Category Archives: religion & spirituality

Paul Tillich’s View of God as “The Ground of Being”

Paul Tillich has been one of the pivotal figures in my spiritual and intellectual life.  He introduced me to meaningful concepts like God as “the Ground of Being,” and “The Wholly Other,” and the notion I’d like to kick arounds today, “God as the unifying Ground”.  In the lengthy quotation provided below, gleaned from a Paul Tillich Facebook page, Tillich’s teachings present sin as estrangement from God, as a separation from God as “the Unifying Ground of Being.”  The unified state that he describes is what I often describe as “the unity of all things” before “the fall” occurred in the Garden of Eden when Adam ate of “the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil.”  When Adam took that bite of the apple from that famous seductress Eve (wink, wink) mankind fell from this unified state into the bifurcated world of object separateness where good and evil, male and female, us and them, subject and object, et al were separate.  It is the hunger to return to this state of Grace that has driven mankind since, producing religion, art, and the whole of culture, including…alas and alack…consumerism, addiction, and the arms race!  This hunger, until it is satisfied by the “Unconditional Positive Regard” (see psychologist Carl Rogers) that Christians know as the Grace of God, humankind is fated to fill it up with “stuff” which will only fade away.  The Christian tradition teaches that Jesus Christ, with the Holy Spirit, can fill that emptiness and alleviate that hunger though I aver not in the way that historic Christianity of the past few centuries has taught us.  For the past few centuries has witnessed the objectification of mankind via the philosophy of Descartes (“I think, therefore I am”) and the poison of capitalism which turned us into “things” and crusted over our hearts with that cursed tendency to “thingify” everything we touch, including God.

The story of mankind is the narrative of our quest to know God and find again that unifying ground.  And, with that point, I’m going to bid adieu with the warning, “Ponder seriously over that word “God” I just used for “the word is not the ‘thing.’” And though organized religion has much to offer on this search, what it offers is usually so institutionalized that it is so completely devoid of spirituality value in addressing the existential plight that threatens civilization.

For Augustine as for Tillich, the loss of the unifying ground of life results in a disunity, a separation from one another of the interrelated facets and aspects of life. Thus (to use slightly different language) God is the principle of unity and harmony, and separation from God is the cause of disunity, disharmony, and a final consequent loss of being (reality) and meaning (value). As did Augustine, Tillich applies this fundamental principle of interpretation both to individual and to social or historical existence. He sees Enlightenment culture as beginning with a powerful assertion of the *autonomy* of reason against *heteronomy*, the absolute and yet uncreative authority of the now alien and external religious powers of the receding medieval world. This was, however, an autonomy with *theonomous* elements: it assumed the ultimate identity of reason and nature, of the rational, the good, and the beautiful, and so of objective and subjective, of reality and value, of cognition, morals, and art. As a consequence, in the Enlightenment the ‘rational’ stood not only for that which is true (the result of the rational cognitive processes of science) but also for that which is just (the result of rational and radical politics) and that which is beautiful (the harmonious and the orderly). In that theonomous unity (that is, through the exercise of ontological reason) the power and meaning of modern culture were nurtured.”

Langdon Gilkey, *Gilkey on Tillich*, 1990, p. 63

Romney Puts Falwell Jr./Jeffress to Shame!

Mitt Romney this morning spoke out firmly about the moral bankruptcy of Trump, declaring that he is a threat to the “fabric of our country.”  In my conservative background, Romney being a Mormon would fall into the category “them” and would have no more standing to hold forth on moral integrity than Trump.  But in my estimation today he does have standing and is here again taking a bold stance against this morally profligate man who occupies the White House while evangelical/fundamentalist Christians like Jerry Falwell Jr. and Robert Jeffress continue to support him, even arguing still that the Lord is leading him.

Earlier in this debacle, when Trump’s perfidy was becoming so apparent, Jeffress and Falwell Jr. and their ilk had the lame response, “Well, who am I to judge?” and sometimes the note, “Well, he is only a baby Christian.”  Well, alas and alack, I am going to judge and let me declare here my credential—I HAVE ONE EYE AND HALF-SENSE…well, actually I have two eyes and I admit the amount of “sense” might be subjected to question.  But no longer subscribing to the guilt-ridden version of Christian faith I have the courage to declare…here in this cyber back-water…that Trump is not only mentally ill but he is morally and spiritually depraved.  And those of any spiritual persuasion, Christian or otherwise, who dare to defend this man need to look a bit deeper into their heart for there I think they will discover a hefty dollop of self-serving ego at work, sometimes hiding behind the name of Jesus Christ.  I speak with some authority for I’ve spent at least half of my sixty-five years doing the same thing.

