Tag Archives: Jesus Christ

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.”

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Playing “Hidey-Seek” With God

As a child, “hidey-seek” was one of our favorite games.  We would designate a “seeker” who would close his eyes while the rest of us scurried about finding a hiding place to see who would be the last one found. I’ve spent my life playing the very same game with God and have been very successful so far as I found the best place to hide–religion!  Clothing one’s self with the spiritual piety, humility, theology, wisdom, and practice is the very best place to hide from God because it gives one’s ego the assurance of, “piety, humility, theology, wisdom, and spiritual practice.”  This is what Jesus was telling the Pharisees when he called them, “whited sepulchres, full of dead men’s bones.”  I can just imagine their fury at him!  Here they were going about their daily routine of life, including being “holy,” and Jesus bumbled into their life and told them, “Hey, guess again!  Your all a bunch of hypocrites!”

Now for those of us steeped in religion, especially those of us bred in conservative American religion, toying with the notion of being hypocrites is disconcerting!  How could we be hypocrites?  “Well, hell, just look at us!  Look how “christian” I am and you dare to call me an hypocrite.”  Jesus would have pissed us off too. But in modern times, if Jesus ever happens to venture into our lives, He’s gonna “piss us off” and embarrass the ‘hell’ out of us.”  Oh, of course our “ideas” of Him will never do this as these “ideas” of Him are what have allowed us to escape Him, paralleling our ability to escape the vulnerability and humility of being human.  But if we ever allow these “ideas” of Him to begin to crumble, we will soon discover ourselves in a, “world of pain,” the pain of finally addressing reality.  Of course, keep in mind that Jesus does not do any, “venturing,” as he does not travel, not being confined to time and space.  He is always here, always was, and always will be and can be found just beyond that, “small bright circle of our consciousness” that our ego has “gifted” us with to avoid Him.

Modern life is giving persons of faith in my country, including Christians…and actually including atheists…a chance to entertain Jesus and have a little tete-a-tete with Him.  Spirituality has allowed the antithesis of Jesus to bubble to the surface of our collective consciousness and throngs of devout Christians have now pledged their troth to this version of an “anti” christ.  This gives all believers, those of all stripes, an opportunity to see just how easy religion is to hide from God and therefore facilitate great evil in their lives and the lives of their fellow man, even as they daily offer pious platitudes and prayers in His name.  This duplicity does not make us “bad” people; it merely shows us that we are “people,” simple humankind with a penchant for getting things wrong and being unwilling to acknowledge it.  I think Jesus would say, and does, “Hey, its okay!  I got you covered!”  But it is so much easier to just plod along in the comfort of our darkness.  As Shakespeare summed it up, “With devotion’s visage and pious action, they do sugar o’er the devil himself.”

 

Eyes to See…that Actually See!!!

Vision is subtle and frequently we “have eyes to see but see not” and, yes, ” ears to hear but hear not.”  And it is very challenging to realize that human nature subjects us to this limitation yet without meaning, necessarily, that we are a bad person.  But if we never let the wisdom of this quip from Jesus sink in it can lead to a lot of “bad” that will emanate from the resulting unexamined life.

Those of us who were raised in a Christian culture, especially the evangelical/fundamentalist wing of that culture, are steeped in this biblical wisdom from early in our life and are taught that when Jesus comes into our life we are then given the gift of perfect vision, led by the Holy Spirit that “will guide you into all truth.”  But this is usually intrinsically self-serving wisdom and fails to consider how our faith is influenced by enculturation and “enculturated wisdom”, regardless of how noble it is, is of the vein described by the Apostle Paul as “the wisdom of the world.”  Therefore, being steeped in the knowledge acquired very clearly, as our peer group has told us that we do, we can stand smugly in the comfort this knowledge provides us. It is disorienting to say the least to realize that our faith has been largely the result of enculturation and that our “vision” is more lacking than we ever imagined.  Understanding this teaching brings us to understand the wisdom of the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 13, “We see through a glass darkly.”  Yes, God is with us and leads us but he does so as we stumble through “darkly” vision and imperfect hearing.

