Category Archives: language

Does Sin Have Meaning Any Longer in our Culture?

I have some taint of the Trumpian arrogance in me so that it is hard to say, “I made a mistake.”  Yes, my “memory bank” failed me in yesterday’s post and the “relevant” poetry blurb at the very end was not the one I had in mind, a problem which I have now corrected.  I’m making this “confession” though facetiously just so any of you who are interested can return to yesterday’s post and sample a bit of the wisdom of Stanley Kunitz. However, admitting being mistaken is a very human flaw and I’m in recovery now from having been mired in that morass of self-loathing and infantile arrogance most of my life.  Richard Nixon when he resigned in 1973 did not really admit doing any wrong, declaring famously at one point in the debacle, “I’m not a crook.”  But when the impeachment proceeding reached a certain point of intensity, he did resign and with great humiliation walked to that waiting helicopter with his wife and continued his flight into political ignominy.  He was in great pain, greatly shamed and humiliated by what his words and behavior had led to, but under the pressure of the political structure that he was part of and respected to some degree, he accepted disgrace and meekly resigned, a tacit admission of wrong-doing.  Nixon had some inner sense of self-control that allowed him to not resort to the violent impulse that would explode in many people when they are shamed like he was.

There is something to say for a religious culture in which “confessing sins” is part of life.  Even though this “sin” matter goes deeply beneath the surface…and from time to time circumstances lead us to exploring the matter more intently, discovering that the real sin lies in the “thoughts and intents of the heart—it is helpful to have the surface level of the issue commonplace enough that we can readily admit shortcomings.  But occasionally people appear in our culture who have steeled their heart about even a cursory acknowledgement of sin or fault and they will brazenly refuse to admit wrong on even the most trivial matter.  And if one of these people happen to stumble into a position of power, they can wreak havoc on all who are within their sphere of influence.

 

Here is a list of my blogs.  I invite you to check out the other two sometime.

https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/

https://literarylew.wordpress.com/

https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/

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“Vive Le Difference” is Politically Relevant Today.

The following is a copy from another blog of mine which is very relevant to spirituality.  Religion, like politics, is always beset by the temptation of epistemic closure.  This is the tendency of human nature…always ego-ridden—to create a world and/or to affiliate with a world in which one’s premises are confirmed.

Difference matters to me.  I was raised in a conservative, American South culture with religion being the paramount dimension in my particular subculture.  But this upbringing in a rigid, highly structured atmosphere of “us vs. them” troubled me and in my early adulthood I began to acquire a more inclusive, less linear-thinking oriented approach to life.  Now, in the latter stages of my life, the issue of sameness vs. difference is a paramount concern of mine, especially given the political climate in my country and in the world.

Today I stumbled across a book in my library, “The Order of Things” by Michel Foucault, heavily marked up from my “youthful” enthusiasm of decades past.  In the quote which I will share, Foucault explores the relationship between “sympathy” (i.e. sameness”) vs. “antinomy” (difference) and the dialogic imperative of an interaction between these two complementary dimensions of the human soul.

Sympathy is an instance of the same so strong and so insistent that it will not rest content to be merely one of the forms of likeness; it has the dangerous power of assimilating, of rendering things identical to one another, of mingling them, of causing their individuality to disappear—and thus rendering them foreign to what they were before.  Sympathy transforms.  It alters, but in the direction of identity, so that if its power were not counter-balanced it would reduce the world to a point, to a homogeneous mass, to the featureless form of the same:  all its parts would hold together and communicate with one another without a break, with no distance between them, like those metal chains held suspended by sympathy to the attraction of a single magnet.

But then Foucault presents “antipathy” as the opposite life-force, equally necessary, which seeks to counter the otherwise stultifying power of the demand for sameness.  What he calls “antipathy” is merely a drive for difference, an innate desire to not be swallowed by the whole of sameness, a “whole” which would be merely a “black hole” without consideration of this “antipathy” or difference.  Foucault declares:

Sympathy is compensated by its twin, antipathy.  Antipathy maintains the isolation of things (i.e. the difference, the desire and demand for independence) and prevents their assimilation; it encloses every species within its impenetrable difference and its propensity to continue to being what it is.

This notion of continuing “to being what it is” is an essential dimension of identity, an ability to “hang onto” a core of what/who one is even when beset by the challenges of difference.  With maturity, i.e. “ego integrity,” one can hang onto a core of who one is even as he negotiates with difference, (i.e. “antipathy”) and knowing that he can survive…and even thrive…with the benefit of “difference” (i.e. something new) into its mindset.

And, my hero and soul-mate, W.H. Auden has a relevant note with which I conclude:

I wish you first a sense of theater.

Only those who learn illusion

And love it will go far.

Otherwise we spend our life

In confusion about who and what we really are.

