Tag Archives: Paul Tillich

The Intoxication of Lunacy!

Colorado has a group of people who are apparently serious about the notion of a flat earth.  When I started reading this I suspected it was a spoof but the more I read I realize that these people are serious.  They really do believe the earth is flat and they have “proof” that this notion is valid!  )  I have often in my “career” as a blogger used the flat earth notion to illustrate complete lunacy, a private world view for people who have lost contact with reality and created their own little imaginary world which, at the extreme, is collective psychosis.  Ideas can carry us away and because of their intoxicating effect on our mind-set we can lose all critical capacity, believing our pet “idea” even when all evidence suggests it is self-delusion. (See Denver Post story at following link:  (http://www.denverpost.com/2017/07/07/colorado-earth-flat-gravity-hoax/)

I have my own personal spoof of this lunacy in which I facetiously and sarcastically postulate a world in which “the moon is made out of cheese.” Yes, suppose during the night I am the victim of a neurological convulsion in my brain and awakened the next morning to know, with great passion, that “the moon is made out of cheese.”  If this should happen, I might take this very seriously and suddenly realize that it is the truth, that the darkness I’ve lived in has finally lifted, and I see clearly that, yes, “the moon is made out of cheese.”  Furthermore, some friends might try to intervene and set me straight but they would make no progress because, “when you know the truth, you just kinda know the truth” and no one is going to dissuade you.  Of course, finding truth always requires that others be convinced so I would start evangelizing and before long I would have a congregation of like-minded souls and we would then have the solace of validation, a solace which would be enhanced by the realization that only we saw the truth and that any “truth” is always rejected by those who are enlightened.  This insight would give us the comfort of borrowing a theme from fundamentalists of every stripe and sadly and piously understand that “we are being persecuted for His sake.”

I am here addressing one of my pet themes, best described as a toxic version of group-think, a private referential system in which validation is found only in those who have found our view of the world amenable to theirs.  When this toxicity infects any idea, ideas which might otherwise have value to others is immediately rejected by these “others” as they have no meaning to them whatsoever.  The resulting ideology, a passionate belief system that has become delusional becomes a private prison guaranteed to repel anyone who looks on from the outside.  But the rejection itself is perversely rewarding as it leaves the “true believers” with the smug satisfaction of owning “truth” which only they have apprehended.  What has happened is that very unhappy people have crafted a belief system which isolates them even further than they were to begin with and they slowly die from the suffocation that always comes from what Paul Tillich called “an empty world of self-relatedness.”  Emily Dickinson described it as “a mind too near itself to see distinctly.”

In my clinical career this phenomena was known as “insanity,” succinctly capsulized in a clinical bromide, “Mental illness is a reference problem.”  The individual who is completely mad…and we are all mad to some degree…has cut himself off from all external reference and finds great comfort in his delusional system.  For the intoxication of self-delusion resists any sobering-up that critical thinking would afford. It is easy for an out-sider, i.e. a non-believer, to quickly isolate the premise of a delusional system but just dare try to challenge that premises and you will meet great resistance.  For this “premise” represents an emotional investment the person/persons have made which cannot be relinquished without great pain.  Hypothetically, if one could reach into the heart of these people and surgically extirpate the premise, one would witness a complete melt-down.  For this premise is an existential anchor which holds its victims prisoners in a fortress from which they dare not escape.

I conclude with, still again, my favorite bumper-sticker, “Don’t believe everything you think.”

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A Believing Cynic Looks at Faith

 

CONFESSIONS OF A BELIEVING CYNIC

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.”

A Lesson from a Rabbit

Becoming real means finding the courage to wade into the difficult dimensions of human experience, a courage which is usually the function of the wear and tear of daily life, the relentless oppression of those “thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.”  Becoming real means you find the courage to tippy-toe…at least…into the “unreal” in that you find that what was once so certain is no longer certain, discovering only then an inner core which has always been present but unexplored due to your lack of courage. Becoming real is a liminal moment, approaching the boundaries of existence itself which is always humbling. Becoming real is finding what Paul Tillich described as “The Courage to Be” which always means flirtation with non-being, its presence announced by intense anxiety.  Norman Brown summed it up pithily decades ago, “To be is to be vulnerable.”

