Category Archives: epistemology

Imagination is Needed in Religion

A blogging friend of mine from Australia keeps me informed about many interesting spiritual things in the culture of her country.  She sent me a Lent essay from noted Catholic priest and Benedictine Monk, Laurence Freeman, from which I clipped introductory thoughts re Shakespeare:

Shakespeare didn’t waste his energy inventing stories. The plots of his plays were already on his bookshelves. He had only to read them and by the power of his creative imagination to utterly transform them, lifting old tales and soap operas into the realm of timeless and unforgettable reflections of nature and the infinite, interactive shades of human character. In one scene he can show how a number of personalities respond differently to the same events

It is very interesting to note that it was Shakespeare’s imagination that is responsible for leaving us such a treasure trove of literary/spiritual wisdom.  He took stories from his day and employed that vivid imagination of his to transform them into literary master pieces which have so deeply enriched the life of many, certainly including this bloke from the sticks of Arkansas.

He and other marvelous writers have helped awaken and energize my imagination since I “discovered” literature, and the power of metaphor three decades ago.  My imagination had lain dormant since my very early years, possibly even early months, as I think being born into a linear thinking world stymies the imagination long before we learn to talk.  And in recent years I have begun to use this imagination in my approach to the Bible and the Christian tradition, discovering that comedian Bill Maher is not wrong, Jesus is “our imaginary friend” in some very important way.  Or at least He should be.  If we don’t find the courage to employ our imagination in approaching faith, our spiritual experience will be confined to a very rigid interpretation from the cultural dictates of our early years.  This will inevitably mean we re confined to “the letter of the law.”  By using the imagination we bring a “personal” dimension to our interpretation to religion, “personal” in the sense of an interpretation that is influenced from that rich domain of our heart, that domain that is usually “crusted o’er” by habits of thought as Shakespeare noted in Hamlet.  The “spirit” that is employed with this imaginative hermeneutical enterprise can begin to flow when our faith is no longer the “canned variety” but one that is the result of dogma being invigorated by this deep-seated “spirit”, a phenomenon described by W. H. Auden as what happens when “flesh and mind are delivered from mistrust.”  I like to describe this as a work of God’s Spirit which might be described as the “enfleshment” of the Word, to use Christian terminology.

But a discourse like this is always fraught with the peril of having lapsed into Christian jargon.  Words like “Bible” and “God” and “Spirit” and “enfleshment” usually mean something totally removed from human experience.  That is not how I use them.  Approaching Holy Writ as literature, and thus capable of being spirit infused, is about human experience and I think that is what the teachings of Jesus were about.

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Racism is About More than Race

Racism is about an early development in the unfolding of the “original germ of being” which we are when that that “gleam in the eye of our father” suddenly bring us into this time/space continuum.  (I apologize to my mother who could have had some equivalent of this “gleam in her eye” but I’m sure patriarchy had taken that capacity from her in her early youth.)

As we unfold in our neonate state, we begin the process of biological differentiation in which we separate ourselves from the maternal matrix which was our origin.  This “differentiation” is the early phases of “object separateness” which will not conclude…and in some way never does…until our adulthood.  This requires a biological ability to separate ourselves from the biological morass which is our origin and begin to establish ourselves as separate and distinct. This is a physical/biological/neurological process which at some point after birth becomes more a function of a separate and independent human will.  Without this “separate and distinct” human will, we are fated to live our lives in the grip of unconscious impulses the knowledge of which will be banished from awareness.

Racism has its origin in this need to create an “us vs. them” paradigm starting with drawing distinctions between ourselves and our mother, and shortly thereafter our father, our siblings, and then the social world which we will find ourselves implicated within.  In many, if not most cultures, a significant development is when we begin to distinguish ourselves from various social categories.  In my case, being raised in the American South, one of the earliest “distinctions” that I drew was between myself, my very white family, and “those blacks”, then described as “n…..s.”  This was, and still is, one of the bedrocks of my emotional/psychological/spiritual existence for in the very important socio-cultural arena I was born into the “n…..s” were so readily “them.”

