Category Archives: immanence/transcendence

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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“Tired of Speaking Sweetly” by Hafiz

God is found at the boundaries of our life, in what I like to call a “liminal zone” where the distinctions between “me and thee” are nebulous; one might even say where all distinctions are nebulous.  When this experience comes to us…if it ever does…it comes as an intrusion or invasion of sorts which psychologist Carl Jung described as an “einfall.”  This phenomenon is usually conveyed with the image of a transcendent God toying with mankind…in some sense fiddling with him…until he breaks through his resistance and allows Him in.  John Donne wrote a beautiful sonnet in which he prayed, “Batter my heart, three-personed God” for otherwise his adamantine resistance would never be overcome.

Hafiz, aka Khwāja Shams-ud-Dīn Muḥammad Ḥāfeẓ-e Shīrāzī, was a 14th century Persian poet who wrote a beautiful poem about this process of einfall.  This very human experience, so very human that it merits the description Divine, is often gut-wrenchingly painful as the Donne sonnet conveys and as Hafiz conveys here in a more light-hearted fashion.

TIRED OF SPEAKING SWEETLY (aka “God’s Drop Kick”) by Hafiz

Love wants to reach out and manhandle us,
Break all our teacup talk of God.

If you had the courage and
Could give the Beloved His choice, some nights,
He would just drag you around the room
By your hair,
Ripping from your grip all those toys in the world
That bring you no joy.

Love sometimes get tired of speaking sweetly
And wants to rip to shreds
All your erroneous notions of truth

That make you fight within yourself, dear one,
And with others,

Causing the world to weep
On too many fine days.

God wants to manhandle us,
Lock us inside of a tiny room with Himself
And practice His dropkick.

The Beloved sometimes wants
To do us a great favor:

Hold us upside down
And shake all the nonsense out.

But when we hear
He is in such a “playful drunken mood”
Most everyone I know
Quickly packs their bags and hightails it
Out of town.

Basic Premis of “Getting Saved” Culture

The problem of “getting saved” culture is not on the surface but in the depths of the heart, in the premises. A fundamental primis of this mind-set is that the world is seen as separate and distinct from humankind. The “unity of all things” dimension of human experience is not recognized. Their world is bifurcated into “saved” vs. “unsaved” which is merely another version of the “us vs. them” paradigm, the need to see themselves as separate and distinct from other people and from the world. It goes hand in hand with the notion that this earth is something to exploit.

Someone steeped in this “getting saved” culture sees the world “out there” reflecting the over emphasis of God’s transcendence, God always being “out there,” sitting on a throne wielding judgment and pulling strings bringing about his will. This is a projection of the human heart, reflecting the abdication of his/her own power onto a sterile image. This perspective gives only lip-service to the immanence of God which in favor of His transcendence. The subtlety of Spirituality is not seen as God is, yes, “out there” in some sense (though not in terms of time and space) but simultaneously he is “in here” (though again, not in terms of time and space.) “God” is a merely a word that we have used in an effort to capture this incredible Mystery of the human experience, an experience which is actually intrinsically divine. That Ground of our Being cannot be reduced to a mere word or concepts, nor to elaborate theological veins of thought.

And this is what Jesus was telling us that “the Kingdom is within” and that “he who was afar off, has been brought nigh by the blood of the Cross.” The Old Testament Jahweh, “way out there” in the heavens had reached a new level of development and it was time for humanity to recognize it was no longer necessary to attempt to appease him with the “blood of bulls and goats.” Jesus was saying, “You can give that stuff a rest” as that which you worshipped has become enfleshed, I am He, you and I are one, you too are God.”

But acknowledging and embracing our deity, which Jesus taught that we have, requires handling the awkwardness of thinking of ourselves as “God.” It requires a spiritual subtlety that permits an individual to handle mutual contradictory notions at one and the same time; such as, “I am God” as well as “No, I’m not.” It requires recognition, not just intellectually, but intuitively that I am not what I imagine myself to be, that I am more and even less than I “think” that I am.

But when this notion begins to seep into consciousness, it is scary, even “scary as hell.” For this notion invites us to recognize another dimension of life that lies beyond the pale of our conscious mind but is always vibrating within that conscious mind.

Okay, I’m running out of steam and the not quite dormant “literallew” is raising his juvenile hand, reminding me of just how crazy this line of thought is. Yes, it is “crazy “ to a linear mind trapped in the time-space continuum. This is the “Mystery” that even Einstein noted lay at the root of his explorations in the realm of science. But this same “Mystery” with Christians…and most religions…is immediately “bronzed o’er with the dull cast of thought” when we encounter it and we fall in love with the concept. If we would look carefully, this concept, this “idea” that we love is merely our own ego-self wrapped in religious trappings. That is what Jesus was trying to tell the “Christians” of his day, those who were ensconced in the “Pharisee” denomination of that time.