I often receive “hits” and subscriptions from readers who are much more conservative than I appear to be and, yes, even more than I am. I hope that it is recognized that my faith is no longer “ex” clusive and that it includes those of a conservative stripe, a culture that provided me my spiritual, intellectual, and emotional roots. I am very proud of this background. I sometimes think that some of the people who drop by here do not know what they have gotten into. But, I’m glad that each of you are here even if you have just dropped by for a “cup of coffee” and I will not see you again.
Faith is the bedrock of my life and I’m only now tippy-toeing into its riches and find it a mysterious and elusive, though ever-present domain. I’ve spent my life trying desperately to “wrap my head around ‘it’” and realize that this ego pursuit has been a “work of the flesh” and clearly a demonstration of “riding an oxen, trying to find an oxen.” I even had a dream months ago which suggested I was no longer riding the oxen but was on the ground, plodding along behind him arm-in-arm with a brother. W. H. Auden offered relevant wisdom, “The Center that I cannot find is known to the unconscious mind. There is no need to despair. I am already there.”
The mistake I have made spiritually and emotionally is that fulfillment is “out there.” I gathered that validation is to be found externally but the teachings of Jesus, contrasting with much of the Christian tradition, is that “the kingdom is within” and failure to orient oneself in that direction is to submit to “the letter of the law” which, according to the Apostle Paul, “kills.” And as one of my many literary kindred spirits, Shakespeare, put it, “Within be rich, without be fed no more.”
Several nights ago I watched Stephen Colbert again shred the daily edition of Trumpian and Conservative lunacy and I noted that our culture…and even our world…is in a crisis of meaning. Colbert and other comedians find Trump and his ilk easy fodder for their comic genius and provide immense pleasure for we progressives who also see the lunacy of what is going on in our country. But watching last night’s edition of Colbert’s show and delighting in an ironic look at biblical literalism I suddenly had a flash of insight of how this would appear to conservatives. They would be deeply offended and angry as they would take it personal, feeling that their way of looking at the world was being attacked. I would tell them, however, that Colbert is merely showing them that their way of viewing…and experiencing…the world is only one way of many. But that is precisely the problem; for, in their view, there is only one way of viewing the world and they just happen to be privy to that way and often God has revealed it to them! When worldviews are challenged the threat of meaningless always presents a challenge, usually kept on an unconscious level with conscious focus maintained on some superficial concern like “building a wall” or “Making America Great Again.”
I don’t have the answer for this. But, as an old saying from my youth has it, “It will all come out in the wash.” In terms of history, this is but another in an endless array of “tempests in a teapot” though to us in the throes of the tempest it does look frightening. And I do mean frightening. I am troubled. I think humility is in order and that requires that all of us realize that our viewpoint is only finite, regardless of how noble, enlightened, and “correct” it appears to be. There is a certain foolishness to even our certainties, inspiring Saint William to tell us, “Life is a tale told by an idiot…” I do not think the Bard was a nihilist but he grasped that the things we are most certain of are often proven self-serving in the long run.
Colbert used a parody of Jesus in the aforementioned episode to poke fun at conservatives and it even stirred a dissonant chord in my own heart given my hyper-conservative past in which a sense of humor was not readily welcome in faith. But I now think that Jesus could watch Colbert’s parody of Him last night and laugh uproariously, not taking himself as seriously as Christians are wont to take him. Many conservative Christians cannot do this, and are offended at this vein of humor, because they take themselves too seriously and are not able to acknowledge the foolish dimension of the whole of their life, including their faith and politics. Foolishness is an intrinsically human quality though it does not lessen the ultimate nobility of the human endeavor. But failure to acknowledge our foolishness, and laugh at ourselves, will leave us with a false sense of self-importance. I think religion is so easily lampooned as life is intrinsically a spiritual enterprise so the Darkness that besets us knows that the best way to weaken faith is to infect the most ardent of the faithful with a false sense of self-importance and piety so that to on-lookers they look ridiculous and are easily ridiculed. Thus, “with devotions visage and pious action they sugar o’er the devil himself” and this is apparent to all except those who are dispensing the sugar on a whole-sale basis.
My preoccupation with the subject of truth is mainly focused on spirituality which I see as the life blood of any culture. If truth does not facilitate the expression of Truth then the very fabric of our individual and collective being is imperiled. In the blog post from another venue which I will share below I introduce the irony of daring to think that one is speaking, or writing the Truth when in reality we never really know that we are, being confined to this world of form in which we only “see through a glass darkly.”
In this particular blog I often focus on what I call the “echo chamber” of dogmatic, unexamined spiritual tradition which we find so often in our churches. Though most spiritual traditions have value if their emphasis is too narrow they will succumb to the temptation of using their Holy Writ and tradition to obfuscate the Truth even to the point of destroying it. At this point what often is a valid spiritual tradition becomes a parody of itself, the parody clear to all of those looking on but which is totally missed by those who are ensconced in it. A tragic example of such a parody is the infamous Westboro Baptist Church. And never forget the Muslim zealots of Isis. They know the truth…in their estimation…to the point they feel free to use brutal violence to accomplish their evil purpose. “There go I, and we, but by the Grace of God.” The following is the narrative of another blog of mine about the irony of daring to “speak the truth” when our ego fights us tooth and toenail in our very effort:
This truth matter is really heavy on my heart recently primarily from the assault on “Truth” by the Trump administration. In the past week I have explored truth’s subtlety, a subtlety that is so pronounced that I think it is something we can never grasp objectively but Some “thing” that peeks through our heart occasionally in spite of our deep-seated, unconscious effort to not let it happen.