Here is a beautiful summary of this experience from the children’s classic, “The Velveteen Rabbit”:

What is real asked the Rabbit.. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get all loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”  (“The Velveteen Rabbit,” by Margery Williams. see http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/williams/rabbit/rabbit.html)

 

 

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!

Control Issues and Freedom

One of my reader’s response to yesterday’s blog has got me to thinking more about control issues and related matters.  As noted yesterday, we all have control issues and address them in ways unique to our genetic, cultural, and social endowment. Hopefully our adaptation will leave us with a socially tenable persona; or, if not, one that is so “untenable” that that we don’t give a damn about the outside field of reference, basking in the comfort of some rigid ideology or cultic religion!

The latter response is what Erich Fromm had in mind half a century ago with his book, “Escape from Freedom.”  Those who can’t submit their private field of reference to the external “market place” of ideas escape into the illusion of being in control but will be safe from any awareness of their dilemma.  Their “freedom” is specious as hell and, indeed, might be one of the best examples we have of hell.  Those who have opted to enter and confine themselves to this conflagration have found the illusory need for control so powerful that they have sold their soul.  And always they will be voicing a conviction that “we are right”…usually exclusively so…to counter the deep-seated feeling that they are intrinsically wrong and even “damned.”  Confinement to this narrow prism of “the right way” is the curse of death, spiritually speaking, as it reflects a deep-seated inability to self-reflect, to deign to let go of some of the very-human need to be in control, and to gently tippy-toe into the realm of a mature faith.  For in the often frightening world of faith, doubts, fears, and insecurities are common.

So, why do we have such an inordinate need to be in control and thwart the heart’s natural inclination to faith?  I think it stems from our unconscious “knowledge” that life is much more precarious than our tribe taught us that it was.  And this tribal “fig leaf” (part of which is our persona) was very necessary just as T. S. Eliot noted with his observation, “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.”  But if we are lucky in what Richard Rohr and Carl Jung describes as “the second half of life,” we will find the courage to slowly remove that fig leaf, tippy-toe into the nakedness that it has hidden, and learn to swim in the realm of faith.  But faith, at this mature point of our life must not be the ideological regurgitation of dogma that often characterizes the first half of life.  It must be a faith that, in addition to an external reference point, includes an internal reference point which is what Jesus had in mind when he told us the Kingdom is within.  This faith must at some point become a faith, not only in a God who is “out there” but in the person “in here” who is “me.”  It requires “The Courage to Be.”  (See Paul Tillich book by same title, free on-line pdf at following link—http://www.pol-ts.com/Research_files/Source%20Material/Tillich/courageofbe011129mbp.pdf)

Paul Tillich’s Critique of Religion

Two of the most important gifts that living in Taos, NM the past year and a half has offered me  is discovering two reading groups, one focused on the work of Carl Jung and the other now focused on Paul Tillich’s “The Courage to Be.”

“The Courage to Be” is one of the most important books I’ve ever read, delving into the heart and soul of “being” itself and showing the relationship of “being” to spirituality and religion.  The body of Tillich’s work approaches spirituality as a mysterious enterprise that cannot be captured by the rational mind.  In fact, in one volume of his” Systematic Theology” he declares, “A religion within the bounds of reason is a mutilated religion.”  Tillich knew that faith was a matter of the heart and that the “heart” was a dimension of human experience that involves more than simple rational enterprise.  This emphasis grabbed by attention 30 years ago when I first encountered Tillich and now is even more meaningful to me and helps me understand why modern religion often appears to be so intrinsically perfunctory and even banal.

