Category Archives: Uncategorized

Power vs. Powerlessness in Christianity

One of my favorite hymns from my Baptist youth included the refrain about Jesus, “He could have called ten thousand angels/To destroy the world and set him free/He could have called then thousand angels/But He died alone for you and me.”

This moving hymn still has value for me today, conveying the essential message of Jesus as lying in his demonstration of the power in powerlessness.   In modern day terms, given his dilemma as his crucifixion approached and given the abysmal circumstance he saw in the world, he could have decided to just “kick ass” and call down a horde of angels…so to speak…and righted the wrongs that he so astutely observed.  But he offered us the poignant and vivid lesson that the only meaningful way to address the wrongs in the world is not to wield power in response to power but to find that our power lies in powerlessness.  This has been demonstrated so graphically in our lifetime with the passive resistance of Martin Luther King in the United States and Nelson Mandela in South Africa.

The powerless I am speaking of here does not mean wimpishness.  The powerless refers to a hidden power that lies in attitude more than military and/or political might, seeing the wisdom of “beating our swords into ploughshares” and attacking the subtle systemic power grid that has created and maintains the oppression in the status quo. One easily overlooked expression at these two approaches toward power was seen in the recent confirmation hearing of Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court nomination.  Christine Blasey-Ford, who accused Kavanaugh of sexual abuse when they were teenagers, offered in her testimony a carefully worded and measured response to the questions she faced, demonstrating an effort at being as careful and honest as she could be.  Following her, after a “half-time” in which certainly the “head coach” had intervened, Kavanaugh responded with fire and fury which included many instances of out right refusal to answer questions or deflecting from answering them.

Many Christians have adopted the Kavanaugh and Trumpian style of power, feeling that “might makes right” and demonstrating their feeling that their “spirituality” is weak and ineffective, requiring the reinforcement of political and legislative power. They fail to recognize the wisdom in the bromide, “You can legislate morality.”  Ancient Chinese wisdom told us that legislation becomes necessary when the internal moral code has broken down.  The more this internal code has been broken down, the greater the need for legislation and the greater will be the ferocity with which it is sought.  This is beautifully illustrated in the 38th chapter of the Tao te Ching by Lao Tzu, Stephen Mitchell translation:

The Master doesn’t try to be powerful;
thus he is truly powerful.
The ordinary man keeps reaching for power;
thus he never has enough.

The Master does nothing,
yet he leaves nothing undone.
The ordinary man is always doing things,
yet many more are left to be done.

The kind man does something,
yet something remains undone.
The just man does something,
and leaves many things to be done.
The moral man does something,
and when no one responds
he rolls up his sleeves and uses force.

When the Tao is lost, there is goodness.
When goodness is lost, there is morality.
When morality is lost, there is ritual.
Ritual is the husk of true faith,
the beginning of chaos.

Therefore the Master concerns himself
with the depths and not the surface,
with the fruit and not the flower.
He has no will of his own.
He dwells in reality,
and lets all illusions go.

 

******************************

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/

Advertisements

The Need of a Religious “Splinter in the Brain” for our Culture

Emily Dickinson used the phrase “a splinter in the brain” to describe a sudden irruption in the routine functioning of one’s mind.  Our mind’s do work like a machine, prone to constantly regurgitate thoughts and feelings to keep our preconceptions and biases in place.  (Just as I do in this blog!)  This is too often a relentless, even monotonous process that we see from time to time when we realize we are talking to someone who will not allow us to intrude into their monologue.

The same phenomenon is present with any tribe as groups of peoples are just like individuals, striving to function in such a way so as to keep in place preconceptions and biases that maintain group coherence.  A contrary vein of thought or behavior is frowned upon and at times violently oppressed.  When this group coherence becomes more important to the group than functioning amicably with neighboring tribes war can often take place…always under some “justified” pretext of an affront or insult to the groups dignity or integrity. A closed system such as this can be dangerous which healthy tribes will address with allowing some degree of dissent.  This dissenting voice will always come from someone/s who deviate from the norm and offer a different perspective on the “reality” that prevails within the tribe.  These are often the voices of artists and religious leaders who serve the function of “a voice crying in the wilderness.”

Religion having always been an important part of my life, my focus here and elsewhere is often the role of the church in our country, particularly given the horrible catastrophe that is brewing in our country.  The church often appears to have been “culturally encapsulated” so that it often serves only to reinforce the biases and prejudices of the status quo, failing in its task to offer a prophetic word, a voice from beyond the pale of the cultures obstinate insistence of grinding on in its “metaled ways.”

The following is a relevant post from another one of my blogs from yesterday:

Barack Obama has answered the bell and has come out swinging, addressing the Republican morass of recent decades that has created our country’s present debacle, and yes, taking not-so-veiled jabs at the figure-head and spokesman for this roiling cauldron of chthonic energy.  I stumbled across a book just last week by Rebecca S. Chopps entitled, “The Power to Speak: Feminism, Language, and God,” which is relevant to this cauldron as she explores how language, including religious language, can be used to give expression to hidden dimensions of the heart, individually and socio-culturally. But for this “revelation” to occur, there must be a voice/voices from beyond the pale of the status quo who see into the heart of the poisonous mindset which is always oriented primarily to maintain the prevailing power structure.  Chopps writes as a feminist but also as a Christian…apparently…though if she calls herself a Christian she is certainly beyond the pale of the Christian power structure that would “legitimate” her wearing that label.

