Category Archives: mythology

“God Talk” and Meaning

I had a provocative discussion with a good friend of mine yesterday, a “local” who often reads one of my blogs who is troubled by my frequent use of the word “god.”  Furthermore, this man is one of the keenest spiritual beings I’ve ever met and he believes in the same “god” that I do…though now I know even more clearly he balks at the use of that word.  And, he’s got a point! First of all, there is the simple problem of “god talk.”  The term “god” is probably the anchor of the verbiage I like to describe as “god talk” in which the Wholly Other is tossed around so loosely and casually it might as well be a discussion of the local sports team.  “God” is a simple coin in the verbal currency of our tribe and will certainly “purchase” a lot of social cache if we adroitly toss it around in the right circumstance. But when I use this term I am not using the vulgarized common coin described above, a coin that is worn bare and devoid of any meaning, I am using a very personal “coin” which refers to the Wholly Other which can never be put into words.  Ahem.  Alas and alack, suddenly I have “talked” my way here into a conundrum as I am using words even as I suggest words have no meaning!  So, just why in the hell bother?  Why in the hell continue to drone on and on????  The only answer I have is, “Cause I want to” as I’m not smart enough to explore neurophysiology or astrophysics.  In other words, the answer lies in the very mystery of life and I’m reduced to a simple, “Cuz I wanta!”

But “I want to” and so I drone on again using this common coin “god” in part just to annoy my dear friend!  This god I believe in…and I’m going to discard the parentheses here and I’m not even going to worry about the gender of the term or the meaning of “believe.”  God is a label that I apply to an incomprehensible mystery that I’ve been drawn to since birth, or even since way before birth.  And I can’t explain that either and intend to try to do so with less frequency.  It is some primordial yearning in the depths of my being, a yearning that I believe is present in all human hearts and even in the very fabric of the universe.  This yearning seeks expression and in our ancient past one expression was some guttural cry before a camp fire which eventually was refined over the centuries into the shiny, pristine new coin in a corner of the African continent into a word which, when Westernized became, “god.”  And, yes, I think that this guttural cry of one human heart eventually did find one expression in the person of a young man named Jesus Christ….but that is a story for another time.

For some reason I’m stubbornly insistent that I continue to use the word “god” though I’m not opposed to whatever term one uses or does not use.  I think words, all words, have value and in the course of human events words tend to lose this value; these “coins” get “worn out” so that the value is hidden beneath the daily grind of common usage.  And thus, “last year’s words are for last year’s season and next years words await another voice.” This T.S. Eliot quip referred to our responsibility is to “find our voice” and use this word…and all words…to express who we are in the depths of our being and in so doing give the language into which we were born renewed meaning.  If we merely occupy the persona that we happen into and merely use the words as they are given to us by our tribe, they will only have the meaning of “sounding brass and tinkling cymbals”; or, as Jerry Seinfield put it, “yada, yada, yada. yada”

“Figgering Out” This Religious Thingy

This religion thingy.  Wow!  It still has me baffled.  But not really, as the bafflement is only my ego flirting with the awe of standing naked before the Ultimate.  I’ve always wanted to “figger this thing out” and now I’ve resigned to my ignorance which I think is what Jesus, and other spiritual teachers were trying to teach us.  The need to “figger this thing out” is what happened when we opted to take a bite out of that apple, an action which was necessary if this human experience was to unfold.  Our heart pines for the unconscious “memory” of Eden, which Shakespeare captured when he had Macbeth say, “My dull brain is racked by things forgotten.”

The “figgering it out” has brought us all of the luxury of modernity.  It has brought us to the verge of solving so many of the world’s ills except for the most pernicious one, the darkness of our collective heart.  Having imbibed of the “knowledge of good and evil,” that is distinction drawing or bifurcating reality, we have been able to carve up this beautiful world to accomplish great ends but we are then left with a heart which is determined to continue carving up our world into categories of “us” and “them.”  It is that obsession which threatens to be our destruction, a “self” destruction.  Yes, “We have met the enemy and he is us” as Pogo told us in a cartoon strip.

