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.
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.
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:
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.
ADDENDUM—This is one of three blogs that I now have up and running. Please check the other two out sometime. The three are:
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.”
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?
Yes, I remember so well how wonderful it is to be humble! I had learned that this was so very early in my life, knew that I certainly did not appear to be arrogant, was generous to others, and was just an all around nice guy! And I still think this description of my self was true…and I hope it is still true today! But there is a profound difference in the “knowledge” of humility and “be-ing” humble, the latter not an acquisition but an on-going process.
BUT, I now realize that the “humility” described above was a learned life-style instilled into me from an “humble” rural Arkansas culture and an “humble” fundamentalist Baptist culture. The “humility” certainly did include a socio-economic dimension as I was the product of what historians called the Southern white “dispossessed” who were still suffering from the collapse of the pre-Civil War Southern culture, a pronounced historical “humiliation.”
But, one could still use the label “humble” to describe me and still could I hope. However, I now think that humility is not something that you can acquire by social pressure or education or a spiritual culture. In fact, I don’t even believe in “humility” in a certain sense but I do firmly believe in a phenomena which I like to call “humility-ization.”
Humility-ization is something that came to me, and is still coming to me, as a result of “the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.” I prefer, however, to describe it as “the Grace of God.” Humiliti-zation is a life long process of being stripped of the superficies of our existence, including the extremely superficial accoutrements of our “spiritual life.” It entailed learning that my “humility” was mostly performance art, a role that I had subscribed to in return for the approbation of my family and community. AND, that was good and I’m pleased that I acquired that persona for I now realize it kept me from a lot of mischief. But, it took me way too long to realize that this “performance art” was very superficial, essentially inauthentic, and thus an act. Even more so, it dawned on me that the New Testament word “hypocrite” was merely a term for one who was “acting” virtuous.
I emphasize that performance art is just a natural part of life and there is nothing necessarily wrong with it. But, in a Christian culture, if one lives his whole life being “good” basically because he has learned it is the way to earn social approbation, then these words of Jesus would apply to him, “What shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul?” In my culture it would give one a good “send off” with lots of lavish praise. But what about the unlived life which could certainly have been lived as a Christian but one who was sincerely living out of the “abundance of his own heart” and not just from listening to shrill dogma he had listened to since early youth.
For, Jesus was not here to provide us fire insurance. Jesus was not here to prop up an empty life, to give the shell of a human being a “suit of clothes” to wear, but to empower one to become authentic, to give expression to his inner-most essence which might be described as “the Christ child” within us all. “Becoming a Christian” in the culture I was raised in, and lived in most of my life, was merely part of a persona and that, I might add, a very worthwhile persona. But, to live one’s whole life as a mere Christian persona, as a Christian marionette (or Christian-ette) is to miss the point of the wonderful spiritual teacher who left us so much wisdom if we would find the courage to explore it more fully.