Tag Archives: Apostle Paul

Trump and the ‘Thing-ification’ of Faith

The evangelical support for Donald Trump reflects how greatly imperiled the Christian tradition is in.  True, evangelicals are only a portion of Christianity but most of the Christian tradition is based on rationality to the exclusion of experience which makes it more amenable to being a cultural artifact. When religion becomes a cultural artifact, it risks becoming what the Apostle Paul called “the wisdom of this world” to which he assigned the value of “sounding brass and tinkling symbols” or as comedian Jerry Seinfeld put it, “yada, yada, yada.”

One’s Christian faith can easily become a “thing” which facilitates the phenomenon known as the “Christian identity movement” in which one’s faith has become “thing-ified.” It reflects that the individual has succumbed to the influence of modern industrial civilization and learned to see and experience himself only as a “thing” and therefore his god…and god’s son…can only be a “thing.”   Furthermore, one’s loved ones, one’s friends, even mother earth is only a “thing” and we all know that “things” are to be used, to be exploited without any concern for their separateness, for their own uniqueness and value, even for their own soul.

A good friend of mine recently shared with me his experience of realizing his own “thing-ification” in the whole of his life, especially with his faith.  He was indoctrinated into the Christian tradition at an early age, pressured at an early age to become a minister, and his faith…as a “thing”…became his identity.  He began to realize in his late teens that something was amiss, and began a decades long exploration of an emptiness in his soul that an addiction to this “thing-ification” had covered up.  As he gradually began to find the courage to let this “thing” dissipate, the emptiness began to be more intense, and as the intensity increased he began to find a grounding which he realized was faith in a more genuine sense that he had ever imagined possible.  He summed it up as, “I had to lose myself to find myself”.  He further explained that he realized he had to, in an important sense, lose his faith to find his faith and this experience was very much related to finding faith in himself.  “To believe in God is to believe in myself,” he summarized.

Christian tradition has become such a “tradition” that it is often nothing but sterile tradition, a medley of ideas devoid of any connection to human experience, i.e. “the body.”  I call these Christians “Christian-oids” or “Christian-ettes” who each day more or less say, “Wind me up and watch me be Christian.   This way of life is a habit, and a comfortable habit, so comfortable that it is hard to break.  It is very painful to realize that giving up this “habit” is giving up the “letter of the law” in exchange for the “Spirit of the Law,” giving up “death” for “Life.”  And a noble tradition that has become perfunctory is amenable to gross influence by unconscious forces allowing innocent and good intelligent people to find themselves enthralled by ideologies which are actually very dark.  Shakespeare recognized that when any spiritual tradition becomes perfunctory like this, when it becomes an “enforced ceremony” it becomes deadly:

When love begins to sicken and decay,
It useth an enforcèd ceremony.
There are no tricks in plain and simple faith.
But hollow men, like horses hot at hand,
Make gallant show and promise of their mettle.

When faith that was once heart-based, has “sickened and decayed” into empty rhetoric and ritual, there will be lots of loud and boisterous postering which will provide much fodder for late night comedians but will do nothing to assuage the ills of the social body or of the individual souls.

I dare to say that we have today a perfunctory Christian tradition very often and thus we see so many of them lining up behind a craven figure like Donald Trump and even declaring that God has “raised him up” to be President of the United States.  This trivialization of the Christian tradition has led to a banalization of faith so that “easy believism” has replaced the “costly Grace” spoken of by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  Consequently one can readily subscribe to a rationale creed, don the “Christian” attire, and bask in the social comfort that it affords  without ever allowing it to delve into the heart and there, according to the Apostle Paul, “be a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.”





When love begins to sicken and decay,
It useth an enforcèd ceremony.
There are no tricks in plain and simple faith.
But hollow men, like horses hot at hand,
Make gallant show and promise of their mettle.

Trump and the’Awful Grace of God’

“The Lord has raised him up!” Some conservatives made this argument for Trump and I’m beginning to believe they were right, but not in the way they had in mind. Conservatives have the very important responsibility for emphasizing boundaries and restraint in any tribe but when that emphasis becomes extreme, “balance” will be forthcoming from “the gods.”  Now they have Donald Trump who is the poster child for poor boundarys and he is putting fundamental “proprieties” of our country in jeopardy, best illustrated with this egregious connection with Russia.  Conservatives are being “hoisted on their own petard.”   Lord help us.  (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/flynn-held-multiple-calls-with-russian-envoy_us_58792072e4b09281d0eaaaf1?y4gb5h6z14c7rjm7vi)

