” and knows that he has the truth exclusively.  As admitted in the past, I write from experience and now realize just how arrogant I was, now seeing Truth as much more subtle part of a mystical dimension of human experience which we can never own.  But, oh is it tempting to think that we do!

I readily admit that I feel I am writing “truth” when I discourse here but have no illusion that it is axiomatic, written in stone, sent from on “high” Truth.  I have only a simple perspective, shaped by my biological and social past and for some unknown reason I am moved to “hold forth” in this venue, taking comfort in the knowledge that no one is being coerced to pay any attention.  And oh so many don’t!

The street preacher’s “truth-proclaiming” belied the certainty that consumes him about his beliefs and that certainty is now consuming American culture, especially the conservative element.  The braggadocio of Donald Trump and his promise to “Make America Great Again” appealed to a segment of the population who pines foe the days when life was more certain.  Furthermore, Trump’s rhetoric appealed to fundamentalist Christians who readily looked past his moral depravity in the hope that the “certainty” of their faith could be reassured.  Certainty is so much easier than faith.

But the certainty I’m exploring here belies a profound lack of certainty, a deep existential doubt that must be assuaged by addictively clinging to some dogma, even “dogma” that I have found to have great value once I had the courage to see the role my ego was playing in my immature and dogmatic faith.  When one is existentially insecure, he must find something to latch on to in order to alleviate the emotional, spiritual duress he would otherwise feel.

(See story about Mall Santa verbal attack, http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2016/12/13/preacher-children-santa-claus-does-not-exist/95371826/)

 

Confessions of an Hypocrite

When “god talk” is bouncing around in your head–words like “Jesus”, or “Holy Spirit” or “humility” or “the Bible”– it is really intoxicating!  I know, been there, done that.  It provides one the exquisite delight of feeling pious and righteous, knowing that one is “saved” and, very importantly, knowing that so many others are not. This cognitive experience allows one to live in a narrowly defined, safe world of “like minded souls” who are subject to the same cultural bondage, all of which have signed an unconscious bond to never question the premises of their mindset that would bring the “light of day” to their darkness and expose them to their hypocrisy.

Hypocrisy is subtle.  Once again, been there and done that and technically still am!  Hypocrisy is being trapped in performance art, a performance which is carefully scripted by the “song and dance” of one’s spiritual tradition which is very comforting as long as one does not allow that cursed “light of the day”, aka “the Holy Spirit” to intervene and show them that their faith was only a perfunctory performance in compliance with those lofty notions cavorting about in their head.  What is missing is the wisdom of the Apostle Paul who noted that the Spirit of God, if allowed to, will cut into the depths of the heart and there serve as, “a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.”  But if that dangerous and damning insight is permitted, one would have to recognize the sham of his faith which would then allow the “performance art” of faith to dissolve into meaningful expression. But this is very painful as it requires the disillusionment, the anguishing experience of realizing that one has not been as pious as he imagined himself to be and then recognize and experience the grace of God which covers even that duplicity!  But if you “know” you are humble, the thought itself will deter you from allowing the experience of humility to wash over you. T. S. Eliot realized this when he noted, “The only wisdom we can hope to acquire is the wisdom of humility.  And humility is endless.”  Eliot recognized what I like to call the experience of “humility-ization” being operable in one’s life, as “humility” is nothing that can be acquired.  If you think you have “acquired” it…as I once thought I had…you are up to your halo in hypocrisy!

We are all “actors on the stage of life, who with his fear have been put beside his part” and finding the courage to recognize this can provide an opportunity for spiritual growth.   It requires, however, the relinquishment of the comfort zone provided by the cerebral “letter of the law” and a willingness to engage a heart which until this point has been dormant, “bronzed o’er so that it is proof and bulwark against sense.”  Shakespeare knew that a heart which has been customized, or enculturated, into mere rote performance is one that is a rigid defense network against “sense” or feeling.  In the same scene, he implored his mother to listen to him with a heart “made of penetrable stuff”.

Often persons of faith do not have hearts made of “penetrable stuff.”  In my case I was “christianized”, or indoctrinated with Christian teachings so that there was no room left for an open heart to make the dogma of the Christian teachings meaningful in my life, to allow them to filter down from my head into my heart.  In a sense, there was no heart as there can be no real heart until the circumstances of life have intervened and made in vulnerable, i.e. “full of penetrable stuff.”  Now, certainly I have always had a heart but a “heart” is an infinite dimension of our human experience…if we allow it to be.  It is so easy and convenient to allow it to ossify with the dogma that our tribe has provided us which leaves us as nothing more than the walking dead.  In fact, in terms of developmental psychology, our “heart” must ossify for us to join the structure of the human race.  But then in time to come there are opportunities to allow this ossification to break down under the influence of what my spiritual tradition calls the “Spirit of God.”  But this is painful and disillusioning and so we usually decline to listen to that “still small voice” that is always whispering to us and therefore remain in the comfortable darkness of dogma.  As W. H. Auden put it, “And Truth met him, and held out her hand.  But he clung in panic to his tall beliefs and shrank away like an ill-treated child.”

In conclusion, you have just read something from the heart of an admitted hypocrite.  For, as long as we are human, we will be an “actor” to some degree and what makes hypocrisy such a problem is merely the inability/unwillingness to acknowledge it.  Self-reflection, that God-given capacity in our fore-brain is painful when our ego-driven identity is predicated upon disallowing it.   If you want to see an example, pay attention to American politics right now.