Here I will share a couple of paragraphs from Chopps’ book:

Proclamation, in feminist discourses of emancipatory transformation, resists and transforms the social symbolic order.  Proclamation is a form of resistance to the practices and principles of modernity that control, dominate, and oppress.  But proclamation resists by way of transformation, seeking to provide new discourses by a variety of strategies, methods, and ways, and to transform the ruling principles and order into ones that allow, encourage, and enable transformative relations of multiplicity, difference, solidarity, anticipation, embodiment, and transformation.  Transformation occurs by creating new images of human flourishing, new values of otherness, and multiplicity, new theoretical practices of solidarity and anticipation. 

This is reminiscent of one of the most powerful of Paul Tillich’s sermons, “The Shaking of the Foundations” in which he argued that the purpose of the church is to, “rattle the cage” (my term) of the status quo.  But the status quo does not want to be “rattled” and will arm itself to the teeth in an effort to deny any affront to its comfy zone of satisfaction, where “they bask, agreed upon what they will not ask, bland, sunny, and adjusted by the light” of the unquestioned assumptions which give them privilege and power.  This is also obviously so with the power structure of religious culture though often those most ensconced in that power structure are basking even more in the comfort of a falsetto humility which does not permit any consideration or discussion of their motivations.

I conclude with another paragraph from Chopps:

Through discourses of emancipatory transformation, proclamation enables those marginalized voices who so often have not been heard, to speak: to speak of the beauty, hope, pain, and sorrow they have known on the margins.  Proclamation also speaks within the ambiguities of the order, the ambiguities, for instance, of the bourgeois who, though promised freedom in his autonomy, discovers few genuine possibilities for the community, relationships, and love he so desires.  Unable to find any “authentic meaning” the bourgeois attempts to fill in the empty spaces of his or her soul through the attainment of material goods that great momentary satisfaction with increasingly diminished returns.

*****************

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/

Huffpo column, “All Christians are problematic, even you and I”

An Oregon chaplain and pastor, as well as columnist in Huffington Post, Brandi Miller, noted yesterday that, “All Christians are problematic, even you and I.”  In this column she addressed the issue that has been so conspicuous with the evangelical support of Trump—an unwillingness to admit any fault and to fiercely defend the champion of unwillingness-to-admit-fault, Trump himself.

The kernel of this problem is that many Christians, evangelical and otherwise, are mainly ideologues rather than followers of the teachings of Jesus.  Ideologues are in love with their thoughts more than that which these thoughts should refer to.  As epistemology teaches us, the word is not the thing but merely a token which points us toward the thing…in this case the “thing” being the person of Jesus.  This truth is so powerfully present in the Buddhist teaching, “the finger pointing to the moon is not the moon.”  This “finger” is but a pointer, as words should be, a phenomenon which is very important in spiritual teachings, most of which have this understanding buried in their tradition.  But this “burial” is difficult to grasp and thus wrestle with as most spiritually-minded people prefer the superficial, the “letter of the law,” as it offers quick and easy validation of their self-serving preconceptions and biases.  Awareness of this “burial” of Truth is impossible without understanding the wisdom offered by poet Adrienne Rich, “Until we can understand the assumptions in which we are drenched we cannot know ourselves.”

(The Brandi Miller column can be found in following link—https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/opinion-miller-problematic-christianity_us_5b4b7887e4b0bc69a788148e)

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.

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/

Words do “Wear Out” and Need to be “Re-vivified.”

Words wear out.  Infused with great meaning when they are first uttered, the significance/meaning diminishes with the passing of time as they become common coinage in the verbal soup that we live in, to the point that perfunctory usage depreciates language to mere social cache.  As T. S. Eliot put it, “Words slip, slide, decay with imprecision” as they are employed by our common tongue. They become the, “well-worn words and ready phrases,” according to Conrad Aiken, which have the primary function of blocking out the unpleasantness beneath the surface, a process he describes as, “having built comfortable walls against the wilderness.”

It becomes the responsibility of each generation to re-invigorate language by using words in terms of personal experience, not merely for the purpose of gaining and maintaining social approbation.  And when words are used in “personal terms” they can occasionally offer a fresh look at the meaning of words stripped of their perfunctory usage.  T. S. Eliot put it this way, “Last years words are for last year’s season and next years words await another voice.”

Carl Jung had important insight on the need of this re-vivication of language, especially regarding, “Eternal Truth,” that religions often purport to purvey:

The church’s, “truth may…call itself ‘eternal,’ but its temporal garment must pay tribute to the evanescence of all earthly things and should take account of psychic changes.  Eternal truth needs a human language that alters with the spirit of the times.  The primordial images undergo ceaseless transformation and yet remain ever the same, but only in a new form can they be understood anew.  Always they require a new interpretation, as each formulation becomes obsolete, they are not to lose their spellbinding power over that fuges Mercurius (i.e. Mercurius fuse) and allow that useful though dangerous enemy to escape.  What is that about ‘new wine in old bottles.’?  Where are the answers to the spiritual needs and troubles of a new epoch?  And where the knowledge to deal with the psychological problems raised by the development of modern consciousness?  Never before has eternal truth been faced with such a hybris of will and power?

And I close with a short Carl Sandburg poem, “Precious Moments”;

Bright vocabularies are transient as rainbows./Speech requires blood and air to make it./Before the word comes off the end of the tongue,/While diaphragms of flesh negotiate the word,/In the moment of doom when the word forms/It is born, alive, registering an imprint—Afterward it is a mummy, a dry fact, done and gone.

***************************

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/