Thursday, April 19, 2007

The soul of religion

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During the last two years I have read a number of books by Thomas Moore. Moore is a popular lecturer and writer in North America and Europe. At one time Moore lived as a monk in a Catholic religious order for twelve years and has degrees in theology, musicology, and philosophy. In the last decade or so he has written numerous books about the "soul" and it's need for care and it's relationship to religion, sex, marriage, and life in general. His most popular book, The Care of the Soul was on the New York Times bestseller list for forty-six weeks. I have always appreciated Moore's writings because he integrates religion, philosophy, the arts, psychology, mythology, and sociology in a way that make his writings and reflections unique and interesting. Over the years I have noticed that the social sciences are particularly prone to attempts to trump and compete with each other, philosophy against religion, psychology against sociology, religion against psychology, and so on. Moore makes no attempt to assert one discipline over another but rather to illustrate how they each are intertwined together and have something important to contribute to the human experience.

Yesterday while reading his book Care of the Soul I was intrigued by what Moore had to say about fundamentalism and spirituality and I would like to pass along for every one's consideration some of Moore's comments. Moore says this about what he means by fundamentalism, "There are many kinds of fundamentalism--Jungian-Freudian, Democrat-Republican, Rock Blues", etc...he goes on to add these critical comments about the "nature" of fundamentalism, spirituality, and religion in general. "Often, when spirituality loses its soul it takes on the shadow-form of fundamentalism..."The intellect wants a summary meaning--all well and good for the purposeful nature of the mind. But the soul craves depth of reflection, many layers of meaning, nuances without end, references and allusions and prefigurations. All these enrich the texture of a an image or story and please the soul by giving it much food for rumination. Rumination is one of the chief delights of the soul. Early Christians theologians discussed at length how a biblical text could be read at many levels at once. There were literal meanings and allegorical meanings and anagogical (concerned with death and afterlife) meanings. They typically explained the Exodus, for example, as allegory about freeing the soul from imprisonment in sin. But this was not the only meaning of the story. This practice suggests an "archetypal" reading of the Bible, regarding its stories not as simplistic moral lessons or statements of belief, but as subtle expressions of the mysteries that form the roots of human life...If we deprive sacred stories of their mystery, we are left with the brittle shell of fact, the literalism of a single meaning. But when we allow a story its soul, we can discover our own depths through it. Fundamentalism tends to idealize and romanticize a story, winnowing out the darker elements of doubt, hopelessness, and emptiness. It protects us from the hard work of finding our own participation in meaning and developing our won subtle moral values. The sacred teaching story, which has the potential of deepening the mystery of our own identity, instead is used defensively in fundamentalism, to spare us the anxiety of being an individual with choice, responsibility, and continually changing sense of self. The tragedy of fundamentalism in any context is its capacity to freeze life into a solid cube of meaning"....and finally he concludes with this comment: "When spirituality loses contact with soul and these values, it can become rigid, simplistic, moralistic, and authoritarian---qualities that betray a loss of soul".....I find these latter comments pregnant with hope and endless potential possibilities....Bilbo

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Demonstrating the Secret Message of Jesus

