Category Archives: religion & spirituality

Religion Can Facilitate Meaning in a Meaningless World.

Religion has historically offered solace to the duress of life’s fragility, offering hope and comfort when there appears to be none.  The word “religion” means “to bind together,” reflecting humankind’s awareness that the psyche is divided and some unification of this schism is needed for the resulting anxiety to be handled effectively.  But acknowledging this duress is challenging to the human ego, which offers us a steady diet of pabulum and diversion with which to amuse ourselves rather than boldly opening one’s heart to the existential tumult that is always simmering beneath the surface of “civilized’ life.  (“Most men live lives of quiet desperation.”  Henry David Thoreau)

This escapism can be fatal to religion.  This insight is what led Nietzsche to declare in the 19th century that, “God is dead,” as he saw that human culture was creating an alienation that could eventually be catastrophic to life.  The alienation that meaninglessness can produce often creates an existential crisis world that religion could help and alleviate were it not encapsulated by the culture and thus disallowing it to fulfill its function of directing the soul toward the numinous. It in the domain of the numinous that the heart can explore the mystery which is intrinsic to life, though it was very disconcerting to a world that was increasingly rationalistic.  This mystery can facilitate an integration of body and soul that will allow humans to live meaningfully in a world that that would otherwise be bewildering or baffling.

Religion, however, is not the only antidote to this problem of meaninglessness.  The metaphor present in meaningful religion also finds expression in the artistic and literary worlds, artists and writers being capable of using their respective mediums to put humankind in touch with imagery that can facilitate an experience of this numinous.

Advertisements

A Prayer About Humility

Religion often today reveals a very ugly dimension of the human heart, an intent to acquire power and domination rather than to bring reconciliation in this world.  Religion affords many opportunities for the ego to run amok, carefully hidden from any criticism because of its “spiritual” nature and the “fact” that “god is leading.”  But on this notion it has been helpful to remember the teachings of the Bible to, “Try the spirits, to see if they be of God” and also the admonishment of the Apostle Paul that we see only, “through a glass darkly.?”  The following poem by Louis Untermeyer reflects more humility, a desire to not prevail and dominate but actually to “lose,” to become, “losers” even though in our particular historical moments many persons of faith are finding appealing the clarion call of one who vehemently denouncers, “losers.”

PRAYER by Louis Untermeyer

God, though this life is but a wraith,
Although we know not what we use;

Although we grope with little faith,
God, give me the heart to fight and lose.

Ever insurgent let me be,

Make me more daring than devout;
From slick contentment keep me free

And fill me with a buoyant doubt.

Open my eyes to visions girt
With beauty, and with wonder lit,

But let me always see the dirt,
And all that spawn and die in it.

Open my ears to music, let

Me thrill with Spring’s first flutes and drums
But never let me dare forget

The bitter ballads of the slums.

From compromise and things half-done,
Keep me, with stern and stubborn pride;

But when at last the fight is won,
God, keep me still unsatisfied.

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/

“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.

The “Lawlessness” in “The Letter of the Law” Mindset

Lawlessness was a common pulpit battle-cry in my conservative youth.  The word was often spit out, with great emphasis and passion, conveying just how contemptuous lawlessness was and that it was an indicator of how God-forsaken our country was becoming.  The New Testament word for lawlessness was, “anomia” with the root word “nomos” meaning a standard and the alpha privative (“a) conveying the absence of that quality.  And “lawlessness” is a problem in any culture as it reflects a break down of basic structures in the social body, leaving such qualities as decorum, civility, propriety, and the legal code being unattended.  But “lawlessness,” when focused merely on outward compliance with social and moral norms misses the point, as it is possible to adhere closely to a social and spiritual code even though deep in the heart there are unacknowledged character flaws which produced the people in the time of Jesus that he called, “hypocrites” or simply “actors.”

French sociologist Emile Durkheim (late 19th century) was one of the first to address the subject of “anomia” and he offered socio-cultural suggestions about the break down of “law-and-order” that often afflicts a culture.  But he noted two different, apparently antithetical dimensions to anomia, one being the overt disregard for social norms and the other being an obsessive focus on the social norms, the latter being a legalistic, “letter-of-the-law” approach to commonplace rules of social decorum and civility.  In other words, too little “law” could produce social unrest but also heavy-handed emphasis of social, civil, and moral codes could lead to the same.  To summarize Durkheim’s observation, social chaos could be brought about by laxity or disregard for the law but likewise hyper-emphasis on “the law” could lead to similar problems.

A relevant word here is “judgement” in the since of interpreting and enforcing the laws, a key feature of “judgement” being discretion.  For example, I often think of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan women at the well who was accused of adultery.  The “letter-of-the-law” required that Jesus should lead the charge in stoning the woman to death which would have had the added benefit of improving his standing with the religious establishment of the day (i.e., the Pharisees) who so famously emphasized the importance of literal compliance with the rules, especially regarding morality.  But Jesus defied the “law” and forgave the woman and told her to, “go and sin no more.”  Jesus recognized that the law always demands “interpretation,” that is discretion, and that strict and obsessive compliance with the law would eventually lead to the complication that Durkheim would note.