Socio-economics is relevant to this matter as I was born into a “po white trash” in central Arkansas in 1952.  I make that point with some reservation, for I am very proud of my origins and realize that the context in which I “discovered America” was totally happenstance.  But being from an impoverished Southern family in 1950’s America, the “n….s” were a primary embodiment of difference and without this “difference” we cannot exist as a group or as an individual.

Here I have put on the table a problem which is beyond the grasp of reason–how do I escape the basic human problem of “object separateness?”  How do I bridge the chasm that separates humankind from each other?  How do I give up that “us” vs. “them” paradigm? A friend of mine has a bumper sticker which answers the question, “Awareness is all.”  Simple awareness of the problem is the beginning of the answer.  If one can hold within his mind a contradiction like this—“I am my brother’s keeper, no I’m not”—the experience of paradox can begin to unfold in one’s heart and the grace of understanding can begin to flow through one’s encrusted, linear view of the world.

I must issue a caveat re my earlier point that racism is “still” part of the bedrock of my soul.  My point is that at the stage of development in which this was etched into my brain, the “recordings” are never erased though with “awareness being all,” we can learn to mitigate their influence and evolve a mind/brain/heart which allows us to see unity where we once only saw difference.

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ADDENDUM—This is one of three blogs that I now have up and running.  Please check the other two out sometime.  The three are: 

https://wordpress.com/posts/anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com

https://wordpress.com/posts/theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com

https://wordpress.com/posts/literarylew.wordpress.com

 

 

The Fallacy of Believing in my Belief

When evangelical Christians first trotted out the notion that the Lord had “raised up” Donald Trump to lead our nation I was really upset.  And for good reason.  Their lame justification was that God sometime chooses flawed persons to accomplish His will and that we needed to remember to “judge not that ye be not judged” or that we should, “Be patient, he is only a baby Christian.”  I still think that was merely self-serving palaver but I do increasingly think that he brings to the table such profound spiritual darkness that God is giving all of us a chance to do some soul-searching and posit the question, “Now how did this ever happen?”

What these evangelical Christians did not realize was that they were facilitating a crisis for their faith, a crisis from which they will not emerge unscathed.  None of us ever emerge from any crisis “unscathed” and that is why crises are often times of redemption.  Now, brace yourself evangelicals, I think that “redemption” periodically is in the cards for you just as it is for all of us, regardless of our religious orientation or complete lack thereof.  But for many Christians, especially evangelicals, the need of anything like “redemption” is preposterous as, according to their addictive reliance on dogma, they have been redeemed already by Jesus and His Spirit now leads them into “all truth.”  Well, Jesus will do that.  But I’m reminded of a bromide from my last fundamentalist pastor, in a mega-church in Springdale, Arkansas, “The Truth will set you free.  But it will first make your miserable.”  I don’t think that dear soul knew just how correct he was.

Well, I humbly invite them to, “guess again” the ability of their faith in Christ to keep them from all errors “of the flesh”, i.e. ego. Their whole-hearted, slavish devotion to Trump who is the antithesis to the teachings of Jesus belies the self-serving dimension of their faith, the role of “the flesh” in their approach to religion.  And, I say to them, “Welcome to the world” as I have certainly had to embrace similar disillusionment and now see faith as a path of occasional disillusionment as we discover just how much we have been “seeing through a glass darkly.”

The core issue on the table here is reason.  The Protestant Reformation gave rise to an inordinate, unseemly faith in rationality to the point that we came to believe that with reason alone we can rule this world, our own life, and even reduce the Ineffable to a series of rational constructs.  But Paul Tillich warned us last century, “A religion confined to reason is a mutilated religion” for he saw that reason is always subservient to hidden dimensions of the heart.   God has sent Trump to evangelical Christians to give them a glimpse into the baser dimensions of their spiritual impulse…and we all have those impulses!  The most sinister of all these impulses is that we are immune from them.

I now realize that I grew up trying desperately to “believe in my belief” and never being able to pull it off, leaving me in great anguish about my spiritual welfare.  I often took comfort in rational gymnastics only to eventually realize that the very effort of reasoning oneself to God was futile.  No less of an evangelical luminary as Oswald Chambers himself in the early 20th century warned about the lunacy of “believing in our belief.”