Let me focus on Mr. Jeffress.  I don’t know the man but having known many of his ilk, and once setting out on the course of becoming a Baptist pastor myself, let me insist that he probably is one good human being and is sincere about his faith.  And, if I might briefly speak from the faith-expression he lives in, his faith covers his sins, he is forgiven of them, and is in no danger of any eternal punishment.  For, the work of Christ is complete, the “Lamb which is slain before the foundation of this world” has been offered to Mr. Jeffress and Jesus does say to him, “I got you covered, Bobby” just as he says to all of us.  But this does not obliterate “the flesh” and leaves us with the lamentation of the Apostle Paul who declared, “I will to do good, but evil is present with me.”

Mr. Jeffress, Mr. Falwell Jr, and many others of their faith persuasion are now facing the spiritual dilemma that Trump cowers before—“can I admit making a mistake?  Can I admit, as did Rick Perry once on a relevant occasion, ‘Oops!’”  We all need to do that on occasion and certainly those of us who purport to be “spiritual beings” under any label we might subscribe to.  Spirituality is such a ripe arena for “the flesh” to establish itself and the most effective way to do this is under the guise of our faith.  For our faith is never a finished product, it is always a work in progress, and periodically we need to utter the Rick Perry cry-for-mercy and hope for forgiveness, not only from God (who always grants our wish) but from ourselves and from others.  It is so much easier just to follow the dictates of the ego and dig our heels in and cling more tenaciously to our self-serving mindset.  As W. H. Auden put it, “And Truth me him, and held out her hand.  And he clung in panic to his tall belief and shrank away like an ill-treated child.”

A Personal Note To Readers

I often receive “hits” and subscriptions from readers who are much more conservative than I appear to be and, yes, even more than I am.  I hope that it is recognized that my faith is no longer “ex” clusive and that it includes those of a conservative stripe, a culture that provided me my spiritual, intellectual, and emotional roots.  I am very proud of this background. I sometimes think that some of the people who drop by here do not know what they have gotten into.  But, I’m glad that each of you are here even if you have just dropped by for a “cup of coffee” and I will not see you again.

Faith is the bedrock of my life and I’m only now tippy-toeing into its riches and find it a mysterious and elusive, though ever-present domain.  I’ve spent my life trying desperately to “wrap my head around ‘it’” and realize that this ego pursuit has been a “work of the flesh” and clearly a demonstration of “riding an oxen, trying to find an oxen.”  I even had a dream months ago which suggested I was no longer riding the oxen but was on the ground, plodding along behind him arm-in-arm with a brother.  W. H. Auden offered relevant wisdom, “The Center that I cannot find is known to the unconscious mind.  There is no need to despair.  I am already there.”

The mistake I have made spiritually and emotionally is that fulfillment is “out there.”  I gathered that validation is to be found externally but the teachings of Jesus, contrasting with much of the Christian tradition, is that “the kingdom is within” and failure to orient oneself in that direction is to submit to “the letter of the law” which, according to the Apostle Paul, “kills.”  And as one of my many literary kindred spirits, Shakespeare, put it, “Within be rich, without be fed no more.”

A Crisis of Meaning in Our Culture

Several nights ago I watched Stephen Colbert again shred the daily edition of Trumpian and Conservative lunacy and I noted that our culture…and even our world…is in a crisis of meaning.  Colbert and other comedians find Trump and his ilk easy fodder for their comic genius and provide immense pleasure for we progressives who also see the lunacy of what is going on in our country.  But watching last night’s edition of Colbert’s show and delighting in an ironic look at biblical literalism I suddenly had a flash of insight of how this would appear to conservatives.  They would be deeply offended and angry as they would take it personal, feeling that their way of looking at the world was being attacked.  I would tell them, however, that Colbert is merely showing them that their way of viewing…and experiencing…the world is only one way of many.  But that is precisely the problem; for, in their view, there is only one way of viewing the world and they just happen to be privy to that way and often God has revealed it to them!  When worldviews are challenged the threat of meaningless always presents a challenge, usually kept on an unconscious level with conscious focus maintained on some superficial concern like “building a wall” or “Making America Great Again.”

I don’t have the answer for this.  But, as an old saying from my youth has it, “It will all come out in the wash.”  In terms of history, this is but another in an endless array of “tempests in a teapot” though to us in the throes of the tempest it does look frightening.  And I do mean frightening.  I am troubled.  I think humility is in order and that requires that all of us realize that our viewpoint is only finite, regardless of how noble, enlightened, and “correct” it appears to be.  There is a certain foolishness to even our certainties, inspiring Saint William to tell us, “Life is a tale told by an idiot…”  I do not think the Bard was a nihilist but he grasped that the things we are most certain of are often proven self-serving in the long run.

