Tag Archives: Christianity

Tribute to My Dear Momma!

Mother’s Day in my chlld hood always meant wearing a white rose to church, announcing to everyone that our mother was still living.  Wearing a red rose was what those would do if their mother had passed on.  (I might have the colours reversed.)  And the event was always successful in its purpose,  as it brought the attention of myself and my five sisters to how wonderful our mother was.

And, she still is today; for, she does live in our hearts even now and always will as her presence is etched deeply in our memories, even pre-conscious memories when she was the source of everything good.  And, even everything bad—I remember vividly crying obsessively, “Momma why’d ya do it, momma why’d ya do it, momma why’d ya do it” when I pulled a boiling cup of tea off the table and inflicted third degree burns on my four-year old chest and arm.  Of course, momma did not “do this” but at that age “cause and effect” are being burned into our hearts as this time-and-space continuum that we live in demands.  For, in a developing mind, if momma is responsible for everything good then it stands to the developing linear reason that she is responsible for everything bad!

But that occasion was one particular moment when momma employed such skill and good judgment, drawing on her memories of life on the farm in central Missouri and then covering my wrinkling skin with lard before she went out to tackle starting, and then driving, an old pick-up truck when she had not yet learned to drive.  But she figured out how use the hand-crank on that old jalopy, fire it up, and drive me and my younger sister and I to a neighbor’s house who would then drive us to a physician.  During the whole trip my refrain of “momma why’d ya do it” continued but she did not allow her own personal anguish to interfere with the task at hand and, with the help of a neighbor, got me to the doctor.

This is but one demonstration of what I call momma’s faith.  I don’t know what went on in her heart at the time, but I know that she often called upon the Lord to address difficulties in life and I’m sure she did on this occasion, even as she simultaneously called upon her inner resources. And she faced many, many crises when raising her six “needful things” and at times found it overwhelming.  But, even when seriously ill, she would rise up from the bed and “gird up her loins” and get the job done…and this is faith!  Now, she does not have my style of faith which includes the wisdom of various spiritual traditions and quotations of the likes of Shakespeare, T. S. Eliot, and W. H. Auden.  And even today, sitting up there in the comfort of heaven, she will often smile and chuckle when I’m knee-deep in my ethereal faith and whisper to me, quoting Hamlet’s mother, “Oh, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown.”  But it has never even crossed my mind to dismiss her faith…or that of anyone else…knowing that faith is expressed in different ways through different people.  But I remember so clearly the courage she demonstrated in difficult situations and the affirmations of her faith and see so clearly the value and validity of a faith unlike that of “literarylew.”  She showed me so clearly that one dimension of faith is doing what needs to be done in one’s day to day life, an employment of the “Will of the Species” which is very much related to what my spiritual tradition calls “the Spirit of God.”

 

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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.

Sublimated Religious Violence

An image that is indelibly imprinted in my mind from the past year or so vividly illustrates the violence that is present in the religious impulse. A Muslim terrorist in a Saudi Arabia casually walking down the aisle of a shopping mall, nonchalantly gunning down shoppers, but pausing periodically to kneel and pray. I prefer the violence in the religious experience I am familiar with when it has been sublimated into “simple” (cough, cough) manipulation, intimidating and terrorizing into “getting saved.” That is a very violent ritual but admittedly it cannot compare with what we see with today’s Muslim extremists.

Let me focus on the “getting saved” culture that I am familiar with, by experience and by research. I think that “getting saved” can be a meaningful religious ritual that can introduce one into the realm of spirituality. But in my experience I fear that often it only fulfills the “tribal function” of religion, bringing the young person into the tribe and fulfilling a very necessary human need to belong. But too often the value of the experience never goes beyond perfunctory compliance with the letter of the law, just as with many religious traditions.

But in the conservative, fundamentalist Christian denominations the children are often terrorized into “getting saved” with stories of excruciating death-bed conversions…or worse, death-bed failures to be converted and subsequent writhing for eons in the pits of hell. And the social pressure and intimidation is relentless as the young person is pressured into “asking Jesus into his life.” One blogging friend of mine recalled as a teen-ager gaggles of females besetting her and attempting to “gang save me.”! This procedure is intrinsically violent and it is interesting that many parents will subject their young children to this abuse even while the main focus of their faith are offenses like drug and alcohol abuse, sexual misconduct, abortion, and our “Kenyan President leading us down the path to Socialism.” Each of these issues, save the latter, is a legitimate concern. But how can a spiritually discerning adult allow their young children’s spirituality to be warped for the duration of their life while their spiritual fervor is directed on matters that might warrant attention but not as much as the mental, emotional, and spiritual welfare of their own children.  This is overt institutional child abuse that is clothed under the rubric  of “faith.”