A Fractured Faith Needs a Fractured Ego

An Irish couple responded to this morning’s post who blog under the title, “Fractured Faith.”  I could not pass that title up, though I’m not for sure yet what they have in mind with their title.  “Fractured faith” will be a theme I will explore as this blog continues to develop as I see faith having value only when it is “fractured,” as the crystalline, letter-of-the-law edifice is shredded by God’s employment of daily experiences that teach us to look at Holy Writ and spiritual tradition differently than the way in which we were taught.  This “fracturing” of our faith will parallel a “fracturing” of our self, of our identity, as we discover just how much our persona was itself just an edifice.  That is what Jesus told the religious establishment of his day, but they did not “take kindly” to his observations…to say the least.  For Jesus, like Shakespeare noted of religious people that often, “With devotions visage and pious action they sugar o’er the devil himself.”

Our certainties must be fractured.  At some point we need to, “live in the collapse what was believed in as most certain and therefore the fittest for renunciation.”  (T.S. Eliot) Translated into spiritual terms, this means that we must realize that our ego has inevitably taken our spiritual tradition and twisted it into a self-serving interpretation, not because we are, “bad” but because we are merely human.  We then realize that we, being human simply “have eyes to see, but see not, ears to hear but hear not.”  We can then begin to realize that at best we will see dimly and hear faintly and begin to lighten up on ourselves and even on others!  We can begin to accept some forgiveness for ourselves and even dare to offer it to others.  Well, maybe not “them”!  They surely deserve it!   Just kidding!!!

Spiritual Banter, i.e. “God-talk”

By using words like “faith” I am really misconstruing my intent. Words like faith can easily be part of what I call god-talk which amounts to chatter which I sometimes describe as, “gospel-eze.”  For example, I could go down to a church and banter about “God” and “the Holy Spirit” and “Grace” and “the Second Coming” and “the Lord’s Supper” and do so adroitly and readily find a place in a social context.  And, I find each of these terms of value but if I should do so as described I would be grossly out of line and disrespectful to the people of that church for my needs of a social context have already been met elsewhere.  And “banter” as offered above certainly has its place but the problem lies in it never becoming more than banter with no effort made to explore these and other words and concepts beneath the surface so that they have personal meaning.  In some contexts, the need for social connection and for maintenance of the social connection are so paramount that the verbiage must not only be the same but its meaning must remain the same disallowing any real personal meaning to take place.  For “personal” meaning occurs when words and concepts find application in that “foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart” which is never found when a rigidly scripted format is valued over personal experience.

Let me illustrate with a common spiritual notion like “sin.”  Sin is simple when it is kept on the superficial level of a judicial act that has occurred “in Adam,” as in the “Adamic fall,” or in the day-to-day misdeeds that we all make.  But sin is more of a challenging notion if we see it as a state of separation from our Source, a state which leaves us in the darkness, a darkness which Paul had in mind when he declared that at best we only, “see through a glass darkly.”  Understanding this heart-level dimension of sin then makes us aware of how our ego influences our interpretation of our day-to-day experiences, even our spirituality so that we become aware even of the self-serving nature of our spirituality itself.  This insight then makes grace, for example, even more meaningful as we can see God’s forgiveness as covering even that sin and allowing us to be a bit less spiritually arrogant than we had been before.

Faith in the Guts!!!

After a long hiatus, I’m cranking-up this blog once again, inspired by several “hits” by an old blogging friend and inspiration, “Nickle-boy Graphics.”  I’m still perplexed by why I’m “wasting” my time with this blog but realize that otherwise I’d be “wasting” it in some other fashion; for, to the ego’s mind it is always a “waste” in some fashion as we do not “know” what we are doing and why we are doing it.  Oh, we think we do and contrive fancy explanations of why it is so important, but, if we pause for a moment and look into our hearts find that ultimately it is a mystery.  And this “Mystery” has driven me the whole of my life and I’m increasingly comfortable in applying the term “God” to it and just to proceed with an exploration of what this “experience” has been and is in my life.  The quotation marks are necessary…here at least…as words are always ephemeral and do not mean what they initially bring to mind.  Their value, their “meaning” lies beneath the surface and is resurrected only by exploration into the depths of the heart, into that “foul rag-and-bone shot of the heart,” where most of us never venture.  This verbal superficiality is necessary in a lot of life, most of which is merely “performance art,” but when it comes to spirituality living only on the surface of words and ritual will leave us ensconced in the “letter-of-the-law” and often quite comfortable in dwelling there.

There is a sense in which life is a roll of the dice, a crap shoot, or as T.S. Eliot put it, an offering, “of our deeds to oblivion.”  We never know with complete assurance what we are doing and the quest for “certainty,” always carries the poison that can lead to the spiritual vulgarity of Isis.  It brings to my mind the moderation of uncertainty illustrated by the plea of one believer in Jesus in the Gospel of Mark, “Lord I believe, help thou my unbelief.”

So, “What’s it all about?” as the famous Dionne Warwick song asked to, “Alfie?”  We’re here.  What we do, how we use our time matters.  The significance of our deeds is beyond the grasp of our conscious mind and most of us can rest assured that at best we will end up only as the “significant soil” that Eliot spoke of in one of his poems, that “soil” which contributed to the well-being of someone who did become “significant.”  Even if we don’t become significant, we can rest assured that we will have significance nevertheless as we can live our life with purpose, with respect to mother earth, family and friends, with the utmost conviction that there is “method” to what often looks like “madness” in our life and in the whole of life.  Yes, Shakespeare described life as, “A tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing” but the body of his work suggests that he was not as cynical as that suggests.  Yes, the ugliness, the “idiocy” is abysmal at times, but in those moments we have to humble ourselves and hope and pray that yes, “There is a Divinity that doeth shape our ends, rough hew them how we may.”  We never know what value our “insignificant” little gestures might have in the life of other people and in the human endeavor.  You think the inventor of the zipper or of the bread-tie knew the importance of what they had done?