Colbert used a parody of Jesus in the aforementioned episode to poke fun at conservatives and it even stirred a dissonant chord in my own heart given my hyper-conservative past in which a sense of humor was not readily welcome in faith.  But I now think that Jesus could watch Colbert’s parody of Him last night and laugh uproariously, not taking himself as seriously as Christians are wont to take him.  Many conservative Christians cannot do this, and are offended at this vein of humor, because they take themselves too seriously and are not able to acknowledge the foolish dimension of the whole of their life, including their faith and politics.  Foolishness is an intrinsically human quality though it does not lessen the ultimate nobility of the human endeavor.  But failure to acknowledge our foolishness, and laugh at ourselves, will leave us with a false sense of self-importance.  I think religion is so easily lampooned as life is intrinsically a spiritual enterprise so the Darkness that besets us knows that the best way to weaken faith is to infect the most ardent of the faithful with a false sense of self-importance and piety so that to on-lookers they look ridiculous and are easily ridiculed.  Thus, “with devotions visage and pious action they sugar o’er the devil himself” and this is apparent to all except those who are dispensing the sugar on a whole-sale basis.

What if Blue was the Only Color???

Trump’s malignant narcissism is closer to full blossom as he is now declaring that he can pardon anyone and everyone, including himself.  He is fulfilling the position that many Christians put him in, acting like an all-powerful God who knows no limits whatsoever.  But the Trumpian Christian’s view of God is not the view that I have, being a view only of the Old Testament God without any regard to the new dispensation that Jesus brought to the table.

The will-to-power is a fundamental human impulse and is so readily available to even our noble impulses such as spirituality.  It appears to me that the millions of Christians who pledged their troth to Trump did so in the hope return to an historical “lost cause” which was only a wish to return our country to the idyllic days of Civil War America.  Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again” spoke to those who are threatened by an egalitarian spirit that is seeking expression in our country and in our world which is perceived to be putting into jeopardy their desire for power and specialness.

Let me illustrate with the mere label “Christian.”  One theme of some Christians is to lead to the world to Jesus so that we live in a Christian world of peace and harmony, often described as the millennium.  But imagine for a minute the phenomenon of everybody in the world being “Christian”?  Then the word would have no value as it can only have value when some people are not “Christian.”  For example, imagine a world in which everything is colored blue.  Then blue would have no meaning.  For Christians who see the label “Christian” only in terms of their ego, the whole world being “Christian” would deny them the ego satisfaction that comes from being special or unique.

Believing in Our Belief, Part Deux!!!

The fallacy of “believing in our belief” as noted by Oswald Chambers is a critical dimension of faith for until this insight sinks in we will inevitably be subscribing to an enculturated belief system.  And the enculturation is the necessary start to our social life as it equips us to take our place in the community and participate in it meaningfully, including in religion. Faith in this culture will mean subscribing to a creed, a doctrinal system which is taken to be revealed truth without any consideration for the possibility that this creed and doctrinal system are only a means to the “revealed truth” that all hearts yearn for.  But when the words are taken as an end in themselves, not as mere “pointers” then we have subscribed to the “letter of the law” though our enculturation will often keep us from this awareness as culture wants to keep us on the surface of things.  Anyone who gets beneath the surface, into the “spirit” of things, is dangerous for the status quo.

I have described this “surface” religion as “canned” faith, like something you can buy down at Wal Mart and open at your convenience when you get home.  You leave the church feeling good about yourself in the sense of having your prejudices, biases, and premises confirmed and resume your complacent “Christian” life.  Of course, in some churches, this “feeling good about yourself” might take the form of having your “hide ripped” by a hell-fire and damnation sermon but if that is what you are accustomed to then it too will confirm your pre-conceptions about yourself and the world.  The status quo will go unchallenged.

I am describing a scene here in which “the salt has lost its savor.”  Spiritual truth of great value will then be like “sounding brass and tinkling cymbal” because it is part of a rote performance, bouncing around in our heads, without never reaching down into the “foul rag and bone shop of our hearts” where “the thoughts and intents of the heart” are to be found.  This is a very challenging notion to consider for often it will mean we have to face painful disillusionment, the recognition that though our faith is valid as far as “fire insurance” is concerned it has been very superficial and not been allowed integration into the depths of our heart which is what the Source of all spiritual truth has in mind.

 

 

“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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