Category Archives: religion and spirituality

“What is truth?” asked Pilate.

“What is truth?” asked Pilate.  This question posed by the Roman officiate who held in his hands the fate of Jesus still haunts us today.  A Showtime series put this question on the table again in the context of marital infidelity, as reported in this WaPo story:   https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/tv/step-1-to-start-loving-the-affair-admit-theres-no-such-thing-as-truth/2015/10/01/71b98422-65fa-11e5-9223-70cb36460919_story.html

Truth, in my youth, was pretty cut and dried.  And what made it so certain was living in a very narrow, conservative world of Arkansas fundamentalist Christianity. But I remember it with a certain degree of fondness, that qualification “certain degree” explaining why I don’t live there anymore.  If I’d have been a “True Believer” (See Eric Hoffer) I would still be there today but thanks to the infinite grace of God…and I mean that sincerely…I am not there and thus am left with the insecurity and doubt which I see as an essential dimension of faith.

But, nevertheless, Pilate’s historical and archetypal query, resonates with me profoundly.  I do so firmly believe in Truth even as I have so little doubt in my ability to quantify, define, and own it.  But I do firmly believe that Truth is present, even in my obscure little life, and in the absurdity of our collective endeavor.  Or, as my brother in Spirit, Billy Shakespeare, noted with his observations, “There is a method to our madness” and, “A Divinity doeth shape our ends, rough hew them how we may.”

But Pilate’s question is still on the table, in this instance with reference to marital faithfulness, but also to very relevant questions of my culture—abortion, gun control, evolution, and more fundamentally the notion of the old Superman tv series bromide, “Truth, justice, and the American Way.”  Is there anything “firm” and therefore “real”…or “Real”…out there? My vote is a firm “yes.” Truth is there, and “here,” but “woe is me” if I ever venture into the arrogance of thinking that I own it.

I Have Still Another Girlfriend!

Yes, I’m always running into “gal pals” in real-time but also in social media.  Those of you here in the realm of “Social Media” know who you are and I won’t embarrass you by naming you.  But I want to introduce you to a recent “acquisition” recently cited by my “guru” Richard Rohr—Etty Hillesum.  Etty was a Jewish woman who died at the age of 29 in Auschwitz concentration camp but left behind a journal she kept the last two years of her life, “An Interrupted Life: the Diaries of Etty Hillesum 1941-43.”Etty’s journal is a compelling disclosure this young woman’s “faith journey” in very difficult times, though it is important to note that her “faith” is not clearly identified with any particular spiritual tradition.  But she speaks openly about her struggles in the conflict between body and soul, even addressing sexuality struggles.  And openly sharing re sexuality clearly means she could not have been a Christian for that kind of honesty and human-ness is verboten in that kingdom of “purity.”!!

And Etty’s testimony in this book reveals the unimportance of labels in spirituality.  In my background, the label “Christian” has been so important to me that I missed out on any legitimate spiritual/human experience.  And wearing any label so tightly, like I did, does provide a comfort of some sort, the “comfort” of denying our mortality and the vulnerability that comes with the experience.

Ideologues: Persecuted for “His” Sake

Kim Davis, a county clerk in Kentucky has lost her battle with the U. S. Supreme Court in her refusal to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples.  But Ms. Davis claims that she bows only to a higher authority, God, and will not obey this ruling.  She declared, “To issue a marriage license which conflicts with God’s definition of marriage, with my name affixed to the certificate, would violate my conscience. It is not a light issue for me. It is a Heaven or Hell decision,” she said through her lawyers.

Ms. Davis will ultimately lose this battle before the Supreme Court but she will have the consolation of basking in the biblical trope, “Persecuted for His sake.”  For an essential part of fundamentalist Christian culture is the notion that the world is “alien” to them and their task is to convert the world to their “right way” of seeing the world.  When their efforts encounter resistance, they can immediately bask in the delight of knowing that they are being misunderstood and mistreated because of their fervent commitment to their Christian faith; they are being “persecuted for His sake.”   And, speaking from experience in my younger days, I can report of the great pleasure that can be found in knowing that one is being mistreated because of his faith.  What I now realize is that my faith took me in directions that could only lead to this “mistreatment” and feeling of being misunderstood and that the anguish of alienation was meeting some unconscious need.

Fundamentalist Christianity thrives on feelings of “dispossession” and alienation, feelings which were institutionalized in the 19th century when the fury of Revivalism that swept the South and the West, giving rise to what religious historians call our “denominational society.”  Bible verses which emphasized separation were emphasized to the exclusion of those which emphasis on unity.  For example, “Come ye out from them and be ye separate” was a favorite selection from the Apostle Paul.  The Old Testament admonishment to “stand in the gap” was used to teach fundamentalist Christians that it was their job to stand in the breach and stop in the onslaught of “modernism.”  This gave the socio-economically dispossessed the comfort of knowing they were performing an heroic biblically mandated action.  And, once again from personal experience, how wonderful it is to know that one has personally and collectively been divinely chosen for this task!  And, of course, awareness of the narcissism of this mind-set was not allowed to breach this hermetically sealed view of the world of “embedded thinking.”

