Tag Archives: Shakespeare

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.
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Obama to Serve a Third Term!!!

President Obama has finally put on his big boy pants and solved our current political mess, suspending the election and declaring he will served a third term.  I know this is true because I saw it yesterday on Face Book and…seriously…it was posted by a woman to whom I taught civics and history 35 years ago! My point here is how quickly we succumb to the temptation of “red meat” in a heated political season, often not able to pass up a tasty morsel that fits so nicely into our view point.  I know.  I’ve done it myself, even from the Face Book platter of delicacies, and I really felt foolish when I realized how stupid and naïve I’d been.  But all of us love “red meat” for it confirms our biases and we have at our disposal the neurological gift/curse of “selective attention” to facilitate this process.  In epistemology, it is described as confirmation bias or epistemic closure, that tendency to live in a safe little cocoon of whims and fancies that confirms our view of the world.  I do it, you do it, we all do it, “even birds and bees do it.”

So, what’s the solution?  Well, there is no “solution” that would put us all on the same epistemological page so that an objective reality was created.  Perhaps a sci-fi fantasy of an additive being added to the world’s water supply????  Then we would all think in the “right” way, huh?

I’m going to be succinct here as this subject of epistemic closure always gets me going.  Those of you who read this blog regular…both of you…know that it is a favorite subject of mine.  The “solution” is to allow that neo-cortex that we gifted with to wield its magic, a “magic” that we are often averse to, and realize that our view of the world is not as “objective” as we might think.  In an earlier historical era it would have meant to toy with the notion that the earth was not flat.  And if today we could introduce even a tinge of this meta-cognition to this current political maelstrom, we possibly can dial back some of the venom that we often feel.  If you want to see what it looks like when this meta-cognition is drastically lacking, just look at Isis, a group which illustrates what happens when iron-clad certainty reaches its logical conclusion.   Or, think about the Crusades when Christians, empowered by the good news of the gospel, were okay with leading people to Jesus at the point of the sword.

Shakespeare described neurological gift as “the pauser reason,” that god-given ability to filter our thoughts and not say the first thing that comes to our mind and certainly not act on it.  Red meat is dangerous!  And the same gifted soul offers us hope in this crucial historical moment, “There is a Divinity that doeth shape our ends, rough hew them how we may.”

Reason and Politics

I’ve followed politics closely for the past 28 years or so and I’ve noticed each time that on some level I merely want “my pony to win the race.” I merely want to be on the winning side and oh how disappointing it is when “my pony”, particularly in a Presidential campaign, does not win.  But in this same 28 years I’ve been increasingly conscious that the drama being played out is far greater than my youthful desire to be on the winning side and even in crushing defeats I’ve always maintained that there is some “method to this madness” or that there is a “Divinity that doeth shape our ends, rough hew them how we may.”  In other words, the picture is always much bigger than I can see and the “picture” before me is always merely the latest screen shot of the historical drama that is ongoing.

I have a bevy of close friends here in Taos, NM  who I see quite often and we are on the same page, being fearful of what lies before us but having firm confidence that “the process” will prevail, even if we are disappointed on this occasion.  For life itself is a process, a “flow”, and it will continue even if catastrophe should come, be that a personal catastrophe and my life is suddenly snuffed out, or even if the whole species is wiped out!  The picture is always bigger than the one I see or even bigger than the one that humankind sees at the moment.  We are always caught up in the historical moment and have no idea of what actually is going on.

Of course, some think that they do and have firm confidence in their perspective, often vowing that God has declared it to them.  To them I would merely note that when the flat earth view of the world was crumbling, most people clung tenaciously to their antiquated world view and even put to death many of those who saw things otherwise.  And, of course, “God was leading them.”  We have only a finite view of the world, but understanding and experiencing this finitude is so frightening that we usually disallow it from every seeping into our awareness.

No one’s reason is autonomous.  We think we employ reason to draw correct conclusions but science has proven that reason is always under the control of our preconceptions so that we are inclined to see only what we want to see.  W. H. Auden emphasized the need of our reasoning being, “redeemed from incestuous fixation on her own logic.”  Auden recognized that our reason was subservient to an “incestuous logic” which always provides us justification for our conscious rational grasp of our world.  When we are subservient only to reason, we need to recall the wisdom of Goethe who noted, “They call it Reason, using light celestial, just to outdo the beasts in being bestial.”