“Figgering it out” is good.  But it is even better when we realize that this impulse, though having a certain nobility, can become toxic when we can’t give it a rest and realize that life is a profound and beautiful mystery which ultimately we cannot “figger” out.

Poet e e cummings summed it up when he wrote:

when god decided to invent
everything he took one
breath bigger than a circustent
and everything began

when man determined to destroy
himself he picked the was
of shall and finding only why
smashed it into because 

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The Myth of Hermes and Language

When fresh out of high school, I attended a very conservative Baptist seminary in Little Rock, Arkansas for one year.  There I learned of the term “hermeneutics” for the first time, having it presented to me as interpreting the Bible with the right frame of reference.  I now see that the problem I had with this seminary, and my brief effort at the ministry, was this notion of a “right frame of reference” as I now see it meant merely to “use the Bible to impose your world-view on others,” because you, and only you, knew what “right” was.

One basic precept of a more mature hermeneutics is the realization that one brings a frame of reference to anything and all things in life and that if this is not understood one will do great injustice to everything, and certainly holy writ.  Understanding that one is putting a “frame of reference” on the table is recognizing that there is a subjective dimension to one’s experience of life and that this subjectivity does not permit one to be objective about anything.

Grasp of this wisdom is more than an intellectual endeavor.  Coming to recognize the subjective dimension of one’s life is to cognitively and emotionally experience being alive in human form, subject to all the delights and limitations of this “fallen” state.  And when one brings his attention to any literature, especially holy writ, one must approach it with more humility than I was capable of in the Little Rock seminary and more than was even permissible there.

Hermeneutics derives from the Greek mythical figure Hermes whose many responsibilities included boundaries and transitions.  One dimension of the story is that property boundaries were determined by the posting of an “herm” on one side of the property, the “herm” being a pole with a man’s head upon it.  This herm was very important and commanded great respect.  Anyone who failed to respect the herm, and cross the boundary represented by the herm, or anyone who defaced or even pushed the herm was guilty of a capital offense.  This myth recognized the establishment of boundaries, or definitions, in the birth of the Greek language and was a beautiful way of emphasizing the integrity of words, their ability to “capture” a subjective phenomena and give it verbal currency in the tribe.

BUT, Hermes was extraordinary in that he established the boundaries but, being also the god of transitions, could cross between them.  He could “break” the boundaries of words, teaching us that with proper hermeneutics words can offer value and meaning when we are willing to enter the fluidity of the verbal field that is our reality. The myth teaches us how the poets do their magic, “breaking” the words and allowing their hidden riches to be apprehended by a willing and open heart.

Another dimension of his boundary fluidity was that he was the only god that could ascend to heaven and descent into hell, conveying messages between the two kingdoms.  And he was the prankster god, creating mischief in his world much like talented poets can do.  Poets “play” with language and allow the resulting breakage to evoke hidden riches.

Hermes demonstrated the need of nuance in language.  Words must have integrity or they lose all meaning.  But if their “integrity” is sacrosanct and no “mischief” can be applied to them, then they will become sterile and moribund.  This myth conveys to us that words have value when they can be taken metaphorically, when “the word” is not “the thing,” which is the mistake that leads to biblical literalism.  For example, in the literal world of linear thinking, the term “God” is mistaken for the subjective experience of God, an experience that lies beyond the grasp of any word.

But without doing the work of hermeneutics with holy writ, the book will become a rule book, mere dogma, and thus amenable to enslaving people to the agenda of a mindset that favors the powerful.  To be more specific, “the way things are” in a tribe (aka “patriarchy”) will assert itself and the holy writ will cease to be deprived of the “Wholly Otherness,” (i.e. “God”} needed by all tribes to provide meaning to their life.

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Here is a list of the three blogs I have.

https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/

https://literarylew.wordpress.com/

https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/

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.

The Myth of the Wounded Healer.