Ms. Davis provides another example of a person embedded in her own thinking.  And being ensconced therein, she cannot budge for she cannot acknowledge that, though her spiritual convictions are valid for herself, they are not valid for the rest of the world.  But she thinks these convictions are valid for the rest of the world and is willing to jeopardize her job and even fines and imprisonment, knowing that in a worst case scenario she will have the comfort of being a martyr in her crowd of like-minded souls.

I have no doubt this is a good woman.  But good women…and men…can have ideas in which they are entrapped which lead to very bad decisions.  I have wasted decades of my life because of my choice to remain imprisoned in ideas of this sort.  It is wonderful, even exhilarating, to know that one is “right” even though the root cause is a deep-seated, unconscious “knowledge” that one is intrinsically “wrong.”  But this “knowledge” is specious, totally overlooking the Christian message that one is “ok”, an awareness of which would empower one to recognize the same of other people.  But when one is trapped in one’s own binary thinking one must have somebody “out there” who is wrong to avoid his/her anguish over the illusion of being intrinsically wrong.”  When my self-percept is one of being intrinsically wrong, I must fashion a world in which I am “right.”

Poet Gene Derwood once noted, “Big thoughts have got us.”  Kim has been “gotten” by a really big thought, the story of Jesus, and I personally think it is a marvelous and beautiful story of redemption.  But when one is enslaved by any vein of thought, regardless of how meaningful and rich it might be, one has sold his soul and has become a mere ideologue whose life is merely “the toy of some great pain.”

(HERE ARE TWO STORIES ABOUT THIS MATTER: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michelangelo-signorile/kentucky-clerk-kim-davis_b_8071594.html; http://www.cnn.com/2015/08/31/politics/kentucky-gay-marriage-licenses-supreme-court/index.html)

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.”

Embedded in our Own Thoughts, Part 2

Embedded thinking, part 2

We are naturally embedded in our own thinking because thinking…at least in the West…is inherently linear.  But it is possible for those steeped in this “linear-thinking” to find the courage to “step back” a bit from that comfortable cognitive grasp of his world and in so doing find that his world view is finite but nevertheless valid.  This “stepping back” is the exercise of a meta-cognitive muscle that we have the capacity for but is frightening to use for one who has made an inordinate emotional/spiritual investment in the world view that circumstances has given him.  This is precisely what Jesus had in mind when he chided those who have “Ears to hear but hear not, eyes to see but see not.”  Jesus recognized that being conscious, that is being spiritually alive, involves more than simple regurgitation of a mind-set and view of the world that one acquired by accident of birth.  And, if I might speak for Him now, he is telling people like me who were “Christianized” by accident of birth that mindless regurgitation of Christian dogma and teachings…and doing so with like-minded souls…can easily find us amusing ourselves in an echo chamber, which, borrowing a line from Goethe, is  “like kittens given their own tails to tease.”

Thinking is linear because of our “fall” into the time-space continuum, or that which is known as “reality.”  In fact, in the Genesis Creation story, eating the forbidden fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is an illustration of falling into “thought” which always bifurcates our world even as it “bifurcates” our selves.   At that point we have been “categorized” and begin to exercise a “categorical imperative” to carve-up into dualities what had been a unified field, creating “good and evil,” male and female, right and wrong, and…yes…even Democrats and Republicans!  Linear thinking has created this world we live in and perpetuates it….and may it ever be!  For without linear thinking, our world would crash and burn immediately.  But when linear thinking runs amok without the God-given gift of “the pauser Reason” the world will still face calamity; for, any phenomena carried to an extreme becomes problematic and even dangerous.  Ideological extremism illustrates for us daily what can happen when someone or some groups gets too carried away with their “noble” and “enlightened” ideas.

Meditation has helped me immensely on this issue.  And though my “monkey mind,” incessantly running to and fro and chattering without cease, it has been given pause and this “pause” has been pregnant, allowing me to open my heart to hidden dimensions of life.  With even my lame success at meditation I have learned more intimately that “embeddedness” in my own thought has been a cognitive prison and this insight…cognitive and emotional…has been redemptive.  And that “redemption” has allowed me to experience being “out of control” which has come to me as simple anxiety.  Of course, this “simple” anxiety is not “simple” at all as it brings me face to face with my own human-ness which is always experienced as vulnerability; Norman Brown noted, “To be, is to be vulnerable.”  And it has been fear of this vulnerability that has kept me locked in this cerebral prison, the escape from which is still in progress and will be in process for the rest of my life until at last I cast off this “mortal coil” and return to my Source.