Hypocrisy as Performance Art

A few years ago I was a member of St. Paul’s Episcopalian church in Fayetteville, Arkansas and there had the most meaningful church experience in my life.  This church was very open minded and I found myself involved in a Sunday Morning class in which meditation was emphasized as well as reading books on the subject from a Christian and Eastern perspective.  And one morning each week there was a “Men’s Group” available for coffee, meditation, and discussion.  This was a very formal get-together without any of the perfunctory religiosity which I had always found to be an essential part of other churches I had been involved with.  On one of these Men’s Group meetings, a man that I became pretty close to casually observed that most of his Christian life had been that of “acting Christian” and then pointed out that the word “hypocrite” meant “actor.”  I knew this already, but I was ready to “know” this to a deeper level and realize just how my Christian faith had been an effort at performance art.  Even more so, my whole life had been a “performance” trying to win the approbation of others and ignoring my internal subjective experience.  My friend’s observation prompted a discussion on the subject, but none of the traditional Christian “weeping and gnashing of teeth” over something which might have been seen as a confession.  This was just a casual observation from the depths of this man’s heart in a setting which facilitated such disclosures.  The point I’m trying to make is that here a simple honesty was possible, a simple honesty that allowed human weakness and even duplicity, in some sense, to be put on the table.

Since that morning about five years ago, I have continued to explore my “hypocrisy” and done so with complete comfort, without any feelings of guilt or humiliation on that note.  For as a result of my experience in that church, I had learned to own my “human-ness” and realize that this is what God is actually after.  God does not want us to invest ourselves in “performance art” but in simply being human which means that from time to time we have recognize dimensions of our faith, and of the whole of our life, which we had not grasped before.  We have to open ourselves to disillusionment, to the owning of what the Apostle Paul called “the flesh.”.

But many expressions of the Christian faith, many of them in the evangelical fold, have no room for this gut-wrenching disillusionment and relentlessly stick to the “performance art” they learned by rote as a child.  They are mere “actors” which is what we all are but until they can accept that human limitation, they are missing a dimension of grace that their faith affords them.  They will continue with their rote performance which is not what Jesus had in mind.

But please note, I am not questioning the validity of their faith, for in the Christian tradition, Grace is bestowed upon us on the basis of what God has done in Christ and not in what we believe or do.  All of us are actors to some degree, i.e. “hypocrites,” for none of us are perfect.   But those who think they are perfect scare the hell out of me.  I know.  I used to be one and I was scary.  Shakespeare put it so eloquently, noting that we are “imperfect actors on the stage of life who with his/her fear is put besides his part” but then he insisted, “There is a divinity that doeth shape our ends, rough hew them how we may.”  Shakespeare recognized that our fear keeps us away from our authenticity but, “divinity” nevertheless is shaping our ends.

Listen to W. H. Auden on the subject:

Human beings are, necessarily, actors who cannot become something before they have first pretended to be it, and they can be divided not into the hypocritical and the sincere, but into the sane who know they are acting and the mad who do not.

Macbeth’s “Distempered Cause” and Donald Trump

Shakespeare must have been an impulse ridden young man for his characters often wrestle with the issue of self-control, best illustrated with his description of Macbeth being unable to “buckle his distempered cause within the belt of rule.”  This image is that of a corpulent man trying unsuccessfully to fasten a buckle around his protruding belly.  It brings to my mind, the corpulent Oliver Hardy, of “Laurel and Hardy” comedy team from the early 20th century, comically attempting to fasten his belt.  Shakespeare presented Macbeth as deeply flawed, not merely in attitude and behavior, but deep down in the heart in the depths of his “cause,” or heart/will.  Macbeth’s inability to control his impulses, leading to murderous intent, stemmed from something that had gone awry deeply in his soul.  He was, to borrow a description from Ranier Rilke, “The toy of some great pain.”

This Shakespearean observation of Macbeth has been on my mind often recently as I’ve watched Donald Trump unravel before our eyes and watch his Republican Party stand by haplessly, not having had the courage in their own collective heart to intervene when they could have.  Trump presents such a vivid picture of psychopathology and it has been amusing, and sad, to watch his cohorts attempt at various times in the past year to rein him in.  But when one’s “cause” is so deeply “distempered” or diseased, there is no reining it in.