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In chapter seven McLaren talks about Jesus not only talking about the Kingdom of God but "demonstrating" it through signs and wonders. McLaren suggests that the signs and wonders of Jesus have fallen on hard times in the modern world because "Most of us in the modern West--religious or irreligious---have inherited a worldview that was formed largely in the seventeenth century. In this perspective, our world is best compared to a a machine. God, if God exists, created the universe like a huge clock: the complex mechanism was designed and wound up in the beginning, was set in motion, hand has been ticking ever since winding down through a process called entropy"....McLaren goes on to declare that Jesus, "worldview, his model of the universe, was very different--more organic, less mechanistic....God was connected to the universe, present with it, intimately involved with for ancient Jews the universe was not a....mechanistic system. It was community with both limits and freedom, accountability and responsibility. It had room both for God and humanity. There were limits, and there were order--but there were also breathing room and real possibilities to choose and make a life. In this universe, God gives space and time to live our's a universe in interactive relationship with God....and....I have become convinced that Jesus worldview is better than ours"...I am sympathetic to McLaren's concern of a mechanistic worldview, particularly in regards to how we have applied this model to so many different aspects of our lives. Four steps to this, twelve steps to that, and the "supposedly" scientific mechanistic solutions to everything from teaching methods in the classroom to making love in the bedroom...It's not that there isn't something valuable to be gained from such mechanistic/systematic approaches but as McLaren's comments imply, the organic, freedom of choice, and "breathing room" aspects that are so important to daily life are ignored in the process....on the other hand....I am also skeptical if not cynical when it comes to "romanticizing" the past. I am not asserting that this is what McLaren's is doing, but one could conclude from his remarks that the worldview and thus the implications of that worldview are superior to our problematic from my vantage point because I don't think the vast majority of people living in the time of Jesus lived their lives as if God was an interactive aspect of their daily lives as McLaren's comments seem to suggest. From my reading of the New Testament and history I get the feeling alot of people felt like God had abandoned them and questioned why they were living under the bondage of the religious and secular Roman authorities which dominated their lives...and...I question what "real possibilities to choose and make a life" the people had living under the authorities I previously mentioned. From what I can gather most people living in ancient times where destined to live a life of economic poverty and hardship with little or no hope for change or opportunity to better themselves or their families...I hope this doesn't come across as nitpicking what McLaren is trying to communicate because I do agree with his comments about adopting or creating a perspective on life which is more organic and open to the possibility that God lives amongst us in our daily lives and in our world but I am just questioning to what degree the reality matches the worldview of those who lived during the time of Jesus......At the end of the chapter McLaren says that, "Some scholars see the stories of signs and wonders as fiction--parables, if you will, composed by the early church"....and adds..."Although I respect their differing viewpoint, I am not among them. I believe that signs and wonders actually, factually, clustered around Jesus and his secret message of the Kingdom of God".....McLaren seems to suggest/imply that there is a correlation between the worldview of Jesus and the ancients and the belief in "factual" miracles/signs and wonders....Personally, I am not sure or convinced that one has to "accept as literal history" the signs and wonders, or miracle accounts in the Bible in order to feel or believe that God is present or intimately involved with our world. I am not asserting that miracles didn't or can't happen but I feel like I am surrounded by the miracles of God whenever I eat a good meal, go hiking in a ancient forest, talk on the phone with a friend, feel a cool breeze on my face, listen to the ocean waves or feel the pleasure of making love with a woman I deeply care about and love...

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Friday, April 06, 2007

Easter week is not as significant or as meaningful to my spiritual development as it once was in my life. Just trying to be honest. My life has changed a lot in the past ten years and I no longer belong to a Christian community that emphasizes the literal historical accuracy of the resurrection of Jesus. Also, I have spent a significant amount of time reading and thinking about the death and resurrection story of Jesus and currently feel content where I stand. It's not that I don't care or am totally indifferent to Easter and the meaning of the crucifixion/resurrection story. There are always potentially new ways of finding new meanings and significance in such great stories no matter how many times you hear the same story over and over again. I don't have anything profound to say about Easter this year but I do want to take the time, in the spirit of Good Friday, to share some thoughts from Crossan, N.T. Wright and myself regarding the Resurrection of Jesus. Last year I read The Crossan-Wright dialogue on the resurrection of Jesus and I'll pass along some of the things from the book along with my own commentary.

One thing that I remember most about the dialogue between Crossan and N.T. Wright is that "both" men believe the resurrection story whether one interprets it literally or metaphorically is important...because...both... "insist one must not stop at thinking about the actual historical accuracy of the must consider the "significance" of the resurrection for individuals, the church, and the world". As I ponder the potential significance of the resurrection story the word transformation comes to mind and transformation implies justice, equality, healing, and hope...and... We live in a world that so desperately needs transformation,personally and communally, and the Easter story is a critically important potential "reference point" for those who have ears to hear...

At this point in my life I don't particularly care whether the Resurrection story is literal history, history embellished, a myth, or an ancient "X File" encounter. Sorry Saint Paul, but I have to part ways with you on this one. Historically, I understand the heretical implications of my statements but this is what I believe and I really don't have any interest in undermining or changing the minds of my fellow brethren who insist on the historicity of the Easter story.Over the years, I have come to my current position, in large part, because I do believe in the "power of myth" and I believe it is unfortunate that a lot of modern people don't either understand or perhaps care to understand that myth and history are not "necessarily" mutually exclusive. I say, unfortunate, because according to the modern myth, they are polar the process of waging war between myth and history I believe we have drifted away from the meaning of the story and the significance of transformation which is from my vantage point the heart of the myth/ history of the Easter story.

Now that I have laid my cards on the table regarding what I believe about the Easter story here is what Crossan, and N.T. Wright have to say about the Resurrection. These excerpts are taken from the book, The Resurrection of Jesus: John Dominic Crossan and N.T. Wright in Dialogue.