Conservatives in America are facing a “come to Jesus moment” as is our entire country.  A “Come to Jesus meeting” is a popular expression of a moment when truth is becoming impossible to hide from, when truth is even about to “bitch slap” somebody.  And like all humans, Conservatives are averse to this invasion of reality and are doing everything in their power to undermine Truth’s insidious, persistent effort to “out” them.  “Human kind cannot bear very much reality.” (T. S. Eliot)

But a “Come to Jesus” moment is also relevant to Christians as it is to all spiritual traditions from time to time.  But for evangelical Christians in particular, who have hitched their wagon to Trump, this poses a real problem as in their mind set they have no need to “come to Jesus” because He is already leading them and in fact has led them to back Trump to “Make America Great Again.”  In their mind, there is no need to “come to Jesus” for they already have Him and under his leadership one can make no mistakes.

But this naive belief of evangelicals deserves the scrutiny of meta cognition, alluded to by the Apostle Paul when he told them that the Spirit of God should be allowed to penetrate into the hidden recesses of the heart and is a “discerner of the thoughts and intents the heart.”  Being a Christian does not give one a perfect perspective as it does not eradicate what Paul called the “old man” or “the flesh.”  The Spirit of God, if it is allowed to daunt the tyranny of the ego, can show an individual just how much spiritual impulses are subject to hijacking by this aforementioned “flesh.”  Speaking from experience, it is stunning to suddenly realize just how much one’s spirituality has been “all about me” and in fact has little or nothing to do with spirituality, or in this context, with “God” or “Jesus.”  It is just because we never escape our basic malady of being “human” with an innate tendency to twist everything about life in a self-serving manner.  This always give rise to what Sartre called “bad faith” and then offers the popular press and stand-up comedians plenty of material to ridicule any spiritual enterprise.  The resulting criticism is often over the top  but the tenor of it is well deserved.

Yes, Donald Trump is a god-send but “god-sends” are often painful as they are an assault on the tyranny of this ego and the experience is crushing.  Disillusionment is so painful that we will use any self-deception to avoid this moment described by Aeschylus as “the awful grace of God.”  Or as W. H. Auden worded it, “When Truth met him, and held out her hand, he clung in panic to his tall belief and shrank away like an ill-treated child.”  The evangelical leadership is particularly vulnerable here as if they allow reality to set in, as it must be doing by now, they might have to do the very thing that Donald Trump cannot do, admit that, “I made a mistake.”








A Believing Cynic Looks at Faith



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.”

Shakespeare and Consciousness

Hamlet lamented in a famous soliloquy, “Thus conscience (i.e. consciousness) doeth make cowards of us all.” Shakespeare demonstrated in his plays and sonnets a profound grasp of the human condition and beautifully illustrated our foibles in various characters such as Hamlet.  Hamlet, as well as many literary figures, portrays for us a soul tortured by consciousness and Hamlet noted in this same soliloquy that such “awareness” can stymie one into inaction.  In clinical lore of recent decades I have often run across the “Hamlet Syndrome”, the plague of many young men who are so conflicted they have trouble making decisions, thus their many dreams and fancies, “lose the name of action.”  (And this “syndrome” usually captures only males…but not exclusively.)

Another theme of Shakespeare was madness and his understanding of this common human malady was not unrelated to his insights about consciousness.  For, consciousness is a phenomenon one is to be immersed in and to step outside for even a moment and become aware of “consciousness” is not unrelated to madness.  For this leap into meta-cognition for someone who has never doubted his way of looking at the world, i.e. his conscious grasp of the world, will find the sudden dawn of a perspective on his perspective frightening.  As philosopher Paul Ricoeur noted, “To have a perspective on one’s perspective is to somehow escape it.”  The terror of this meta-cognitive leap is so threatening that most people live their entire life comfortably ensconced in the narrow view of the world they were given by their tribe, usually deemed as decreed valid by the gods/God.

By discoursing here on this matter I am giving the impression that I’m in the camp of the “conscious” ones and in some sense I do feel I am.  BUT, consciousness flows from the depths of the heart and to be conscious is to realize that the depths of the heart are endless so that one can never bask in the comfort of thinking he has arrived with a wholly “conscious” grasp of the world.  The best I can personally ever hope of doing is to own my very skewed view of the world and hope that as I continue to age my “skewing” might be increasingly open to other viewpoints, leaving me always without accomplishing “objectivity.”