On Face Book’s Tillich page this morning I ran across quote from another Tillich book which brilliantly  assesses the state of American religion in the middle 20th century, an assessment which is still valid today.  In the selection provided below, note that he did not see religion as a detached, casual, objective enterprise but one that involves the whole heart and even the whole of life.  He saw religion as an expression of the mystery of life, an effort to find meaning in the unfolding of life into which all of us were born and into which all of those who follow us will be born.  He addressed the ephemeral nature of the subject-object distinction:

“An age that is open to the unconditional and is able to accept a kairos is not necessarily an age in which a majority of people are actively religious. The number of actively religious people can be greater in a so-called ‘irreligious’ than in a religious period. But an age that is turned toward, and open to, the unconditional is one in which the consciousness of the presence of the unconditional permeates and guides all cultural functions and forms. The divine, for such a state of mind, is not a problem but a presupposition. Its ‘givenness’ is more certain than that of anything else. This situation finds expression, first of all, in the dominating power of the religious sphere, but not in such a way as to make religion a special form of life ruling over the other forms. Rather, religion is the life-blood, the inner power, the ultimate meaning of all life. The ‘sacred’ or the ‘holy’ inflames, imbues, inspires, all reality and all aspects of existence. There is no profane nature or history, no profane ego, and no profane world. All history is sacred history, everything that happens bears a mythical character; nature and history are not separated. Equally, the separation of subject and object is missing; things are considered more as powers than as things. Therefore, the relation of them is not that of technical manipulation but that of immediate spiritual communion and of ‘magical’ (in the larger sense of the word) influence. And the knowledge of things has not the purpose of analyzing them in order to control them; it has the purpose of finding their inner meaning, their mystery, and their divine significance. Obviously, in such a situation, the arts play a much greater role than in a scientific or technical age. They reveal the meaning of the myth on the basis of which everybody lives.” (Paul Tillich, “Kairos,” 1922, in The Protestant Era, pp 81-82)

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Paean to Pope Francis

“The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone! And this Blood makes us children of God of the first class. We are created children in the likeness of God and the Blood of Christ has redeemed us all. And we all have a duty to do good. And this commandment for everyone to do good, I think, is a beautiful path towards peace. If we, each doing our own part, if we do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make that culture of encounter: We need that so much. We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: We will meet one another there.”  (Read more, including discussion of the contest of this quote at: http://www.snopes.com/politics/quotes/popeatheist.asp#xwbkSGqYxMVhujwy.99inj)
Pope Francis is one of the most courageous human beings I have seen in my life time, a true example of “speaking truth to power.” The above quotation has been circulating on social media and stands out and is deeply appreciated by all of us who recognize when someone is daring to step outside of the “box” that he finds him/herself in and offer an authentic word. And Pope Francis finds himself in one “hell” of a box for the Catholic Church is monolithic, steeped in rigid tradition that does not want anyone to “think outside of the box.” But, this epistemic closure goes far beyond the Catholic Church as I don’t see anyone else in christiandom daring to “think outside of the ‘christian’ box” and offer a prophetic word. Theologian Paul Tillich authored a book of sermons, “The Shaking of the Foundation” in which he voiced the need of Christianity in the mid-twentieth century to find a prophetic voice in the din of its burgeoning echo chamber.

Of course, Pope Francis is meeting resistance within the Catholic church and even from American politicians who do not like him daring to suggest that his faith has anything to do with such “mundane” and “unholy” things like, say, climate change. These politicians are driven largely by a fundamentalist faith which practices a “pie-in-the-sky, by-and-by” theology in which this world we live in, and the bodies in which we live, are only a means to the end of getting to heaven where we will spend 39 quatrillion years fawning over Jesus, not realizing that Jesus is really more mature than to even permit that!

Pope Francis realizes that the Christian faith is more than a doctrinal creed which, if taken too literally and seriously, will only be used to create and perpetuate a Christian echo chamber in which we “bask, agreed upon what we will not ask, bland, sunny, and adjusted by the agreed upon lie.” And yes, in this case the teachings of Jesus become a “lie” when they are used to hide behind, deny reality, and oppress others in the name of “faith.” W. H. Auden, the author of the above quote, also noted, “The divine and the demonic often speak the very same language.”

Christians have a hard time understanding how their dogma, centered on the Holy Bible, can embody epistemic closure in which they are merely “thinking within a ‘christian box.’” But the New Testament clearly warns of this temptation, repeatedly warning of those who mistake “the letter of the law” for “the Spirit of the law.” When this mistake is made, we are guilty of “having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof.” (2 Timothy, ch. 3) When any suspicion of this error confront those self-imprisoned in this “box,” they merely “shout a little louder” their dogma and heap disapproval…and sometimes worse…on those who have brought “discomfort” to the safe little world in which they are ensconced.