Young children exposed to this terror are developmentally immature and the “neurological plasticity” of their brain means they are extremely susceptible to this kind of pressure and whatever they do to “adapt” to the stress, will likely follow them “en toto” to the end of their life. That often means their faith can never mature so that layers of meaning in the religious symbols can be appreciated. To let go of the subjective experiences of that moment of terror and broaden their worldview regarding spiritual life, would subject them to an adult version of the terror they felt as children. So the maistros who orchestrate this violence are creating a captive audience

The Enneagram and Immanence/Transcendence

A blog-0-sphere friend and spiritual mentor recently introduced me to the enneagram, a personality-type inventory dating back to the 4th century. Though it is initially off-putting, appearing to resemble some Face-Book contrivance in which you “fit” into some conceptual category, it is a very sophisticated and rich spiritual tool.

As a result of taking a simple test, I have learned that I am “6” with a “5” wing which reveals a lot of things about how this little whirly-gig in my head operates. For example, I am an “observer” in life, standing aloof and detached, making observations about life, including even myself. I think Emily Dickinson was one of these as evidenced in a line of her poetry when she noted, “Life is over there, on a shelf.” Emily was noting her perspective that life was, in a sense, an object on a shelf and she was studying that object as if it was a specimen in a test tube or on a laboratory table.

There is certainly a place in our world for people like this though there is always the risk of carrying the detachment to an extreme with pathological results. But the other extreme…failure to go “meta-cognitive” on life…is also pathological.

Approaching this matter as a clinician, the issue is integration of the two extremes…head and heart, thought and feeling. We are thinking beings and feeling beings but if either function becomes out of balance, problems result. And to further complicate things, when one is on either extreme the recognition that one is on the extreme is very difficult to apprehend without intervention from “out there.” By that I have reference to what Carl Jung called “einfall” (an “intrusion” perceived as from “out there”) and that W. H. Auden had in mind when he wrote, “O blessed be bleak exposure on whose sword we are pricked into coming alive.”

The Adventure of Life

“Life is an adventure,” so they say.  It is a commonplace that is almost banal, ranking right up there with “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.”  But, I find it really is an adventure which takes place when one begins to venture beyond the narrow confines of the way one was taught to see…and feel…the world.  But the real challenge lies in the very difficult task of becoming aware of this narrow prism through which one views the world, how the tyranny of assumptions shapes our fundamental perceptions of the world.  And to ask one to see these premises that shapes this world view is like asking a fish to see water.

It must be noted by those of us who swim in the aether of cerebral thought that most people in the world cannot ever make this meta-cognitive leap; and for them to do so would be catastrophic for human culture.  The day-to-day grind of reality depends on people who “mindlessly” go through the motions of their daily life without questioning the “basic assumptions” that I am putting on the table here.  And furthermore, for me to use the term “mindless” here merits caution as I do have a contempt gene which is too often near the surface!

We are tribal creatures and the tribal rituals are easily analyzed by people like myself who have lived their whole life “off the grid” in some fashion.  (I think one term for people like me is “pointy-headed pseudo-intellectuals” or perhaps more accurately “alienated.”)   But we are a tribe, a global tribe composed of smaller tribes who must somehow find a way to live together with a modicum of harmony.  But each tribe has an innate tendency to not see beyond the safe confines of its basic assumptions and each member of that tribe learns to drink the same “kool-aid.”  That is what makes it a tribe.

But the adventure of life starts when we realize that we have “drank the kool-aid” in some fashion and are shaped by basic assumptions given to us by our culture.  Then we can begin to find a bit of freedom and can begin to play with reality.  Yes, we can even begin to “play with our self” (wink, wink) and with the beautiful human and natural world that we find ourselves in, a beautiful “Garden of Eden” in some sense.

However, it is scary!  We are hard-wired to live within those “safe confines” and to suddenly realize we are “off the reservation” can easily be a Pyrrhic victory.  To take a quantum leap here, it will ultimately bring us to the Shakespearean issue of “to be, or not to be” and can even bring one to the point of suicide.  For it is gut-wrenchingly painful to realize that one does not belong to the tribe, to be deprived of that “fig-leaf,” and to stand there on that heath like King Lear, pelted by that pitiless storm, naked as a jay-bird.

This is where faith comes in for me.  But the temptation here is to take one’s tribal faith, make a fanatical investment or re-investment in it, and hold on “come hell or high water.”  And all fanaticism (i.e., “addiction) has its roots with this deep-seated existential loneliness.  The tribal religion that my culture offered me was the Judeo-Christian tradition and I have certainly allowed it to be in my life the “opiate” that Karl Marx described.  But opiate does not work for me anymore…or at least that one does not! (I do drink too much!)  I find that my “tribal religion” offers symbols, stories, traditions that are very valuable as I stand here on this heath with King Lear and others and find that there is hope and even purpose.  This “adventure” I am discovering now beyond those aforementioned “confines” involves death, for pushing limits always involves a death-wish of some sort but the Christian tradition teaches that death and live are intertwined and that to “die” is to “live.”  To put it succinctly, there is no “life” without “death.”  Oh yes, there is existence but there is no experience of human-ness, being a live body and soul for this brief moment we have in this time-space continuum.  This is what Jesus meant when he told his disciples who wanted to delay going with him for to help with a burial party, “Let the dead bury the dead.”