N.T. Wright: "only with the bodily resurrection of Jesus, demonstrating that his death dealt the decisive blow to evil, that we can find the proper ground for working to call the kingdoms of the earth to submit to the Kingdom of God...Not that science has disproved Easter, but that Easter challenges the social and political pretensions of modernism, both right and left wing, and modernism knows it. Perhaps the most important thing then about the resurrection is also the most deeply counter-cultural in our own day--that a deeply orthodox theology about the resurrection, and a good deal else besides, is the proper seedbed of radical politics."

Why is it important for me speak of the metaphorical? Is it the Enlightment? No, it really isn't---because I am in a pre-Enlightment age when I am reading this. It really is this: if you look at the world in which Jesus and Paul lived, the world, in which Caesar, Caesar Augustus, was divine, was Son of God, was God, was God from God----at least in Egypt--was Lord, was savior of the world, was redeemer, was liberator, and you ask yourself, or make the mistake of asking a classicist, "Did those millions of people who say, who read those texts, those structures, did they all take it literally or metaphorically? The honest answer must be, I do not have the faintest idea, nor does anyone else. But I do know that they took it operationally, they took it functionally, they took it programmatically. To say I believe in the divinity of Caesar meant I am getting with the program, I'm supporting Roman imperialism.If I were certain that all of that was taken literally, no question, then I might be more certain about how to read Christian and anti-Caesarian theology. That is the issue for me. How do we know, know enough for to demand of our people in the name of faith, that everything must be taken literally as distinct from metaphorically?. What I am suggesting is that whether you take it literally or whether you take it metaphorically, you must take it programmatically. And that means you must be able to spell out in detail from the program of the divine Caesar. That is the first century question. The first-century question is not "Do you think Jesus is Lord? It is "Do you think Caesar or Jesus is Lord? And when you say Jesus is Lord you have just committed high treason... We can go on debating whether the resurrection is literal or metaphorical...It seems to me that we have been debating it for two hundred years, and we have reached an impasse: nobody is persuading anyone else about it that I can see...but there is something else: the question of meaning. I would like to ask anyone who says literally to spell out exactly what is the meaning of that? That is, what are the implications, how does it work out, how does ti change the world, how do we participate in a new creation?....

N.T. Wright:
"The resurrection language...used by the early Christians literally and was meant to be taken denoting a concrete event--if you don't go that route, you're left with saying that whatever happened, whether you refer to it literally or metaphorically, was an abstract event, was a nonconcrete, nonbodily thing,which then leaves you without the groundwork for dealing with the bodily realities of martyrdom, Caesar's world, and all the rest of it. In other words, is not your political agenda going to push you ulitimately to saying that there really was an empty tomb on Easter?

For me....A literal statement and a metaphorical statement can both apply to exactly the same concrete event....For example...Two people are talking in the last election. One says, Well, President Bush is my President. The other says, President Bush is my eagle. One's literal; The other's metaphorical. They both mean the same concrete thing. They both mean, we approve of the program, we approve of the politics...

Easter Week

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Thursday, April 05, 2007

For the first time, in a long time, I didn't travel during Easter week and decided to stay in town. I haven't written much lately because I have been busy doing domestic related chores and spending face to face time with family and friends. I was going to go up to the Bay Area to see my mom this week but she came down here for a couple of days. My mom is just amazing. She stills gets around at 92 years old... Most of this week I have been working on my patio and doing yard work. I bought some new patio furniture a couple of days ago and have done a fair amount of shopping for decorations to go with my patio furniture. Yesterday I bought some gnomes, frogs, turtles, and candle lanterns. The patio actually looks pretty good now if I may say so myself. I really enjoy decorating and generally become obsessed about it until I finish the job. My sons went to Mexico this week with their church and will be back later today. I will pick them up this evening from church and we will hang out together until tomorrow afternoon. They have gone to Mexico during Easter for four years in a row but I suspect this will be their last year because the newness and exotic aspects of traveling to a foreign country has worn off for the most part. They didn't sound particularly interested in going this year but didn't like the option of going camping with me or hang-in out with their mother for a whole week....I haven't given much thought to the meaning of Easter this week, so far, but am going to church on Easter Sunday with my "lady friend". This will be the first time I have attended an Easter service on Easter in six or seven years. I have attended Catholic mass for the last two years but that service was the night before Easter. I am looking forward to going to church on Sunday and am curious to see "how" a Congregational Church does Easter. They don't talk too much about the deity of Christ or the Resurrection so it will be interesting to hear how they find meaning in the Easter story. I'll try to blog something later about the Resurrection. Last year I read the The Resurrection of Jesus by Dominic Crossan and N.T. Wright and I'll try to post some of my thoughts about the dialogue between these two prominent scholars...