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.
The writer of Hebrews (10:31) tells us that it is a “fearful thing to fall into the hands of an angry God.” My interpretation is, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of, hmm, ahem…Life.” For when the vicissitudes of life, those “thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to” have worked their magic, under the ministrations of the Spirit of God, it is very frightening when the ego begins to feel imperiled. To that point in our life, our fragile little ego has held full sway without any threats, carefully isolated with a prison of sterile conceptual formulations about life, about who “we” were and who “they” were and what “life” itself was, and even more so who “God” was. But the ego is scared as hell when its tyranny is threatened and we are on the threshold of coming alive, of being “born again”, and occupying our body for the first time. The ego, described by the Apostle Paul as “the flesh” has been proud of itself and its accomplishment of preventing this “incarnation.” Now, it is watching its handiwork under grave threat as the “Spirit of God” is threatening its dissolution. William Wordsworth offered relevant wisdom:
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!
In the “short version of ‘my story'” I described the context of my “call to preach.” The blame issue is certainly apropos here and thus merits discussion. But I’m now to the point that I see beyond “blaming” and see the wisdom of accepting responsibility for choices that I made, even “choices” when I was a mere “babe” and not really capable of making any “choice.” We are all born in a context and are shaped by that context and can never fully escape that it. But most of us can get to the point where we have some awareness of that context, and of its impact on our life, and can then make better choices than if we had not gained that awareness.
Blaming accomplishes nothing. It is a ruse that we use to pretend that we are not making choices so that we can perpetuate maladaptive thought-patterns, emotions, and behaviors which long-since needed to be discarded. We have to realize that we hang on to them…hang onto the pain…because of the fear that what we would find in their absence would be greater than the pain we have when they are present. Or, as Shakespeare so pithily put it, “We cling to these ills that we have rather than fly to others that we know not of.” We prefer to cling to discomfort, and even misery, with which we are accustomed than to risk a fate that we “know not of.”
A dear friend of mine once alluded to a very painful situation in his family life and noted a point of acceptance when he allowed “the pain to swim over me.” That image of engulfment has stayed with me for two or more decades as I’ve sought the courage to accept my own “pain body”, using Eckhart Tolle’s term. We hate pain and the core of our being is predicated on avoiding it, even though if we could manage to accept the pain we could live more fully than we have when trying ferociously to avoid it.
This brings me to the image of The Cross and the story of Jesus and the Crucifixion. The teachings of Carl Jung offer a richer interpretation of this story, suggesting to the Crucifixion is a call to the death of the ego, to the surrendering of our pain body and embracing the pain rather than denying it, discovering in the process that we can survive and, even, we find “Resurrection.” It is much simpler to take the story literally and to do so allows the ego to continue to direct our lives and allow us to live in the pious certainty, the tyranny of “the way things are.” We then continue to remain ensconced in the time-space continuum and completely avoid the spiritual realm, even though we may take great pride in “preaching Christ and him crucified” and other hackneyed bromides.