Thoughts on the Christian’s “Imaginary Friend”

I want to focus a bit more on what Bill Maher calls my “imaginary friend” Jesus.  And let me emphasize, I love Bill Maher and think he is doing part of the prophetic function for our culture that the Christian church does not have the courage to do for itself.

Imagination is the human faculty that is often lacking in our experience of religion for it involves involvement of the body, connection with the body, which my experience in the Christian tradition discouraged.  This is very much related to the Christian tradition of self-abnegation which usually focused more on denying the body’s appetites while allowing the appetites of the ego to run amok.

There is more to this relationship between imagination and cognition than I fully understand.  Imagination involves “free play” between subject and object so that “life” can be given to cognitive images that our culture has given us.  This “life” can be invigorating to these images and free them from the bondage of the “letter of the law” and make possibly a meaningful interpretation of dogma, not merely a sterile recitation of dead facts.  For example, the sound “Jesus” can cease referring to a mere concept and can become a symbol and therefore capable of evoking an internal, subjective experience which is the “Christ child” within us all.  But for this evocation to even be possible, there must be a heart that is subject to evocation.  Shakespeare described this heart as one which is made of “penetrable stuff” and not one that is still “bronzed o’er” with the sterile dogma with which one has been enculturated.  But a heart made of this “penetrable stuff” is scary and it is much easier to just mindlessly carry on with one’s routine life, comfortably ensconced in the Christian version of “well-worn words and ready phrases that build comfortable walls against the silence.” (Conrad Aiken) For, it is in the silence that the primordial word is found which is what Thomas Keating had in mind with this pithy observation, “God’s primary language is silence, everything else is a poor translation.”

ADDENDUM—This is one of three blogs that I now have up and running.  Please check the other two out sometime.  The three are: 

https://wordpress.com/posts/anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com

https://wordpress.com/posts/theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com

https://wordpress.com/posts/literarylew.wordpress.com

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Nicholas Kristof of NYT Delivers a “Word from on High”

I’m going to linger on this subject of Jesus as our “imaginary friend” for a while.  One reason is this brilliant op-ed in the NYT by Nicholas Kristof who used “literary license” to make the teachings of Jesus very relevant to the darkness that is prevailing now in Washington D.C.  The preacher, or pastor, that I was familiar with in my past would discourse about Jesus in a very prosaic fashion though several of them did so in a way that was immensely valuable to me.  But here, a journalist, approaching the matter from beyond the pale of theology and ecclesiastical decorum takes the teachings of Jesus and delivers a prophetic word to our country which is in desperate need of men and women who have the courage to stand up and speak “truth to power.”  This prophetic voice is silent in most of Christendom and apparently the mute button has been hit by evangelical Christians.  Please read this op-ed.  It is so powerful and inspiring.  I don’t know anything about the spirituality of Nicholas Kristof, and don’t really care, because what I like to call “the Spirit of God” was coursing through his veins when he wrote these words.

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.

Congressman Steven King Needs a “Damascus Road” Conversion

Steven King, the arch-conservative Republican Senator from Iowa has given us a classic example of unexamined racism.  And, furthermore, racism in its deepest essence cannot be examined by the racist as it is too deep-seated in the soul as described in the post this morning.  To ask King to see his racism is like asking a fish to see water for it is an essential dimension of his spiritual existence in this world.  Let me employ imagination for a moment and pretend someone can reach into King’s heart, wrap his hand around that racist core, and suddenly yank it out into the light day.  King would melt down immediately.  It kind of reminds me of the Star Wars computer, “Hal” being unplugged against his will and against his stern prohibition.  Immediately Hal began to “melt down,” as his voice faltered and broke until there was silence.  I also have the image of the robots on “West World” being unplugged, watching their face begin to show bewilderment, then their lead slumping to the side lifelessly.

Carl Jung would describe racism in archetypal terms.  It is what happens when one’s soul has been captured by a culturally provided demon and the machinations of that demon have been reinforced for a lifetime by one’s community and culture.  Jung would say that the only way to escape this demon is individuation which he describes as the process of “cutting the cord” with the cultural matrix in which was born and raised.  This does not mean the individuated soul will necessarily leave that culture but he will be released from the infantile grip that the culture has on all of us until we dare to grow up.