But damn it, it was so much easier in my youth when I mindlessly and dutifully imbibed of what the Apostle Paul described as “the wisdom of this world.”  Yes, in my case doubt was always there nagging at me but I always returned to my script and just doubled-down on unexamined truth, not yet willing to acknowledge that I was merely demonstrating the “bad faith” noted by Jean Paul Sartre.

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.”


A VERY NECESSARY CAVEAT:  I am using terminology from one particular spiritual tradition.  Remember, “the word is not the thing.”



Elif Shafak’s Perspective on Western Faith

Elif Shafak is a Turkish novelist whose Sufi faith is a powerful influence in her life and in her writing.  In this excerpt from The Forty Rules of Love she sheds a valuable light on faith from her tradition in which she can see unity where in the West often we see only difference, where our “distinction drawer” is too much in control.  (The italicized material will be my observations.)

Instead of losing themselves in the Love of God and waging a war against their ego, religious zealots fight other people, generating wave after wave of fear.  Looking at the whole universe fear-tinted eyes, it is no wonder that they see a plethora of things to be afraid of.  Wherever there is an earthquake, drought, or any other calamity, they take it as a sign of Divine Wrath—as if God does not openly say, “My compassion outweighs my wrath.”  Always resentful of somebody for this or that, they seem to expect God Almighty to step in on their behalf and take their pitiful revenges.  Their life is an uninterrupted state of bitterness and hostility, a discontentment so vast it follows them wherever they go, like a black cloud, darkening both their past and their future.

This is a picture of the ego in firm control, using their purported “love of God” to wreak havoc on the world, including those most dear and close to them.  When the ego is tyrannizing our world, it desperately functions as a distinction-drawer keeping parts of our human experience separate from our awareness and projecting it “out there.”

There is such a thing in faith as not being able to see the forest for the trees.  The totality of religion is far greater and deeper than the sum of its component parts.  Individual rules need to be read in the light of the whole.  And the whole is concealed in the essence.

But the ego is a constellation of rules that seeks to “rule” our world, that is impose order upon it to make it consistent with our need for order and perfection.  Its goal is to know all of the rules, never forget one of them, so it can always be right.  It builds for us what W. H. Auden called, “A life safer than we can bear.”

Instead of searching for the essence in the Qur’an and embracing it as a whole, however, the bigot singles out a specific verse or two, giving priority to the divine commands that they deem to be in tune with their fearful minds.  They keep reminding everyone that on the day of judgment everyone will be forced to walk on the Bridge of Sirat, thinner than a hair, sharper than a razor.  Unable to cross the bridge, the sinners will tumble into the pits of hell underneath, where they will suffer forever.  Those who have lived a virtuous life will make it to the other end of the bridge, where they will be reward with exotic fruits, sweet waters, and virgins.  This, in a nutshell, is their notion of the afterlife.  So great is their obsession is with horrors and rewards, flames and fruits, angels and demons, that in their itch to reach a future which will justify who they are today they forget about God…..Hell is in the here and now.  So is heaven.  Quit worrying about hell or dreaming about heaven as they are both present inside at this present moment.  Every time we fall in love, we ascend into heaven.    Every time we hate, fight, or envy someone we tumble straight into the fires of hell.

The ego does not want us to live in the present moment.  It is a creation of this time/space continuum that we have been confined within by the biblical “fall” leaving us comfortable only when immersed in memories of the past…good or bad ones…or hopes of the future.

Is there a worse hell than the torment a man suffers when he knows deep down in his consciousness that he has done something wrong, awfully wrong?  Ask that man.  He will tell you what hell is.  Is there a better paradise than the bliss that descends upon a man at those rare moments when the bolts of the universe fly open and he feels in possession of all the secrets of eternity and fully united with God?  Ask that man.  He will tell you what heaven is.

Why worry so much about the aftermath, an imaginary future when this very moment is the only time we can fully experience both the presence and absence of God in our lives?  Motivated by neither the fear of punishment in hell nor the desire to be rewarded in heaven, Sufis love God simply because they love Him, pure and easy, untainted and unnegotiable.

And when you love God so much, when you love each and every one of his creations because of Him and thanks to Him, extraneous categories melt into thin air.  From that point on, there can be no “I” any more.  All you amount to is a zero so big it covers your whole being.

This “love of God” is a challenging notion as it is so easy to be trapped into loving only some idea of God, some culturally contrived notion of God, which has nothing to do with the experience of Him/Her/It/Whatever.  And here I pause as I’m at the threshold of silence, where all words become futile.