Trump is still living out of what we clinicians call “the terrible two’s” when the world is one’s oyster.  Usually one’s familial and social context will provide limits so that the child will come to see that the world is not his to exploit for his own ends, but is a domain that requires cooperation.  And surrendering to this external demand is excruciating to a nascent ego but most of us manage to endure the pain,  learning to appreciate the value of trading immediate gratification for the deferred variety.  Trump’s family indulged him, and so did his political “family” early in this campaign.  One of his 16 competitors in the primary season, Senator Lindsey Graham, noted onetime in retrospect, “We all cowered in the corner of the stage” before Trump’s onslaught of bullying behavior.  The “willfulness” that Trump demonstrates has made him wealthy but at the expense of a lot of people.  A strong-willed person, with just a modicum of self-restraint, can be very successful in about any area of life.  Will, or the exercise thereof, is very important but it can lead to one’s downfall.

Shakespeare is probably one of the most wonderful discoveries of my life.  He knew the human heart and vividly illustrated its beauty and its foibles in his plays and sonnets.  And it is very revealing that until my mid-thirties, I could not understand him and actually loathed him!  His wisdom fell on deaf ears.  At that point in my life I was only beginning to emerge from the darkness of “having ears to hear, but hearing not; having eyes to see but seeing not.”

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)

 

 

Who Am I?

This question has haunted humankind for eons.  Most people resolve the issue readily be donning the “suit of clothes” proffered by their family/community but for many of us that necessary “fig leaf” ceases to work at some point and we begin to wrestle with the essential issues of identity inherent in the question.  I realize now that assuming an identity in my youth was challenging, even very early before I was even conscious.  The angst did not really become conscious until pre-adolescence, then it beat the hell out of me for several decades, before I gained the maturity to begin to wrestle with the issue with an increasingly mature spiritual grasp of the matter.

Now let me reassure you, if you get to even middle age and give too much thought to “who am I?” you might go to your physician and seek a pharmacological easy way out!  For the quest to answer that question is a process and the answer will come in realizing that the process…like all things that are “process”…will never be completed.  This involves real work, spiritual work, spiritual work that cannot be resolved by the “well-worn and ready phrases that build comfortable walls against the wilderness” even if they come from your favorite holy book!

Here I want to share a lovely poem from a lovely soul that I left behind in Fayetteville, Arkansas just over two years when I moved to Taos, New Mexico, Sue Coppernoll.  I did not know her well, but well enough to know she was a fine poet and a keenly sensitive spirit whose spirituality, like mine, had its roots in very conservative fundamentalist Christianity.  Here Sue so eloquently captures the fragility of an identity, particularly in its early formulation, and the resolve she had to “carry on” even when life dealt her hard blows.

MEMORY

Words

Worked out with toothpicks

On the royal blue carpet

On the living room floor.

 

First

My name,

WILLIE FAYE

Biting my lip in concentrated effort

Laboriously arranging wooden sticks

Into recognizable patterns.

 

I’m Real!

I have substance.

See, there I am,

Right there on the floor.

WILLIE FAYE

That’s me, I exist, I AM.

 

My baby sister crawls

Onto and through

My toothpick words.

 

My heart is broken.

 

I gather up the scattered sticks

To begin again

The construction of my self.

 

WILLIE FAYE

 

 

I wish I’d have gotten to know Sue better.  This poignant expression of a child’s heart just past the threshold of coming “on line” into conscious existence is riveting.  And the child at that point is so vulnerable and the mirroring from “momma” and the rest of the family and world is so critical.  But this validation is never perfect and even then Sue recalled having the experience of clinicians call “ego integrity,” allowing her to repair the damage to a particular disappointment.  And though, as noted above, I do not know Sue well, I did get to know her well enough to know that life dealt her more than her share of the Shakespearean “thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir too” and that she has continued to employ that “ego integrity” and is today a beautiful soul and a beautiful woman.  In the terms of Judeo-Christian tradition roots that she and I hailed from it is the “Spirit of God” that provides that “ego integrity” which is a Presence described in the New Testament as that “by which all things cohere”