Several days ago King declared that Hispanics and Blacks will be fighting each other before they will ever outnumber the whites.  This reflects a core dimension of racism, the inability to see that apparent “opposites” can be united in spite of their superficial differences though only if one is able and willing to get out of his little ego and see, and experience, the unity of all things.  But racism for some is so deep-seated, such an intrinsic dimension of his soul, that to let go of this compulsive distinction-drawing, i.e. “judgment”, would threaten him with the risk of what child psychiatrist Donald Winnicott described as a “psychic catastrophe.”  And by the way, I think that might be a way to describe what happened to the Apostle Paul on the Damascus road.  All of his certainties suddenly were crushed by the light of the day, i.e. “consciousness” and distinctions which previously were absolute were suddenly not so absolute.  I like the Bible’s way of describing it as a visitation from God.

ADDENDUM—This is one of three blogs that I now have up and running.  Please check the other two out sometime.  The three are: 

https://wordpress.com/posts/anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com

https://wordpress.com/posts/theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com

https://wordpress.com/posts/literarylew.wordpress.com

Racism is About More than Race

Racism is about an early development in the unfolding of the “original germ of being” which we are when that that “gleam in the eye of our father” suddenly bring us into this time/space continuum.  (I apologize to my mother who could have had some equivalent of this “gleam in her eye” but I’m sure patriarchy had taken that capacity from her in her early youth.)

As we unfold in our neonate state, we begin the process of biological differentiation in which we separate ourselves from the maternal matrix which was our origin.  This “differentiation” is the early phases of “object separateness” which will not conclude…and in some way never does…until our adulthood.  This requires a biological ability to separate ourselves from the biological morass which is our origin and begin to establish ourselves as separate and distinct. This is a physical/biological/neurological process which at some point after birth becomes more a function of a separate and independent human will.  Without this “separate and distinct” human will, we are fated to live our lives in the grip of unconscious impulses the knowledge of which will be banished from awareness.

Racism has its origin in this need to create an “us vs. them” paradigm starting with drawing distinctions between ourselves and our mother, and shortly thereafter our father, our siblings, and then the social world which we will find ourselves implicated within.  In many, if not most cultures, a significant development is when we begin to distinguish ourselves from various social categories.  In my case, being raised in the American South, one of the earliest “distinctions” that I drew was between myself, my very white family, and “those blacks”, then described as “n…..s.”  This was, and still is, one of the bedrocks of my emotional/psychological/spiritual existence for in the very important socio-cultural arena I was born into the “n…..s” were so readily “them.”

Socio-economics is relevant to this matter as I was born into a “po white trash” in central Arkansas in 1952.  I make that point with some reservation, for I am very proud of my origins and realize that the context in which I “discovered America” was totally happenstance.  But being from an impoverished Southern family in 1950’s America, the “n….s” were a primary embodiment of difference and without this “difference” we cannot exist as a group or as an individual.

Here I have put on the table a problem which is beyond the grasp of reason–how do I escape the basic human problem of “object separateness?”  How do I bridge the chasm that separates humankind from each other?  How do I give up that “us” vs. “them” paradigm? A friend of mine has a bumper sticker which answers the question, “Awareness is all.”  Simple awareness of the problem is the beginning of the answer.  If one can hold within his mind a contradiction like this—“I am my brother’s keeper, no I’m not”—the experience of paradox can begin to unfold in one’s heart and the grace of understanding can begin to flow through one’s encrusted, linear view of the world.

I must issue a caveat re my earlier point that racism is “still” part of the bedrock of my soul.  My point is that at the stage of development in which this was etched into my brain, the “recordings” are never erased though with “awareness being all,” we can learn to mitigate their influence and evolve a mind/brain/heart which allows us to see unity where we once only saw difference.

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ADDENDUM—This is one of three blogs that I now have up and running.  Please check the other two out sometime.  The three are: 

https://wordpress.com/posts/anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com

https://wordpress.com/posts/theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com

https://wordpress.com/posts/literarylew.wordpress.com

 

 

Southern Baptists, Evangelicals, and GOP Arrogance

The April issue of “The New Republic” features an article by Sarah Posner entitled, “Amazing Disgrace–How did Donald Trump—a thrice-married, biblically illiterate sexual predator—hijack the religious right?”