It is interesting…and very revealing…that in contemporary times the fiercest defenders of “law-and-order” and   of “human decency, decorum, and social civility” have found as their spokesman Trump who is the embodiment of indecency, social impropriety, and egregious dishonesty.  They have found the perfect embodiment of the hidden dimensions of their heart, a man who is the very antithesis of everything that Jesus stood for.  They proclaim that they are champions of moral, ethical, and legal propriety, yet they have empowered a man who demonstrates in his daily life the lack of all human decency and basic kindness.  They have given power and continued support to a man who demonstrates that he feels he is above the law.  Two relevant anecdotes from his past are his repeated public statements revealing his sexual interest in his own daughter and his brazen decision to walk in to the dressing room of a teen-age beauty contest and “size up” young girls in various stages of undress.  And more recently he has exceeded the power of his office and is blatantly attempting to influence other branches of the government because of his attitude, “Who is gonna stop me?”  He is fulfilling his dark prophecy that he could stand in the streets of Manhattan and shoot someonethe and he would not lose support.

Recently the Trump administration deported a man who had lived her for 32 years, was a respected and productive citizen, and the father of several young children.  Yes, he had “broken” the law in that he had not legally immigrated.  And, therefore in the mindset of Trump and his minions, “the law is the law” and must be obeyed.  “Ship him back to Mexico!”  Case closed, and those involved in the decision can sleep easily that night knowing that they, “obeyed the law.”  But the teachings of Jesus suggest there is a higher law in which one can, relying on the depths of his heart and its judgement, “forgive” this person and, metaphorically at least tell him, “Go and sin no more.”  But the moral and ethical ambiguity of life is not permitted by these spiritually immature people who assiduously rely on, “the letter-of-law” and are spared any anguish in their heart about what was the “right” thing to do.  It is much easier if you can determine what is “right” and “wrong” by relying on a rule book.  Just ask the rank-and-file Isis warrior who is never troubled by any lame-ass, wimpy thingy like, “moral ambiguity.”  Spiritual discernment, i.e. “discretion,” involves soul-searching and this existential process is related to what the Apostle Paul described as the Holy Spirit searching, “the thots and intents of the heart”

Christianity is being, “weighed in the balances and found wanting,” which is a necessary development in mature religions that see the value of self-criticism.  But like Trump, some Christians cannot handle any feedback which does not fit their carefully crafted, self-serving image and cling even more desperately to their dogma. The criticism actually encourages them as it strikes a naïve belief in their heart that they are being, “persecuted for His sake.”

School Shootings and Spiritual Bromides

Another high school shooting, another response with the perfunctory, “You are in our thoughts and prayers.”  This bromide is now catching a lot of flak, especially when coming from politicians who obviously prefer a glib, meaningless bromide rather than any commitment to addressing a politically-divisive issue.  With still another round of, “thoughts and prayers,” we have the commitment of these politicians to renew their commitment to further displays of, “not gonna do a damn thing.”  And many spiritual persons, steeped in “performance art” religion, will also offer this platitude and not dare to question their legislators and local authorities.

Spiritual bromides are common…and even have value.  Offering our “thoughts and prayers” to those who have experienced misfortune or tragedy.  And these words can convey the heart’s deepest sentiment and any such expression carries value.  But spiritual bromides can become so common place that they are merely the aforementioned, “performance art” designed to convey to others the appearance that, “we feel your pain.”  Since politicians, and spiritual leaders who have long-since lost their soul, will have to face this situation again, I suggest they have a new button on their computer, “TAP,” which they can automatically press in a moment like this and send out the automated message in which “thoughts and prayers” are wished.  Even better, they can call one of their staff persons and get them to push the button, allowing them to continue with interruption their daily routine of “spiritual activity” designed only to make them feel better about themselves.

Religion is so susceptible to being reduced to bromides like this, described by poet Conrad Aiken as, “well-worn words and ready phrases which build comfortable walls against the wilderness.”  Words are easy, and regardless of how noble they might be, they can be simply the noise of “sounding brass and tinkling cymbals,” if they have no gut-level meaning in the person using them.  This style of meaningless language is captured by an Irish poet, W. R. Rodgers, in this excerpt from his poem, “Word.”

Once words were unthinking things, signaling

Artlessly the heart’s secret screech or roar,

And once they were the gangways for anger,

Overriding the minds qualms and quagmires.

Wires that through weary miles of slow surmise

Carried the feverish message of fact

In their effortless core.  Once they were these,

But now they are the life-like skins and screens

Stretched skillfully on frames and formulae,

To terrify or tame, cynical shows

Meant only to deter or draw men on,

The tricks and tags of every demagogue,

Mere scarecrow proverbs, rhetorical decoys,

Face-savers, salves, facades, the shields and shells

Of shored decay behind which cave minds sleep

And sprawl like gangsters behind bodyguards.

Its foremost ardour or its farthest wish,

Its actual ache or naked rancour.

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!!!