Category Archives: religion and spirituality

An Alternative to “Truthiness”

Yesterday I shared a Carl Sandburg poem about truth, titled, “Who Am I?” Today I would like to explore the poem more deeply as Sandburg grasped intricate dimensions of Truth, describing it as “the most elusive captive in the universe.”

Just how can truth be so elusive and how can it be “elusive” if it is already “captive’d” within our heart?  Sandburg believed that we have intrinsic knowledge of the truth in the depths of our inner most being but we have a fear of acknowledging and embracing this Divine gift. “Truth” is frightening to our ego-bound consciousness because She is a process which is disruptive to our shallow, self-serving grasp of her intricacies.  “Truth” is a dynamic process which is catastrophic to our shallow certainties about life. It is very frightening when She begins to penetrate “the small bright circles of our consciousness” (Conrad Aiken) and challenges the “canned” truth that our ego prefers. Therefore, Truth eludes us though She is already in our heart, a “captive” which usually we do not allow to “come out and play” in our life.  But She is always there, nevertheless, nudging us along and encouraging us to let Her in for a visit someday.

And what did Sandburg have in mind when he asserted that Truth disregards “all signs that read, ‘keep off.’”  He realized that Truth, as opposed to what Stephen Colbert described as “truthiness,” is contrary with the self-serving limits that we have created in our life.  If Truth is given access to our heart, it will always confront “Do not trespass” signs marking the areas of life that we don’t want challenged. T.S. Eliot had this in mind when he encouraged us to “live in the breakage, in the collapse of what was believed in as most certain and therefore the fittest for renunciation.”  Sandburg and Eliot were not discouraging having anchor in our heart that affords us existential courage, but saw that the only “anchor” that survives the test of time is the “certainty” of some “thing” that lies beyond the grasp of our finite mind. This is the very Ground of our Being.  The self-serving bromides that we take for truth will never pass the test that this “Ground” presents to us. And on this note a conclude a witticism from a dear pastor of my youth, “Yes, Truth will set you free.  But it’ll first make you miserable.”

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/

“Like Kittens Given Their Own Tails to Tease”

Vaclav Havel was a playwright, poet, and artist who became the first president of the Czech Republic in 1992 after helping lead a successful revolution against the Communists.  His involvement in politics was not the route that most men of his artistic persuasion would follow but his voracious reading in religion and the arts led him to action, not idle thought, or as pointed out recently in the Times Literary Supplement, “working for social and political improvement, not for glory, but to put his soul in order.”  Havel had a hunger in the heart that led him into the ethereal, even the occult, but he also was grounded in reality and recognized that the lure of intellectual and spiritual escapism must not be allowed to capture him.  He recognized that passion, that as Hamlet put it, “the native hue of resolution, sicklie’d o’er with the pale cast of thought…(would)…lose the name of action.”  Or, to put it in New Testament words, “Faith without action is dead.” (This was from a book review of “Vaclav Havel” by Kieran Williams.)

Havel lived through social and political turmoil in his youth during the Communist Revolution when his comfortably ensconced family suffered loss of wealth and status making the young Havel “self-conscious about his social origin.”  This “self-consciousness” produced what the book reviewer, Lesley Chamberlain, described as “productive friction” in his soul which simultaneously created or affirmed a belief in a soul and the insight that engagement in the human endeavor was an important part of “putting his soul in order.”  This “productive friction” will not take place in anyone’s life without some unsettling experience at some point in life as otherwise one will just bumble along life’s way comfortably ensconced in one’s view of the world, like “kittens given their tail to tease,” as Goethe put it.

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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

Shakespeare’s Advise to the Wounded Soul

Shakespeare offered wisdom for all dimensions of the human experience.  For example, here he offered insight into maladies of the soul still relevant to modern times:

MACBETH   Cure her of that. 
                Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased, 
                Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow, 
                Raze out the written troubles of the brain 
                And with some sweet oblivious antidote 
                Cleanse the stuff’d bosom of that perilous stuff 
                Which weighs upon the heart?

PHYSICIAN  Therein must the patient minister unto herself.

Shakespeare was one of the greatest spiritual teachers we have ever had.  He certainly realized the value of “the healer’s art” I’m sure but he knew that ultimately each individual is alone, left with the responsibility of “working out our own salvation with fear and trembling.”  Others may assist us, and should, but ultimately we have to muster up the courage to confront the demons that haunt us in our inner most depths.