So, what can you believe in?  What, if anything, is real?  “I think, therefore I am” is the way it is, isn’t it?  Descartes surely said so.  I no longer think so.

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ADDENDUM—This is one of three blogs that I now have up and running.  Please check the other two out sometime.  The three are: 

https://wordpress.com/stats/day/literarylew.wordpress.com

https://wordpress.com/posts/anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com

https://wordpress.com/posts/theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com

 

If Ignorance Were Bliss…

One of my dearest pastors from my youth would often quip, “If ignorance were bliss, we’d all be blistered.”  This was just a witty, deliberately maladroit Arkansas version of the epistemological insight that basically we are all more ignorant than we light to admit.

The nature of knowledge increasingly fascinates me.  The political situation in my country has intensified this fascination as I watch intelligent and thoughtful people persistently subscribe to things that are patently absurd, giving rise to the phenomena of a “fact-free” world.  Here is a New York Times op-ed from this morning in which this penchant for self-deception is explained, a penchant which the authors point out is present for liberals and conservatives alike. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/03/opinion/sunday/why-we-believe-obvious-untruths.html?_r=0

The authors point out that ignorance is our natural state. There is an absurdity to that observation unless you look at things closely, including your own life.  They are only restating what the Apostle Paul had in mind when he said that we “see through a glass darkly.”  We see first what we want to see and if we ever get beyond our self-serving premises it will not be merely a function of intelligence.  Particularly, in the area of religion it is very troubling, disillusioning even, to realize that we have been approaching even our spiritual experience with “dark” vision, an insight which immediately subjects us to disillusionment.  But if we can withstand the discomfort, or anguish, of disillusionment than sometimes we can begin to toy with the notion that perhaps those who see things differently, be it in regard to religion or politics, might not be as “wrong” as we had thought.

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(If this subject of “willful blindness” intrigues you, google the terms “epistemic closure” and “confirmation bias.”)

 

Pope Francis Speaks Truth to Power

Pope Francis is the embodiment of “speaking truth to power” in contemporary religion.  Just days ago he dared to vow that atheist had a better chance of getting into heaven than Christians who openly disavow basic principles of Christian behavior and attitude.  (See link to story at bottom of post.) I know, from my background, how this notion went over with many Christians of all stripe; for with them any “atheist” has no chance of getting into heaven for he does not “believe in God.”  Pope Francis recognizes as I do that “belief in God” is not a simple academic or intellectual assent to a set of beliefs but is a heart-felt, soul-level, commitment to an interior spiritual dynamic that effects a different orientation to the whole of life.  This commitment allows one to have a “discerning spirit” so that he can readily spot, for example, hypocrisy and point it out just as Jesus did to the Pharisees.  And, I dare to say, this is because one has deigned to identify the “performance actor” dimension to one’s own life, including in the arena of faith.  There is nothing wrong with being an “actor”.  The problem lies in merely failing to recognize that one is an “actor,” which is what the word “hypocrite” meant in the time of Jesus.

In this article note also how one of the officials in the Vatican offered a follow-up explanation of the Pope’s observation, stating that it is possible that one can disavow “Christianity” and still be committed to a spiritual voice that will ultimately lead one to God.  This resonated with reports I’ve had from friends who no longer confess to being a “Christian” but firmly and passionately believe in Jesus and in “the teachings of Jesus.  From dialogue with these people I have learned that they have faith in the “person” of Jesus and not so much in the historical tradition of Christianity.  One recently explained how that she realized that her Christian faith had been given to her as a form of indoctrination but that now in mid-life she had found the courage and grace to employ spiritual discernment and realize that the value of words, especially spiritual “words” lie beneath the surface and can be meaningful only when one is willing to delve into the interior dimension of one’s own life.  This is learning to access the “spirit of the law” and no longer rely on the “letter of the law.”

(http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/pope-francis-atheists-better-than-hypocrites_us_58afb6ace4b0a8a9b780e4e1