One of the delights in blogging is that I discover kindred spirits from various parts of the world.  One recent discovery was a blog entitled “Nickle Boy Graphics” in which another man with a fundamentalist-Christian past brings to the table a gentler approach to biblical faith.  He is a talented graphic artist and uses this skill and knowledge of the Christian tradition to kindly and gently chide those Christians who take themselves too seriously.  Here is a link to one of his posts which I found very provocative:  https://nickelboygraphics.wordpress.com/2017/02/24/its-not-about-giving-up-teddy-bears/

One point this gentleman makes here is that we need to always remember that beneath the surface of someone who is careening in life, appearing to be on the verge of crashing and burning, there is a soul in great pain.  It is so easy to offer, from our font of “great wisdom” a banal kindness and reassurance which, though innocently intended perhaps, fails to include simple recognition of this person’s presence in the world, which I like to describe as “Presence.”  Before we unleash our “fixing” machinery on this person…a tendency we professional care-givers always has ready to unleash on the world…we need to pause and offer simple recognition and acceptance.  We need to lay aside our diagnostic knife and merely recognize, “You and I are here together brother/sister.  We are in this together and I accept you ‘as is’.”  It is easier and simpler to wield diagnostic jargon such as “nuts” or perhaps a sanitized “mentally ill,” or “sinner” or “evil” or “alcoholic” or “drug addict.”  Each of these labels might be quite valid but beneath the label that we so readily foist on the person there is a “Person” who needs to be spiritually/emotionally embraced, as in “accepted.”  And this is not unrelated to the “acceptance” that Christians purport to find in Jesus but closer scrutiny of the scripture reveals that Jesus always has in mind acceptance “as is” without the requirements many Christians demand.  When an individual is offered this “as is” acceptance, described by psychologist Carl Rogers as “unconditional positive regard”, often that individual can find the Grace to begin to address the pain that until that point he had been unable to embrace.

The ability to offer this “unconditional positive regard” comes only with having been through the experience of brokenness oneself and having found someone who proffered this kindness.  It is the ego’s refusal to experience “brokenness” that keeps many professional care-givers from becoming the mythical “wounded-healer” who can facilitate the soul-work where healing is realized.  (Carl Jung is the one who first coined the term “wounded-healer,” perhaps drawing upon Greek mythology.)

I go “Zen on Your Ass”!!!

The belief I now have in God does not need intellectual formulation nor is it based on cognitive apprehension. This “belief” is something which lies beyond the pale of mere human understanding and is therefore difficult to even write about. In fact, in attempting to do so, I’m about to get high “up there” in the ether for I am using words to describe that which is beyond words.

For, all of this “stuff” is just nothing at all! It is “nothing” in that it pertains to “no-thing” and the domain of “nothingness” which to speak of immediately poses the risk of giving it “thing-ness” in my imagination. But it has no “thing”-ness” but is the domain from which all “things” emanated and the domain from which these “things” maintain their “thingness” in time and space. This “domain” can best be thought of as an emptiness or a void. This dimension of life is described in the New Testament as “the Spirit” and one verse in particular wrestles with the mystery I am here wrestling with. John 3:8 declares, “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit. Being “born of the Spirit” does not mean that some dove-like entity flutters down from “up there” and occupies your body and soul but that your body/soul has opened up to its own emptiness and paradoxically found its fullness.

This insight has been so slow in coming to me. I’ve spent six plus decades of my life trying to “get it” and finally realized that there is nothing “to get,” that “the Center that I cannot find is known to my unconscious mind. There is no need to despair for I am already there.” (W H. Auden} I have been “riding an oxen, looking for an oxen.” This has freed me from the pressure to “be Christian” as I realize the teachings of Jesus was that “the Kingdom has come” and resides within and always has and always will. Becoming a Christian is more than saying the magic words or believing the “right” thing but humbly accepting a gift that has been available since before I was even a gleam in my daddy’s eye! This is also “self” acceptance, realizing that I am “ok” without any qualification, warts and all! T. S. Eliot described it as a “condition of complete simplicity costing not less than everything.”