In religion and in the mental health profession, the quick cure is always fashionable.  These two enterprises often proffer only fads and fashions designed only as a band-aid that can only temporarily cover an existential crisis that needs to be “lived” through.  As someone put it, matters have the heart cannot be resolved by “thinking” through them but only by “feeling” through them.

Here I include a modern translation of the above Shakespearean quote:

In a modern translation, this part of the scene would say “Cure her of that. Can’t you treat a diseased mind? Take away her memory of sorrow? Use some drug to erase the troubling thoughts from her brain and ease her heart?” This is describing how Macbeth is pleading for his wife’s health. He feels compelled to treat her and is saddened when he hears from the doctor that one cannot mend the emotionally ill. This leads Macbeth into a rant that almost accuses the doctor of not being a doctor at all because he’s not able to cure someone emotionally sick. Macbeth is needing the doctor to be able to do something, use some drug that can help her in any way

 

The Heart’s “Beastly Little Treasures”

My dear mother often trotted out home-spun wisdom that I’m sure she picked up from her upbringing in the farmland of south-central Missouri.  One of my favorites was, in reference to someone who obviously thought way too much of himself, “I wish I could buy him for what he’s worth and sell him for what he thinks he’s worth.  I’d be a millionaire.”  I stumbled across the 19th century novelist George Eliot’s version of this wisdom yesterday, “What mortal is there of us, who would find his satisfaction enhanced by an opportunity of comparing the picture he presents to himself of his doings, with the picture they make on the mental retina of his neighbours? We are poor plants buoyed up by the air-vessels of our own conceit.”

None of us are exempt from this vanity and that is not necessarily a fault.  “Tis just a human foible.  Of course, occasionally someone like Donald Trump comes along and this “human foible” is magnified for us and we see how catastrophic it can be.  It is important to have self-respect and even self-love in some sense.  Failure to do so merely reflects what Carl Jung termed “ego deflation” which is an inverted form of “ego inflation.”  Jung realized that with either extreme there was inordinate attention on our self and a lack of attention on other people and the world outside of our ego, that we probably saw only “the small bright circle of our consciousness, beyond which lies the darkness.”  It is very humbling to suddenly realize, “Uh oh, this has pretty much been all about me so far in my life.”

“Self” consciousness or self-awareness is very challenging.  It requires what spiritual teachers often call “soul work.”  It entails looking within as well as without, the “within” dimension often requiring confronting what poet Ranier Rilke described as the heart’s “beastly little treasures.”

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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

Wordsworth’s “Preludes” and Subjectivity

Just after the turn of the century, I had the privilege of living in Cambridge, England for an academic year with my wife who was doing research at Lucy Cavendish College at Cambridge University.  One of my personal highlights was attending a wine tasting at the Cambridge University office of William Wordsworth.  There I was in awe as I soaked up the atmosphere of the room where this great poet had studied and written, my “awe” certainly enhanced by very the very fine wine!  I was taken by handwritten copies of some of his poetry displayed on the walls and original editions of his work on display.  I reveled for a while in the “spirit” of one of my most beloved poets.

This past week the New York Review of Books had a lengthy report of a new book about one of Wordsworth’s most famous lyrical poems, “The Preludes.”  This book review by Helen Vendler delves into some of the personal misfortunates that befell Wordsworth in life, especially in his youth, all of which turned him inward and eventually gave expression to beautiful poetic imagery of a soul that had been denied the comfort of traditional life.  It reminds me of something W. H. Auden said of W.B. Yeats, “Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.”  Wordsworth’s world was often very maddening and it did turn him away from the horror of what he was witnessing toward the subjective comfort of poetic reverie.

I will post a link to the entire book review at the conclusion.  Here I would like to share an excerpt from the preludes which has been offering me reassurance for the past 30 years or so, reassuring me that he too saw as did Shakespeare, “There is a Divinity that doeth shape our ends, rough hew them how we may”:

Dust as we are, the immortal spirit grows
Like harmony in music; there is a dark
Inscrutable workmanship that reconciles
Discordant elements, makes them cling together
In one society. How strange, that all
The terrors, pains, and early miseries,
Regrets, vexations, lassitudes interfused
Within my mind, should e’er have borne a part,
And that a needful part, in making up
The calm existence that is mine when I
Am worthy of myself! Praise to the end!

Book review by Helen Vendler of Wordsworth’s “Preludes”:  http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2017/02/23/wordsworth-heard-voices-in-my-head/

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ADDENDUM–I have diversified 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