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Archive for October, 2012

Wikipedia quotes Isaac Newton as saying about “non-locality” or “action at a distance” that it is “so great an Absurdity that I believe no Man who has in philosophical Matters a competent Faculty of thinking can ever fall into it.” On the other hand, Albert Einstein, certainly someone with quite a well-developed “Faculty of thinking” called the exhibited “non-locality” of quantum entanglement “spooky action at a distance.” Meanwhile, the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research (PEAR) program, which ran from 1979 until 2007, was established so as to “to pursue rigorous scientific study of the interaction of human consciousness with physical devices, systems, and processes common to contemporary engineering practice.” PEAR showed up on the public’s radar screen some years back in relation to its experiments in “remote viewing,” heavily discussed in Lynne McTaggart’s book The Field.

While many of us have experienced the power of prayer, the majority of people in the Western world with its post-Enlightenment worldview grounded in scientific materialism dismiss such ideas as distant healing and the efficacy of prayer as so much gobbled-gook and supernatural mumbo jumbo.

Even modern theologians and religious scholars, heavily wedded to rationalism, focus on a “historical Jesus,” and wave away any notions of healings and seemingly miraculous events. In his book, Emerging Process: Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church, Bruce Epperly puts his finger on the unsatisfying nature of such dismissals when he writes that,

Totally deconstructionist or one-dimensional naturalistic visions of the gospel narratives fail to address the life-transforming experiences of first-century followers of Jesus as well as the profound interdependence of mind, body, and spirit: they also neglect God’s activity within every ‘natural’ process. (75)

Though I have been a fan of such writers as John Shelby Spong and John Dominic Crossan for a long time, I’ve often noted – as Dr. Epperly does – that they seem not to take into account the insights of “process theology, quantum physics, recent medical research, and global complementary and energy medicine, all of which allow for surprising acts of God and lively releases of divine energy arising from the interplay of ‘natural’ causes.” (75)

Years ago, while a student at the Atlanta School of Massage, I learned various healing modalities – alongside Swedish and deep tissue massage – that focused on the energy fields of the body. Though I could not explain why they worked, I knew that I experienced a greater sense of peace and wholeness after such treatments. Later, while supporting a fellow church member and her family as she died of cancer, I witnessed firsthand the calming effects of therapeutic touch and prayer. As well, I’ve known for a long time that “healing” doesn’t always mean “curing.”

There were times when I’d run into a more conservative Christian who would claim that any such healing work not done directly in the name of Jesus was of the devil.  Jesus ran into the same kind of narrow thinking when he healed a demon-possessed man and was accused of doing so through the power of “Beelzebul.” Jesus set them straight with the illustration that Satan cannot throw out Satan, for a house divided in such a way cannot stand. He went on to point out a tree is known by its fruit and anyone who insults the Holy Spirit is in serious trouble. (Matthew 12:22-33)

I agree with Dr. Epperly that we “must somehow redefine our understanding of the natural world to include non-local causation (action at a distance), paranormal phenomena, and healing energy.” (74)

 

 

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In Christ in a Pluralistic Age, process theologian John B. Cobb, Jr. builds a strong case for understanding the Logos as “creative transformation” and using the term “Christ” to indicate the incarnation of the Logos in creation. In popular usage, “Christ” seems to be understood merely as Jesus’ last name rather than as a descriptor of either his role or his impact on his followers. But Cobb asserts that “’Christ’ does not designate Jesus as such but refers to Jesus in a particular way, namely as the incarnation of the divine. It does not designate deity as such but refers to deity experienced as graciously incarnate in the world.” (66)

He draws from the artistic world to illustrate how Christ can dynamically move from a strictly external image to an internalized force, but insists that it cannot only be in art that this is true. “If creative transformation is Christ,” he writes, “it must be discernible in all life.” (63) In discussing creative transformation and novelty, Cobb talks about a “continuing restlessness in the human race” that leads us toward “spontaneity, growth, and self-transcendence.” (69-70)

Most of my adult life has been characterized by this “continuing restlessness,” and over the last several years, my process of discerning God’s call for me in that restlessness has been through a Jungian practice of dream work and examination of synchronicities, or meaningful coincidences.

There is a vibrant movement of Christian dream work that has developed through the work of Joyce Rockwood Hudson (author of Natural Spirituality: Recovering the Wisdom Tradition in Christianity) and Rev. Bob Haden (an Episcopal priest and Jungian analyst), both of whom are primary organizers for the annual Haden Institute Summer Dream Conference in North Carolina. This movement stresses the role of Divine Wisdom as the voice of God speaking to us in our dreams and through waking life synchronicities.