But please note the irony I am demonstrating. I will admit that at present moment I believe I am speaking…or writing…what is truthful otherwise I would not even bother to offer this verbal deed to the oblivion of the cyber world. But what I say here, and in real time, is only a perspective of how I see the world and can never be thought of as “objective.” Everything we do and say is only our “skewed” way of viewing the world but it is important that we put this “skewed view” on the table in daily exchange with other people, be it here in the cyber world and or in day-to-day life with people we encounter. The dialogical engagement with other people is imperative so that we can avoid the temptation of speaking, thinking, and living in an echo chamber.
The echo chamber is lethal. If we isolate ourselves within a safe cocoon of group-think we are signing our death certificate, so to speak, as the soul cannot thrive in the resulting abyss of “empty self-relatedness.” This isolation, if not broken, will spell our doom individually and collectively without Divine intervention; for, in that self-imposed prison Shakespeare told us that we “feed even on the pith of life.”
This religion thingy. Wow! It still has me baffled. But not really, as the bafflement is only my ego flirting with the awe of standing naked before the Ultimate. I’ve always wanted to “figger this thing out” and now I’ve resigned to my ignorance which I think is what Jesus, and other spiritual teachers were trying to teach us. The need to “figger this thing out” is what happened when we opted to take a bite out of that apple, an action which was necessary if this human experience was to unfold. Our heart pines for the unconscious “memory” of Eden, which Shakespeare captured when he had Macbeth say, “My dull brain is racked by things forgotten.”
The “figgering it out” has brought us all of the luxury of modernity. It has brought us to the verge of solving so many of the world’s ills except for the most pernicious one, the darkness of our collective heart. Having imbibed of the “knowledge of good and evil,” that is distinction drawing or bifurcating reality, we have been able to carve up this beautiful world to accomplish great ends but we are then left with a heart which is determined to continue carving up our world into categories of “us” and “them.” It is that obsession which threatens to be our destruction, a “self” destruction. Yes, “We have met the enemy and he is us” as Pogo told us in a cartoon strip.
“Figgering it out” is good. But it is even better when we realize that this impulse, though having a certain nobility, can become toxic when we can’t give it a rest and realize that life is a profound and beautiful mystery which ultimately we cannot “figger” out.
Poet e e cummings summed it up when he wrote:
when god decided to invent
everything he took one
breath bigger than a circustent
and everything began
when man determined to destroy
himself he picked the was
of shall and finding only why
smashed it into because
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:
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.
Bishop Eddie Long, a well-known mega-church pastor died last month after a long battle with “an aggressive form of cancer” and even more aggressive forms of financial and sexual scandals in recent years. This story in Huffington Post is a very sad report of a life wasted under the ruse of religion, a wastage which devastated many other lives as well. (http://www.cnn.com/2017/02/03/us/bishop-eddie-long-i-knew/index.html) When “men of the cloth” get caught in compromising positions, i.e. “get caught with their pants down,” I don’t always giggle with delight. I used to but I’ve grown up now and am more accepting of human foibles even in the arena of Hamlet’s “country matters.” But the story of Reverend Long goes far beyond the pale of “indiscretion” and reflects characterological depravity.
Having set out to be a “man of the cloth” in my youth, I can report first hand I was very much a mortal though I very much pretended not to be. In my fundamentalist Christian culture, the ministry I took a stab at was usually performance art and, I now see, the Christian experience itself was largely “performance art” though that is not to dismiss it completely. Life is “performance art” after all. (See poem at end.) But Bishop Long demonstrated the human cost of this duplicity, not just to himself but to those he victimized. This is not to minimize the heinous nature of what he did but merely to recognize his primary flaw was in being guilty of being “human.” Suffering from that malady always leaves one living a life of pretense to some degree and the more that the “pretense” is required by one’s social context to remain hidden, the greater the risk to the individual and to those around him. And often the Christian culture fosters pretense over open human-ness which always involves being frail, flawed, and broken at times. This is true for the laity but equally so for the clergy though the standards are often beyond the pale for the clergy.
Pretense in the area of faith is often a tragedy. Spiritual teachers have always tried to tell us that spirituality is not about show but about authenticity and to be an authentic human being is to occasionally wallow in dimensions of human experience that we would rather not let others know about. And most of the time we don’t have to. Most of the time this ugliness can be addressed either privately or in the intimacy of close relationship, including therapeutic relationships. But too often organized religions teach us to ignore this ugliness leading to the tragedy of Bishop Long. This makes religion appear to some as complete escapism. And often it is, and we certainly need escape for “humankind cannot bear very much reality.” (T.S. Eliot) But the “escape” of religion can be salvivic if we deign to address the ego’s grip on the whole of our life, including our religion.
(From a W. H. Auden poem)
I wish you first a sense of theater.
Only those who learn illusion
And love it will go far.
Otherwise we spend our life
In confusion about who and what we really are.