I’m planning on this “transition” not taking place for decades!  For, “fallen” though this world may be, it is a beautiful world and I am increasingly delighted with the simple but profound beauty which surrounds me every day.  The only issue is, and always has been, “Will I pay attention?”  And, paying attention is relative to the meditative lesson of looking beyond the end of my nose, peering outside of that “small bright circle of my consciousness beyond which lies the dark.”  It is in that “darkness” that I see glimmers of light and these “glimmers” are the best that we can hope for. For these “glimmers” are the brilliant flash of light that we are blessed with when we find the humility to simply “see through a glass darkly.”

Back in the “Flow” of Life!!!

This ends my longest hiatus from “literarylew” in the four years I’ve been offering this verbal “deed to oblivion.”  I’ve had technical problems with WP but the real “technical problems” are with the rusty technology of my heart which has spent 63 years hiding my “light under a bushel.”

For over a year now I have been immersed in the works of Carl Jung and have found it stimulating and deeply challenging.  Jung did not live on the surface of things and his writings lead one into a plunge into the subterranean depths of the unconscious, a plunge which is disconcerting to say the least.  On this note, I often think of the title of an Adrienne Rich book of poetry, “Diving into the Wreck” for any descent into the hoary depths of the heart is certainly like “diving into a wreck.”  T. S. Eliot described it as daring to “live in the breakage, in the collapse of what was believed in as most certain and therefore the fittest for renunciation.”

Jung wrote extensively about the Christian faith, my spiritual bailiwick, and his perspective emphasized the power of myth which, if one can lay aside the comfort of biblical literalism that I grew up in, can allow one of explore the rich layers of meaning in the Judeo-Christian tradition.  But this cannot be done without daring to see one’s own life as mythical, to realize that the narrative of our life is fictional in a sort, and that in this narrative there can be found a real “Presence” which is the essence of who we are.  Or, as Stanley Kunitz put it, “I have walked through many lives, some of them my own.  I am not the one I was, though some remnant of being remains from which I struggle not to stray.”

Jung and Kunitz grasped the dynamic nature of life, its eternal flux.  Life is not static, though our ego constantly demands that we cling to a static view and experience of life even if that view and experience is devastating to ourselves and to others.  When we begin to tippy-toe into the “flow” of life (i.e., the “Spirit of God”) we find the experience unnerving.

My Life in a Mega-Church

I spent two years as a member of a mega-church in the early eighties, a Baptist Church in Springdale, Arkansas. I was so proud of myself, so pleased to be a member of a church that was so “up-and-coming” and growing larger and larger and larger. And the pastor was very good. And I mean very, very good; even today I appreciate memories of his skill as an expositor of scripture.

And I was single at the time and didn’t “smoke, drink, or chew…or screw”…though I will admit I faltered on that latter point from time to time. And, yes, God forgave me. I knew he would. He had to. But I hated relying on that “duty” of His and so didn’t “imbibe” as much as I wanted to. But, nevertheless, I did not “smoke, drink, or chew!!!” But, I continued to flirt with darkness in the fall of 1981 when, after hearing the pastor lament the passing of Arkansas’s “Blue Laws” I stopped by after service and reveled in a luxurious Wal-mart for a while and bought a lot of “stuff.”   (The “Blue Laws” disallowed most stores to open on Sunday) I do remember to this day the guilt of that offense, hoping that no other church members saw me!)

But it was so nice to be part of a church that was really special and powerful and becoming more so. The Word of God was being preached and souls were being won to Jesus and even though the world was lost in sin, we were doing our part to win the world to Jesus. And I was a small part of this enterprise. It felt nice to belong.  Now looking back on it, the “pride” is kind of awkward, for it is the pride that Emily Dickinson had in mind when she described, “a mind too near itself to see itself distinctly.”  Or, to put it in the words of a recent Face Book discussion group re Paul Tillich, a mind “embedded in itself.”

Looking back on it, I was merely an “actor” in my life and my faith and so I’m tacitly accusing this church of the same. But, I have some guilt over accusing them. For, they were very, very good people and are so today. And, so was I! And they will not be reading this account and if so they must take it as it is, a revelation more about myself much more than an account of them. Yes, those people were “limited” but who is not and there was none of them more limited than was I. Dealing with my “limitations” has taken me a different direction than most of them but I’m sure most of them are not in the same place as they were back then. We are all “actors” in some sense and God takes our “strutting and fretting” during our “hour upon the stage” and weaves them into this beautiful tapestry that we call the human experience.