Posner offers further analysis of the Southern Baptists and their current effort to “purge” themselves of one miscreant, Russell Moore, who dared to bring a dissenting voice to their group think on Donald Trump.  Posner quotes Richard Spencer, himself an alt-right leader, declaring how that the evangelicals as a group have been totally duped by Trump, declaring, “Trump has shown the hand of the GOP…(that it)…is a white person’s populist party.”  Posner declared that the “white evangelicals” were the key to Trump’s victory and argued that Steve Bannon carefully courted them during the campaign, knowing that without them his cause could not compete against the progressive left.  Bannon told Posner last July that “If conservative Catholics and evangelicals ‘just want to focus on reading the Bible and being good Christians there is no chance we could ever get this country back on track again.’”

Even Richard Schenk, a leader of conservative evangelical Christians recognized how that his group had sold their soul to the devil in supporting Trump, exposing an evangelical culture “that doesn’t know itself.”  This lack of “self” awareness, or meta-cognition, has kept them from recognizing just how foolish their support of Trump appears giving his egregious affront to everything that the teachings of Jesus represents.  This lack of awareness reflects a very human tendency to opt for an opportunity for power even in the arena of spirituality, even if that “opportunity for power” is an in opposition to all they purport to hold dear.

A core dimension of the evangelical Christian tradition is the “us” vs “them” paradigm best illustrated with the attitude of, “I’ve got it” and “most of you don’t”.  This exaggerated emphasis on drawing distinctions between “me” and “thee” overlooks the teachings of Jesus which sought to put Grace on the table in an historical moment when the “letter of the law” of the Old Testament was being overly emphasized in his culture.  Jesus recognized that the religious establishment of his day was paying too much attention to that “us” vs “them” or “right” vs “wrong” paradigm. It is no coincidence that the Trump administration’s first significant action was to start getting rid of people “who don’t belong” by moving fast on the immigration issue.  The Southern Baptist Convention is mirroring that impulse to “clean house” of all dissent or difference.  “If people aren’t like us, let’s send ‘em packing!  We don’t want difference of opinion.  We don’t want diversity, we want unity!” And if you are so arrogant as to assume that you have an objective grasp of what “truth” is, then you can feel empowered to take this position, and even take comfort in the illusion that, “God is leading us.”

Southern Baptists Devoured by the Trumpian Black Hole

As Trump was gathering steam last summer, I found it interesting see how Russell Moore, a prominent leader in the Southern Baptist Convention, was openly critical of the morally and ethically challenged candidate.  Moore immediately ran into a buzz-saw of criticism and I knew then he was in trouble and might not survive in his position.  According to a Washington Post story today, it sounds like he probably will not last through the week.

I greatly admired Moore for brazenly taking a moral stance against a popular, but brazenly immoral man who represented the antithesis of everything Jesus taught.  But having been raised a Baptist, I knew “group think” and tribal loyalty and realized that Moore was coming to blows with ideologues and ideologues, as much as they want to “praise Jesus” and such, have only one thing in mind and that is loyalty to their ideas.  And remember it was ideologues that nailed Jesus to Cross, men whose allegiance was to the “letter of the law” and not to one who embodied the Spirit of the law.  Relevant to this point, the former governor of Arkansas, Mike Huckabee, has criticized Moore, arguing, “Why should we be paying someone who is insulting us?”  Well, any prophetic voice will first sound insulting and certainly the religious establishment of Jesus’ day found his accusations insulting.

Decades ago I worked on a Master’s thesis in religious history at the University of Arkansas.  One of the books I discovered in my research was titled, “Churches in Cultural Captivity: A History of the Social Attitudes of Southern Baptists” by John Lee Eighmy which focused on how the Southern Baptist Convention even in the late 19th century was becoming co-opted into the culture of the day.  This Russell Moore incident shows how that nothing has changed which is how it usually is with any group, including religious groups.  Before the election I posed the old bumper sticker question of the 1980’s that the SBC had promoted, “WWJD—What Would Jesus Do.”  I asked, “Would Jesus be supporting a man who repeatedly had expressed sexual focus on his beautiful daughter, who had even said to Howard Stern at one point, “Yes, you can refer to her as a nice piece of ass.”  Would Jesus support a man who is a known sexual predator and misogynist?  Would Jesus support a man who, being the owner of a teen beauty contest, took advantage of his position to walk in on the dressing room of the semi-clad or nude girls, obviously “checking out the merchandise.”  Would Jesus support a man who was a compulsive liar and who could not even humble himself to say he had ever had any need to ask God for forgiveness?

S