However, here is an important point that I’ve already touched on.  It is easy to interpret that quip from Jesus to mean that everyone else in the world who did not follow him was “dead” and therefore would “burn in hell one day.”  That is how I was taught!  But I don’t think so.  Jesus was playing with words, telling his disciples that they needed to follow him and let the burial party take care of its business, that it did not need them.  Jesus was saying that the rest of the world was okay and “dead” was only a metaphor to say they were not amenable to his teachings, that their role in life was to see things differently and to live different lives within “safe confines.”  Jesus realized that the “adventure” I’ve described here was not for everybody but that their life also was “ok”. 

In the Hands of an “Angry” God

Is it a fearful thing to fall into the hands of a living God. Well, yes, according to the author of Hebrew 10:31 who some think was the Apostle Paul. But then I, as I am wont to do, must ask the question, “What does this mean?”

With this “literary license” that I employ here…as well as in real time very often…I take the liberty to suggest this interpretation, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the ‘hands’ of Life.” By this interpretation, I suggest that it is scary to suddenly become “alive” and to realize that until that point you have been largely “dead,” living life on automatic pilot. It is even scarier to suddenly realize that you spiritual life has been part of this “automatic pilot” , robot-like life in which everyday you basically asked of life to “wind me up and watch me be Christian” or whatever your spiritual persuasion may be. When this happens one is beginning to escape the clutches of the “letter of the law” that the Apostle Paul warned against.

And yes, life is scary. It is very frightening to suddenly realize, not just as an intellectual notion, but as a feeling in the depths of the heart what it means to be human. It is horrifying to suddenly no longer be able to hide behind/beneath the superficies of our existence….ideas, intense emotions, cultural contrivances (including “stuff”) and even out faith; for, in this moment of existential crisis we often have to embrace the superficiality of faith, realizing it has been “all about me.”

But though the pain can be intense, it can be a moment of redemption in which we discover the Grace that T. S. Eliot described as “a complete condition of simplicity costing not less than everything.” And Aesychlus’s reference to the “awful Grace of God” thousands of years ago reveals an ancient understanding of the ambiguity of an experience with our Source; for, there, standing naked before God (and often humankind) we can experience and embrace the Eternal juxtaposition of judgment and grace.

With a superficial reading of these thoughts it is easy to conclude that I see God as merely a label that we can apply to the life process itself and that, therefore, I don’t really believe in a God. Well, this is a complicated matter for I do believe in God but not in the “God” that I’ve hidden behind and escaped reality with most of my life. Here I am referring to a subjective experience that is available to all and when we get there we understand—cognitively, intuitively, and emotionally–that there is a transcendent dimension to live as well as an immanent one. Yes, God is “out there” in some sense but he is also “in here” in some sense which is what Paul had in mind with his declaration, “Nevertheless I live. Yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.”

Yes, it is complicated. But reality…that is life itself…a process so intrinsically complicated that to willfully simplify it so that it will fit into our preconceptions is very dishonest and…yes…very human. It is so much easier to avoid asking the essential questions of life that can lead is into the very depths of the human experience, that very same “condition of complete simplicity costing not less than everything,” referred to earlier.

Here is a closing note from my dear friend and brother, W. H. Auden, “O blessed be bleak exposure on his sword we are pricked into coming alive.” That “sword” comes from “out there” beyond the “small bright circle of our consciousness beyond which lies the darkness.” (Conrad Aiken)

A Dalliance with Meaninglessness

My “church” yesterday was a discussion-group with some other retired people who are associated with the local Unitarian church. The announced topic for this occasion was, “How to find meaning in your life.”

Well, let me explain. This group was comprised of highly educated and successful men and women who were “imports” to Taos, New Mexico from various parts of the country. So it didn’t take but a few minutes for “literallew” to stir and want to announce with resolution and ardor, “Back to the bible! God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” Of course I didn’t as I too do not look at life through the narrow prism of conservative thought and see…and feel…the ambiguity inherent in life. For an hour and a half we sincerely and honestly shared re our struggles for meaning through the course of our lives, struggles which continue today. Initially “literallew” did feel the leering glare of meaningless and want to revert to “well-worn words and ready phrases that build comfortable walls against the wilderness.” But as the discussion deepened, my spirits actually lifted as we wrestled in the morass of meaning/meaninglessness.

On the way home I mused with my wife about why this discussion had lifted my spirits. And it was readily apparent—I felt connection! I realized…and felt…that I was in the midst of other human beings who had, and still do, wrestle with the same doubts and fears that I do. And there is a “nakedness” that is apparent in moments like this but a very appropriate “nakedness,” simple acknowledgement of human doubts and fears. And it is this “nakedness” that ultimately unites us all. Beneath the surface of our “strutting and fretting,” beneath the veneer of civilization, we are vulnerable, fragile little boys and girls who hunger to know that we are not alone.

This discussion demonstrated “faith” as I now see and feel faith to be. Now certainly many of these people would not describe themselves as persons of faith and even more so, certainly not “Christian.” Faith is the word I wish to use to describe their courage to live their life purposefully when life often appears to her without purpose.

Here is a perspective on the matter from T. S. Eliot in his Four Quartets:

And what you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled
If at all. Either you had no purpose
Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured
And is altered in fulfilment.