And so when Cobb describes Christ as incarnating the “cosmic principle of order, the ground of meaning, and the source of purpose,” (71) identifying this power only as “Logos,” I must disagree somewhat. In the Christian New Testament tradition, the word Logos is used primarily in the Gospel of John. In the Prologue to that Gospel especially – but generally in the New Testament – everything that is said about the Logos was already said in the Jewish tradition about Sophia (in Greek, Hochma in Hebrew), or Divine Wisdom, typically personified as feminine.

In her groundbreaking text She Who Is, Elizabeth A. Johnson summarizes the connection between Jesus and Wisdom in this way:

The Prologue to [John’s] Gospel, which more than any other scriptural text influences the subsequent development of Christology, actually presents the prehistory of Jesus as the story of Sophia: present ‘in the beginning,’ an active agent in creation, descending from heaven to pitch a tent among the people, rejected by some, giving life to those who seek, a radiant light that darkness cannot overcome (Jn 1:1-18). (Johnson, Elizabeth A. She Who Is.  10th Anniversary Edition. New York, NY: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2002, 96-7)

According to Johnson, Christians in the first century, in trying to communicate “the saving significance of Jesus, ransacked the Jewish religious tradition and the surrounding Hellenistic culture for interpretive elements. Along with Son of God, Son of Man, Messiah, and Logos, the tradition of personified Wisdom was ready to hand.” (95) She continues,

What Judaism said of Sophia, Christian hymn makers and epistle writers now came to say of Jesus: he is the image of the invisible God (Col 1:15); the radiant light of God’s glory (Heb 1:3); the firstborn of all creation (Col 1:15); the one through whom all things were made (1 Cor 8:6).  Likewise, the way in which Judaism characterized Sophia in her dealings with human beings, Gospel writers now came to portray Jesus: he calls out to the heavy burdened to come to him and find rest (Mt 11:28-30); he makes people friends of God (Jn 15:15), and gifts those who love him with life (Jn 17:2).  As the trajectory of wisdom Christology shows, Jesus was so closely associated with Sophia that by the end of the first century he is presented not only as a wisdom teacher, not only as a child and envoy of Sophia, but ultimately even as an embodiment of Sophia herself. (95)

I think it’s crucial that we not lose this rich tradition when we speak of Christ and the Logos.

 

 

 

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I was too young to really be aware of what was happening the year that Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were both assassinated. In the spring and summer of 1968, I was not yet eight years old, and my concerns had more to do with school, friends, and AM radio than the civil rights movement and national politics.

But reading The Metaphor Maker by Patricia Adams Farmer has allowed me to experience as an adult that era when the U.S. was embroiled in the Vietnam War and hopes were high that Bobby Kennedy would be the one to rescue the country from the insanity we were living.

In the book, Madeline’s world was turned upside down with the death of her brother in the war, but the solace she found working in Eve’s tea shop was the respite she needed to heal from this devastating wound. Being surrounded by loving friends and reconnecting with her former counselor Ben in southern California fueled her to once again work for change in the world by campaigning for Kennedy.

As Kennedy’s motorcade wove through Los Angeles earlier in the day he was killed, we were right there with Madeline as she reached for his hand, palpably feeling the surge of excitement and energy that he brought to the presidential race. But in a split second, all of her hopes and dreams – and the dreams of much of the country – collapsed under fire from Sirhan Sirhan’s gun.

Think about it. In less than five years Americans watched as JFK’s “Camelot” crumbled; then Malcom X, Martin Luther King, Jr, and, finally, Bobby. If we listen closely we may still hear the lid slam down on the coffin of hopes carried by people who were hungry for an America without racism, without poverty, and without war. Bobby Kennedy’s body hit the floor of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles and so began America’s plunge into national despair. Just a few years later, with “Tricky Dick” Nixon’s Watergate scandal, that despair became partnered with a cynicism that I think we’re still mired in.

How do we recover from such despair? How do we keep moving forward under the weight of such devastating realities, especially when those realities never seem to change in any real way? What can one individual do?

A helpful perspective may come, I think, from Joseph Campbell, best known for his PBS interview series with Bill Moyers entitled “The Power of Myth.” Campbell’s work in comparative mythology focused on the “hero’s journey” archetype.  He felt that we must all take that journey, both men and women, so as to become people with vitality, with what Patricia Adams Farmer calls fat souls, if you will. Campbell said,

The influence of a vital person vitalizes, there’s no doubt about it. The world without spirit is a wasteland. People have the notion of saving the world by shifting things around, changing the rules, who’s on top, and so forth. No, no! Any world is a valid world if it’s alive. The thing to do is to bring life to it, and the only way to do that is to find in your own case where the life is and become alive yourself.