But when the “idea of God” is seen, and experienced for what it is, that being an idol, the theological teaching of God’s immanence and transcendence can become meaningful to one.  Yes, God is “out there” as well as “in here” and this intuitive insight can best be said as simply, “God is.”  And this God who we now see and feel “is” comes with a parallel development, the discovery of our own simple, bare, “is-ness” in what would be otherwise a cold and barren universe.  We discover our “zero-ness” which is so big it does cover everyone and everything, uniting us all.  In the Christian tradition we call this “the Spirit of God” which the Apostle Paul described as Christ and noted “by Him all things cohere.”

Winning the World to Jesus!

In my youth, this was a favorite evangelistic cry in my fundamentalist religion and it often stirred my adolescent and, later,  young-adult passions with visions of “taking the world for Christ.”  Yes, I needed an identity back then for I had none otherwise and when I “surrendered to preach” I immediately knew that my life was laid out for me, that I had heard and answered “the call” and God would do great things through me.  And that passion and ambition is appropriate and common  in our youth and fortunately the exigencies of life slowly eroded the hubris and I am learning to approach spirituality with more maturity.

But looking back on the zeal to “win the world to Jesus” and seeing the same clarion call being announced from pulpits, and some version of it even from the political the platform, brings memories back about that phase of my life and the community I was raised in.  I see so very clearly now that my desire to “win the world to Jesus” was my desire to “win the world to Lewis Earl Chamness, Jr. (aka “literarylew”).  It was a deep-seated need to make “the world” like myself with my “world” being primarily those around me, those unfortunate souls who happened to cross my path.  I was lonely, alienated, depressed, anxiety-ridden and the anguish that tortured my soul could be mitigated by the comfort of having a safe little world of people who believed just like me.  And, yes, the long-term goal was to win the entire world to Jesus but mercifully my narcissism graciously allowed me to focus primarily on my little obscure tribe.

And now, having retired after careers teaching history and practicing as a mental health clinician, I’m finding the courage to apply my clinical “gaze” more to the human “predicament.”  The snapshot of my early spirituality presented above is seen with more maturity and even humility.  We are all children at one time and when we were children we behaved as children.  But if we ever find the courage to look back on our childhood, and discover that it still is very much present with us and very much an influence in our adult life, we can learn so much about ourselves and find the power and grace to make better choices.  This “gaze” allows me to see the fundamentalist zeal of my little Baptist sect (Landmark Missionary Baptists) in an historical context, realizing that the origins of this group were in the post-Civil War South as an expression of poor Southern white people who were feeling disenfranchised or dispossessed.  Any group feeling intense grief like that will always find some means of claiming “self” importance and with my little church it glommed onto the common notion in religion that they were “special” and that they, and other Christians, had to task of “winning the world to Jesus.”  (Though with Landmarkers, there were Christians and then there were real Christians who when in heaven would have the exalted status of being included in “the Bride of Christ.”}

But everyone’s belief system has an historical and personal context and that does not necessarily leave it without value.  For example, this critical look at Jesus presented above has nothing to do with the historical figure of Jesus; it merely demonstrates that Jesus, and any spiritual teacher, will always be utilized to some degree to fulfill tribal and personal wishes, including thate for aggrandizement.  But for people with a fervent spiritual impulse, recognizing and owning this need for aggrandizement, and other base impulses, is very difficult to entertain.  These baser impulses are what the Apostle Paul called “the flesh.”

I think that “winning the world to Jesus” could still be a valuable goal in our world but it would require a critical look at the terms and a willingness for those consumed with this passion to take a critical look at themselves.  In other words, it would require self-reflection which is very difficult, and often impossible, for those who are comfortably ensconced in the firm conviction that they are “right.”  Jesus was not, and is not, a toy or bauble for children to play with to avoid their existential malaise or anguish.  Jesus was, and is, about relationship and “relationship” involves connection with other people and with the world itself.  “Relationship” is not about subscribing to dogma and learning a lot of theology and philosophy.  It is about finding the courage to being open to other people and to see the inter-relatedness of all people even those that we find it easy to banish into that vast category “them.”  The spirituality of my youth, my passion for “Jesus”, was merely about maintaining a precarious immature identity which could only be done by drawing rigid boundaries between me and the world, having imbibed of the “us vs. them” mentality.  The Christian faith of my youth was only for the purpose of maintaining my isolation which theologian Paul Tillich described as “an empty world of self-relatedness.”  Oh how empty it was!