I am speaking of faith here, but not a simple ideological faith which is antithetical to a heart-level faith which can help bring meaning into our world.  Simple, mindless regurgitation of dogma, regardless of how noble it may be, is only a defense mechanism and a way of avoiding the truth that lies beneath the surface of the “letter-of-the-law.”

A Cartoon Illustration of Judgement and Hypocrisy

I think the following cartoon best illustrates hypocrisy, in the vein of, “Judge not lest thou shalt be judged” for as we describe (or “define”) others were are always saying something about ourselves.  We are but mortal and anytime we make an observation, we are doing so from our perspective which is merely a framework or prism through which we view the world.  Being mortal, we cannot escape this existential predicament but if we get this point it can allow us to be a bit less harsh in our observations, realizing that the distinction between “me and thee” is more nebulous than we might imagine.  To be human it is imperative that we make these “judgements” for any pseudo-pious effort to escape the responsibility, as in the oft-used and abused, “Who am I to judge,” is to fail to bring our Presence to the table in our world.

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The Danger of Biblical Literalism

Bishop John Shelby Spong in “Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism” has argued forcefully that Biblical literalism is a fundamental threat to Christianity.  This notion is anti-thetical to everything I was taught in my youth but now as I age I find it weighing on me to join Spong…and others…in weighing in with my two cents.  Biblical literalism reflects the sin of misplaced concreteness, mistaking the symbol for the thing which it represents.  Thus the Bible, certainly Holy Writ, becomes a barrier to hearing what the various people contributing to the Bible were trying to say as well as the One we credit with writing the Bible in the first place.  The bible is used to avoid the Bible just as god is used to avoid God, and our grasp of who we are is used to avoid the inner essence, i.e. experience, of who we are.  Our culture teaches us to live on the surface, to look no deeper than the surface, and this mandate applies also to religion even though it is so convenient to think otherwise.  It is convenient, and often fashionable to subscribe to “easy believism” that doesn’t cost anything substantial yet will provide in religion a social accoutrement that many of us find necessary, much like a nice suit of clothes. It is another thing to “have religion” that penetrates into the very depths of our being, shakes us to the core, challenges our preconceptions, and brings us to the point where we can but “glory, bow, and tremble.”  Meaningful religion, in short, brings us face to face with our human-ness, including our mortality. This “easy believism” is now egregiously manifest in our culture with the throngs of conservative Christians who have pledged their troth to a political leader who is the antitheses of everything Jesus stood for.  Yes, cursed like Trump with the same inability to acknowledge fault, they “stand by their man” even as his perfidy and moral obtuseness becomes more obvious; for, to do otherwise would be to acknowledge, “Oh, well maybe God wasn’t leading me to support him.  Maybe it was just my own personal lust for power and glory.”

I want to share here the wisdom of two 20th century religious scholars who grasped this phenomenon of bibliolatry.  The first, Jacques Ellul wrote in “The Judgement of Jonah”:

…Thus obedience to the letter of scripture can be obedience to Satan if the text serves to bring about isolation and independence in relation to the one who has inspired it.  It can be a means of self-affirmation over against God in in repression of his truth and his will.  The biblical text, and obedience to it, do not guarantee anything.  They may be the best means of not hearing God speak.  (Ellul here points out that the Pharisees were) authentic believers, faithful adherents of scripture, and rich in good works and piety.  In reality everything depends on our attitude to the text of the scripture.  If I seize it, use it, and exploit it to my own ends...then I am obeying Satan under the cover of what the Bible says.

The following is an excerpt from a book about Paul Tillich, one of the most prominent American theologians of the 20th century who clearly understood bibliolatry, presenting it as taking what is merely a symbol for the “thing-in-itself.”  Here a Tillich scholar explains bibliolatry in terms of taking a “religious symbol” literally and thereby disallowing it to reveal its inner value:

The problem for all symbols, but especially for religious symbols, is that they often tend to become identified completely with that which they symbolize. In so doing they have a tendency to supplant their referents. The problem is heightened by the nature of the dual task of religious symbols, which must express not only ultimate reality but also the character of the material that serves as the symbol. The symbol must not be transparent, losing all its self-identity; instead, it must be translucent, maintaining its own character but revealing light from another source. When religious symbols become confused with the reality they represent, they become idolatrous and demonic, for idolatry is nothing other than making symbols of the holy absolute and identical with the absolute itself.” {Donald W. Musser, Joseph L. Price, *Tillich* (Abingdon Pillars of Theology)}

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Here is a list of my blogs.  I invite you to check out the other two sometime.

https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/

https://literarylew.wordpress.com/

https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/