Tag Archives: Existentialism

Biblical Literalism and Human Culture

Biblical literalism is very much related to what I see as a cultural literalism in my country.  Many conservative people, especially in Alabama at present moment, are seeing their world in such literal terms that they are oblivious to the long-term consequences of what they are doing.  Just as they approach Holy Writ only on the surface level, so they approach their daily life and the life of their community and nation only on a surface level.  They do not grasp the nuances of life and therefore the nuanced dimensions of life, unbeknownst to them, are grasping them firmly.  One might say their individual, as well as the collective unconscious exerts inordinate influence on them.

Our need to conceptualize our experience with God parallels are experience of having been conceptualized ourselves.  We first lived as an awareness, an amorphous Presence ready to soak up this substantial world and thus form an ego identity.  This state of “awareness” was what the Buddhists call the “world of 10,000 things” which is a metaphor for “a world of everything,” of undifferentiated wholeness.  The Biblical fall is the experience of being reduced to the conceptual…a thing among other things…which then reduced our Creator Him/Herself to a concept, a thing.

Spiritual teachings of all stripe are intended to facilitate an escape from bondage to this “letter of the law.”  But gaining this freedom…or even tippy-toeing near its periphery…requires an awareness of the predicament which is a profoundly existential phenomenon.  This awareness is not cognitive, though cognition is involved…somewhat…and is greatly influenced by the experience.  This experience takes place deep in the heart, in the unconscious, that, “foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.”

Understanding this phenomenon can be transformative.  One could even say it can be, “being born again.”  Grasping this dimension of life changes our relationship with our self, with others, and with our world.  We begin to see and understand ourselves as related to all “things”, to be part and parcel of this cosmos, even part of what some describe as, “the Cosmic Christ.”  But this experience is inherently threatening to the rugged individualism of our culture which instills within us the notion, “I am the captain of my ship, the master of my soul

Yes, we are individuals but our individuality has value only in the context of our unity with all things.  This experience of the Great Round often comes to us first as the feeling of an impending threat to our sense of being a separate and distinct individual.  This threat is that of impending doom, of fragmentation or dissolution of the ego, which is actually merely the ego having its tyranny loosened and learning to live in harmony with the body and the rest of the world.

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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

Donald Trump and God’s Love

Donald Trump almost daily displays to the world a deep-seated need to be loved.  The media brings this to our attention often, and late-night comedians often make light of his childish efforts to win this love.  If he was merely a child on the actual playground, or some bloke in the neighborhood, most of us would recognize this neediness and try to offer validation when we could.  Teachers, monitoring the playground would soon refer him to counseling knowing that this deep-seated need for love needed attention “now” rather than in adulthood. But, of course Trump is cavorting about on the adult playground that we all cavort about on and his childish need for love cannot get the respect that it would deserve if we were still on a literal playground.  Mature “limits” need to be set by his “family” (the Republican Party) but they appear to have the same deep-seated existential insecurity and cannot say “no” to their errant child.

Love is a subtle thing.  In my clinical work, it was often a core issue though always presented as some behavioral problem the unconscious intent of which was to get the validation (i.e. “love”) that was missing in early childhood.  In my 20 years of practice, it became apparent that the more a child had to demand love from others, the more it belied the lack of it in the depths of his/her heart.  I learned to note to myself, “This student did not learn to perceive himself/herself as lovable in early childhood, learning that performance of some sort was needed instead.”  And, the more we have to “perform” for love the more we convey to the world our intrinsic self-perception of being unlovable.  For some, this “performance” will mean seeking attention or power often in the form of bullying others.  Others will seek it in compliance with the expectations of others.  But with either approach, or any approach between those two extremes, the individual will be announcing to the world, “I am not loved.  I am unlovable.”

The Christian tradition often poses a problem relevant to this issue.  In its over emphasis of the transcendence of God and the attending need to “submit” to this all-powerful external source of approbation, the immanent dimension of God is dismissed completely.  The task for this and all spiritual traditions is to address this contradiction and at some point hopefully arrive at the conclusion, “Oh, I’m okay as is!   Oh, that what is meant by God’s forgiveness!  That is what Grace means!”  But this requires interior work and cannot be found in a passive stance toward the spiritual endeavor.  The significance of “working out our own salvation with fear and trembling” is usually overlooked and we cognitively assent to a distant, disembodied God forgiving us which means that the interior guilt and shame remains and keeps us enslaved to this alienated deity and our alienated self.

Poet William Wordsworth understood this and summarized it so beautifully in this section his “Preludes”:

Dust as we are, the immortal spirit grows
Like harmony in music; there is a dark
Inscrutable workmanship that reconciles
Discordant elements, makes them cling together
In one society. How strange, that all
The terrors, pains, and early miseries,
Regrets, vexations, lassitudes interfused
Within my mind, should e’er have borne a part,
And that a needful part, in making up
The calm existence that is mine when I
Am worthy of myself! Praise to the end!

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Cardboard Cutout” Politics and Jesus

,http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/gene-huber-trump-cardboard-cutout_us_58a91337e4b045cd34c2689d?ncid=inblnkushpmg00000009

I don’t think Trump realized what this incident was revealing about himself.  He felt that this hapless young man was making a statement which validated him but his affirmation of Trump only demonstrated his own emptiness and testified to the emptiness that Trump has brought to the table.  Trump is an “empty suit” and so vividly exemplifies the “empty suit” of our capitalistic culture which is always trying to satisfy its inner void with “stuff” in a futile endeavor which can only end with further futility…and possible disaster. Meanwhile, many Christians are aiding and abetting this enterprise and therein demonstrating the meaninglessness of their own “cardboard cut out Jesus.”

This event brought to my mind a prophetic poem of T. S. Eliot, “The Hollow Man” and here is the first stanza:

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar.

I do think that the prophetic function in today’s world is rarely fulfilled by religion. Religion has become enculturated, “canned” or packaged and therefore not capable of bringing the breath of fresh air that is its responsibility.