Relevant to this subject, John Berger wrote a classic little book in 1972 entitled, “Ways of Seeing.”  When I discovered the book 25 years ago it grabbed me immediately even though it was written to artists by an art critic and I am far removed from either.  But at that time in my life I was very familiar with the ambiguity of life, including “ways of seeing” and readily grasped the wisdom from the eye of this art critic. Berger pointed out that seeing ultimately is not so much a deed as it is an experience as an evocation as we focus on an object and allow that object to evoke from the depths of our heart a meaningful experience.  Each of us have these interior depths though so often circumstances have confined us to the surface of life where we scurry about our three-score and ten without ever daring to venture into the deep places of the heart that hide the mystery of life.  Venturing there will force us to encounter the significance of the teaching the aforementioned teaching of Jesus that we “have eyes to see but see not, ears to hear but hear not.”

Here are the opening words of Berger’s brilliant book:

Seeing comes before words.  The child looks and recognizes before it can speak.  But there is also another sense in which seeing comes before words.  It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain that world with words, but words can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it.  The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled.  Each evening we see the sun set.  We know that the earth is turning away from it.  Yet the knowledge, the explanation, never quite fits the sight.

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Believing in Our Belief, Part Deux!!!

The fallacy of “believing in our belief” as noted by Oswald Chambers is a critical dimension of faith for until this insight sinks in we will inevitably be subscribing to an enculturated belief system.  And the enculturation is the necessary start to our social life as it equips us to take our place in the community and participate in it meaningfully, including in religion. Faith in this culture will mean subscribing to a creed, a doctrinal system which is taken to be revealed truth without any consideration for the possibility that this creed and doctrinal system are only a means to the “revealed truth” that all hearts yearn for.  But when the words are taken as an end in themselves, not as mere “pointers” then we have subscribed to the “letter of the law” though our enculturation will often keep us from this awareness as culture wants to keep us on the surface of things.  Anyone who gets beneath the surface, into the “spirit” of things, is dangerous for the status quo.

I have described this “surface” religion as “canned” faith, like something you can buy down at Wal Mart and open at your convenience when you get home.  You leave the church feeling good about yourself in the sense of having your prejudices, biases, and premises confirmed and resume your complacent “Christian” life.  Of course, in some churches, this “feeling good about yourself” might take the form of having your “hide ripped” by a hell-fire and damnation sermon but if that is what you are accustomed to then it too will confirm your pre-conceptions about yourself and the world.  The status quo will go unchallenged.

I am describing a scene here in which “the salt has lost its savor.”  Spiritual truth of great value will then be like “sounding brass and tinkling cymbal” because it is part of a rote performance, bouncing around in our heads, without never reaching down into the “foul rag and bone shop of our hearts” where “the thoughts and intents of the heart” are to be found.  This is a very challenging notion to consider for often it will mean we have to face painful disillusionment, the recognition that though our faith is valid as far as “fire insurance” is concerned it has been very superficial and not been allowed integration into the depths of our heart which is what the Source of all spiritual truth has in mind.

 

 

“Why is There not a Christian Isis?”

A white supremacist recent challenged a Washington D.C. Muslim lawyer, Qusim Rashid, “Why isn’t there a Christian Isis?”  He was roundly rebuffed, with Rashid pointing out the violent history of Christianity with the Crusades, the genocide of Native Americans, and the brutal enslavement of African “heathens” to bring them Christ. The challenge to this Muslim demonstrated the lack of self-reflection present with many conservative Americans, not having any insight into how that what they see “out there” is usually right in the depths of their own heart.  And I would add to Rashid’s answer the observation that in highly “sophisticated” American culture we have mastered the art of sublimation so that our violence is often camouflaged so it passes for the ordinary.  And I think this is particularly so in all religions, including Christianity.

Violence is intrinsic to human nature and I think religion was given to us by the gods to facilitate an integration of the schism in our soul that leads to violence.  But when a religious practice is limited to the cognitive/rational realm, the inner recesses of the heart are not even addressed meaning that often our religious practice can be intrinsically ugly and escape our carefully-crafted version of self-awareness. (For more on violence and the sacred, check out Rene Girard.)