But this passionate spiel can be misleading. I have not “gotten saved” or “been enlightened” or experienced any ecstatic mystical experience. I am way too white-bread dull for anything like that to happen. The only thing I have to show for all of “this” is the disillusionment, which is occasionally gut-wrenching, But I have the satisfaction that at last I am “real” in some sense and am not living in the denial which has drenched my life until recently. I am just stuck with my “am-ness” or “is-ness” and though that is not a piece of cake, I’m pleased to embrace my experience with more honesty that I have thought possible. And a curious development is underway. I find that great joy is found in the mundane beauty of this world, simple delights like my two lovely dachshunds, the budding of an aspen tree which I thought had not survived, tulips breaking the surface of the soil and getting ready to “strut and fret” their two weeks upon this New Mexican stage. I take delight in the beautiful birds that are so grateful for my feeders and fantasize that I’m Fr. St. Francis and have them lighting on my outstretched fingers. Oh, ok. So I’m a bit vain! But most of all I am taking delight in my lovely wife who is flourishing as an artist/musician and am pleased to have a supporting-cast role in the beauty she is bringing into this beautiful community.

To sum it up, all of the sophistry offered above is bringing me to feel more at home in this world and to appreciate all that it has to offer. Oh yes, I still see the abysmal ugliness but I do not let that overcloud the beauty that is present everyday of my life. Yes, the “ugliness” of intense anxiety is difficult but I know that “this too shall pass” just as I will myself at some point in the too near future.

Thirty spokes are made one by holes in a hub,
By vacancies joining them for a wheel’s use;
The use of clay in moulding pitchers
Comes from the hollow of its absence;
Doors, windows, in a house,
Are used for their emptiness:
Thus we are helped by what is not
To use what is.

(Lao Tzu, trans. By Witter Bynner)

Blaming Won’t Work!

In the “short version of ‘my story'”  I described the context of my “call to preach.” The blame issue is certainly apropos here and thus merits discussion. But I’m now to the point that I see beyond “blaming” and see the wisdom of accepting responsibility for choices that I made, even “choices” when I was a mere “babe” and not really capable of making any “choice.” We are all born in a context and are shaped by that context and can never fully escape that it. But most of us can get to the point where we have some awareness of that context, and of its impact on our life, and can then make better choices than if we had not gained that awareness.

Blaming accomplishes nothing. It is a ruse that we use to pretend that we are not making choices so that we can perpetuate maladaptive thought-patterns, emotions, and behaviors which long-since needed to be discarded. We have to realize that we hang on to them…hang onto the pain…because of the fear that what we would find in their absence would be greater than the pain we have when they are present. Or, as Shakespeare so pithily put it, “We cling to these ills that we have rather than fly to others that we know not of.” We prefer to cling to discomfort, and even misery, with which we are accustomed than to risk a fate that we “know not of.”

A dear friend of mine once alluded to a very painful situation in his family life and noted a point of acceptance when he allowed “the pain to swim over me.” That image of engulfment has stayed with me for two or more decades as I’ve sought the courage to accept my own “pain body”, using Eckhart Tolle’s term. We hate pain and the core of our being is predicated on avoiding it, even though if we could manage to accept the pain we could live more fully than we have when trying ferociously to avoid it.

This brings me to the image of The Cross and the story of Jesus and the Crucifixion. The teachings of Carl Jung offer a richer interpretation of this story, suggesting to the Crucifixion is a call to the death of the ego, to the surrendering of our pain body and embracing the pain rather than denying it, discovering in the process that we can survive and, even, we find “Resurrection.” It is much simpler to take the story literally and to do so allows the ego to continue to direct our lives and allow us to live in the pious certainty, the tyranny of “the way things are.” We then continue to remain ensconced in the time-space continuum and completely avoid the spiritual realm, even though we may take great pride in “preaching Christ and him crucified” and other hackneyed bromides.