Category Archives: fundamentalist Christianity

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

 

 

 

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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.

 

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

Why Donald Trump Appeals to Me

Well, at least on some level!.  When I listen to him speak, on some level I too want to say, “Atta boy! You tell’em.”  Many times when I watch him speak I find that deep-seated resonance with his arrogant certainty as he resurrects a ghost from my past when certainty was available and comforted my young soul which was beginning to come to grips with the capricious world I found myself ensconced in.  Trump promises to take us back to yesteryear when “Truth, Justice, and the American Way” was assured to all of us who would simply affirm our faith in “the way things are” and not dare to question the specious nature of that status quo.

My country, and humankind, are now wrestling with a new world that is burgeoning all around us but is very scary as it deprives some of us of the certainties that we have imbibed of for all of our life. It is much simpler to “hunker down” and passionately repeat the bromides that we grew up with, disregarding their lunacy, and taking comfort with like-minded souls who happen to be just like ourselves.  There is no room for “difference” and in fact there is fear of “difference,” thus the frequent demand of extremist groups for “purity” not realizing that “purity” and “danger” go hand in hand.  See anthropologist Mary Douglas’ book, “Purity and Danger.”

Hyper-conservatives always emphasis purity because they believe Truth is an objective fact, readily available to human reason.  They fail to consider that those who disagree with them also employ “reason,” dismissing “their” use of reason as faulty.  They cannot dare to consider that their reason too is “faulty” as it is human nature to reason in such a way that his/her prejudices and biases are confirmed.  It would be too scary to consider this possibility…and might even require humility and faith, two qualities that are difficult or even impossible for ideological extremists.

 

 

Consciousness and Epistemology

Epistemology continues to fascinate me as I see it playing such a critical role in world events. The violence that is so prevalent seems to always spring from someone or some group taking their ideology too seriously which always parallels taking themselves too seriously.  What we “know” is relevant to consciousness itself and careful attention from an epistemological perspective can teach us that we can “know” a whole lot and not be conscious.

Richard Rohr, a Franciscan monk in Albuqurque, New Mexico addressed this issue in today’s meditation, declaring, “Consciousness is the subtle and all-embracing mystery within and between everything. It is like the air we breathe, take for granted and undervalue. Consciousness is not the seeing, but that which sees me seeing. It is not the knower, but that which knows that I am knowing. It is not the observer, but that which underlies and observes me observing. You must step back from your compulsiveness and your attachment to yourself to be truly conscious.”

Rohr is pointing out that without some capacity for meta-cognition, we will be adrift on our own pet thoughts which will inevitably be those that we have acquired by birth and upbringing in our tribe.  These thoughts will be based on premises that are not subject to questioning, for to question them would be too threatening to our self-percept.  This reminds me of something that Maria Papova pointed out several months ago in the on-line journal, Brain Pickings, when discussing Hannah Arendt and her work on Nazi Germany.  She noted that Arendt argued that the Nazi atrocities were often carried out by “good” people who merely lacked the self-critical capacity of meta-cognition and merely followed orders.

 

Fundamentalist Christians and Sexuality

Fundamentalist Christians offer us a frequent display of their hypocrisy regarding sexuality.  Now to be fair, this “hypocrisy” on this matter is not exclusive to this group as all of us have sexual whims and fancies which we don’t want to have exposed to public scrutiny.  But the issue for these fundamentalist Christians is that they have this need to hold forth regarding their purity and nobility only to have their dishonesty exposed too frequently often by leadership and its elite.

I grew up in that culture and remember the repressive atmosphere about sexuality and recall so well how dishonest it was.  I now realize that the root issue is the fear of the body and its impulses most of this fear being focused on the greatest temptation—SEX!!!  But this disavowal of the body overlooks a central teaching of the Christian tradition, the Incarnation, which was the idea of “the Word” being made flesh.  Yes, lip service is given to this teaching but there is not recognition of the layers of meaning in the teaching that would have us apply the teaching to the warp-and-woof of our life as we understand and experience the teachings of Jesus as not merely doctrine…cognitive precepts that we have accepted…but “cognitive precepts” that have become meaningful down in the guts of our life, in that “foul rag-and-bone shop of our heart.”

But deigning to see “layers of meaning” in spiritual teachings is a scary enterprise.  For, it will entail a simultaneous acknowledgement of experience of the “layers of meaning” in one’s own life and heart.  This brings into question the very nature of reality and the fear of coming ungrounded.  This brings one to realize that he is more than who he “thinks” he is, that he is not something he can cognitively grasp, but he is a mystery very much like the mystery that God is.  This brings one to the adventure of faith and when this adventure even tempts us it is so easy to immediately turn back to what has given us comfort to this point, cling to it more desperately, and even shout it out more loudly.  As W. H. Auden noted, “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.”