For example, in this venue and others I have addressed the sublimated violence of fundamentalist Christianity where manipulation, intimidation, shame and social pressure are often one dimension of the Christian emphasis to “win souls to Jesus.”  Just one illustration of this is the post-sermon altar call in which threats of hell-fire and damnation are de rigueur.  The Jesus I believe in today was, and is, the Son of a loving God and does not need human artifice to woo anyone into his kingdom, especially little children.  Little children who have “the hell scared of them” with fire and brimstone sermons are being subjected to systematic abuse and the cultural predominance of this violence will be effective in most instances.  These little children will grow up under the tyranny of a “loving” god, knowing in the depths of their heart that to let any dimension of their belief system go will be to encounter the terror that was evoked in their youth by the manipulation and intimidation by their church.  They will be “trapped” in their faith, not able in most instances to evolve spiritually and learn that God is not the beast they were presented with in youth.

And, of course, this ideological entrapment is obviously true also with the interlocutor of Mr. Rashid.  The ideology and life-style of white supremacists is deeply etched in their hearts, often by fundamentalist religion, leaving them free to make accusations of others about spiritual darkness that predominates in their own heart.  “Don’t believe everything you think,” I would remind them.  But they can’t help believing what they think because, being trapped in a cognitive prison devoid of God’s grace, they cannot find the “space” to question their motives.

(For more on the Rashid interaction with the white supremicist, check out the following link–https://www.someecards.com/news/politics/white-supremacist-muslim-history/)

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My “Atheism” Makes Faith Possible for Me!

Yes, I firmly believe there is a God.  But then, I have to immediately go “Bill Clinton” on you and make the observation, “But that depends on what ‘is’ is.” Though my favorite ex-President was “finessing” his way out of a tight spot…so to speak…he had a point.  “Is”, like all words, are ephemeral and warrant exploration from time to time.  Most people who fervently declare “there is a God” have in mind a God who is a “being among other beings” which means that he has an “is-ness” just as we do.  In other words, they see God in concrete terms and see him as an “object among other objects.”  Oh yes, he is a “really big and powerful object” and lives in glory “far, far away” but he still “exists” just as we do.  They believe in a “literal” God just as they believe in Biblical literalism.  Their God actually exists, revealing their disbelief in a Wholly Other dimension of reality in which God is, yes, “transcendent” but simultaneously “immanent.”  They fail to see that there is a “gulf fixed” between God and humankind, a discontinuity between Him and humankind which can never be breached by human ingenuity including “consciousness.” God is the “Ground of Being” as he is that which makes the whole of life even possible.  Without him I would not be able to discourse in a rational fashion nor would any “coherence” be found in this entire universe.  For, “By Him all things cohere.”

I used to be very much a concrete thinker myself and very literal.  Some part of me sees this present palaver as pure “non-sense” and, “straight from the pits of hell.”  And it is definitely “none” sense as it addresses the futility of reason as having final purchase on anything of ultimate value.  For reason, though infinitely important, is always a slave to our preconceptions and a need to formulate a picture of the Divine in such a way that our justifies our worldview.  Reason has true value when we can humbly allow reason to be applied to our reason, i.e. as in meta-cognition, and see that ultimately reason fails and requires faith.  Faith brings us to the limits of our “self” and allows us to brazenly hope and pray that there is something “out there” beyond this “small bright circle of our consciousness beyond which lies the darkness.” (Conrad Aiken) And that is the point at which persons such as Jesus Christ and other spiritual teachers become relevant as they have assured us that they feel and know that there is an “Ultimate” who is “out there” and their behavior has backed-up their convictions.

But this “atheistic” spiel here appears to have damned the millions and even billions who cannot even begin to understand this metaphysical “palaver.”  But, according to Christian hymnology, “Jesus paid it all,” and all are forgiven and therefore “ok.”  Those “concrete thinkers” don’t have it right; but then, guess what, neither do I!  None of us have it “right” but the story of Jesus tells us that we don’t have to be “right” but that He was an embodiment of an ultimate “Right” and that he came to tell us, “Chill out!  Don’t sweat it.  I gotcha covered.”  It has required me, however, to take myself less seriously.

 

 

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