He felt that the best response one could have to the heart-wrenching realities of life was to “participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world.” He wasn’t naïve; he knew exactly the struggles and pain we face right alongside the joys and love we experience. But he also knew that, as Jesus said, “the poor would be with us always,” there would always be pain and sorrow walking right alongside the love and joy, and so we may as well go full-bodied, and full-hearted right into the fray.

 

 

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There’s nothing like a good magic show. Whether it’s rabbits pulled out of hats or the beautiful woman being sawed in half, we love to see the magic. Even though we know it’s all illusion, we get caught up in the mood created by the dark theater, the dramatic lighting, the smell of the smoke, and the intense concentration of our fellow audience members. We know that the woman’s torso isn’t really disconnected from her legs that have now been wheeled to the other side of the stage, but it’s all so convincing, isn’t it? We can’t really see what’s behind that curtain, so our minds play a little trick on us, letting us think that the staged image is reality.

The human mind is a powerful thing.

In her book Divinity & Diversity: A Christian Affirmation of Religious Pluralism, Marjorie Suchocki writes about the idea of “radical incarnation” that exists in Christianity versus the “abstractions and conceptions of God” with which Christians are often more familiar. She points to American philosopher William James and notes that in his text A Pluralistic Universe,

[James] argues that the power of the intellect is its ability to control reality through defining it. But definitions are not reality. They are useful abstractions from the messiness of lived experience that leave the fullness of that experience behind. The power gained over the world through these abstracted concepts is so beguiling as to lead one to think that what is really real is precisely those abstractions: the rational, in pure, unchanging, controllable form. (Suchocki, Divinity & Diversity, 41)

We then make matters worse by deciding that the intellect is “the prime model of reality,” and conclude that “there must be an absolute intellect that embraces all concepts. This projected Absolute Reality, often named ‘God,’ becomes the substitute for the more unmanageable sensible reality of everyday life.” (42)

Who wants to stay in everyday life – where babies cry, adults get sick, jobs get boring or lost, parents die, and pain is an ever-present reality – when we can sit in the darkened theater and watch the magician wave his hand to make it all disappear?

When we sit in church where we might smell the incense, stare at intricately stunning stained glass, taste the Eucharist on our tongue, and sing and sway to hymns that transport us to a larger Reality, isn’t it often tempting to want to make that Reality absolutely pure, absolutely clear, absolutely powerful, absolutely wise, and absolutely untouched by the darkness and despair we see all around us, the messy stuff that lies behind the curtain?

But maybe that seduction is a danger.

“As James pushes the notion of absolutism to its extreme,” Suchocki writes, “he shows how it yields the notion of a God totally disconnected from the world…” Once we define God with attributes “so foreign to finite experience” we end up with a God who cannot meet human experience.

James argued that the conceptual God of Absolutes belied the intimacy and reciprocal relation that appears to happen between God and human beings in religious experience…If we take mystical experience seriously, James said, it witnesses to a possibility within the human spirit for an openness to that which is more than the self, and yet which empowers the self: God. The witness is not to a remote deity, but to an immanent deity at the very edges of the self. Such experience suggests that the God constructed through absolutes is hardly more than an invention of the human mind, whereas the God at the edges of the self confronts us in the midst of our reality. (42)

In the midst of our reality. Right here. Right now. In this very darkness.

 

 

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 There are few hours in life more agreeable
than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.

~Henry James, Portrait of a Lady
(quoted on p.39 of The Metaphor Maker,
by Patricia Adams Farmer)

 

Though it was never accompanied by much ceremony, I grew up drinking tea. It was a habit of my mother when I was a child to have a cup most every evening, and it’s still a ritual we both enjoy to this day. And though we have no roots on the other side of the pond, we drink it British style, with milk. Though Mom has of late been foregoing any kind of sweetener, my preference is to add a spoon of honey from the Webb’s bees in Clarkesville, Georgia.

After my sophomore year at Purdue University, I left the dormitory for apartment life, and my roommate Laurel and I would commiserate about boys in our small eating area off the kitchen. Those conversations always seemed enriched by a cup of tea and a Pop-Tart. Hot tea soothed broken hearts and sometimes we held onto those best-friend rituals as if they were lifesavers. They were lifesavers.

In The Metaphor Maker by Patricia Adams Farmer, recent college graduate Madeline finds a sweet job in Eve’s tea shop where tea is held in very high regard.

Eve went to prepare the tea, which was easy enough since she had already put on the kettle for herself. As she poured the boiling water over the dry leaves, she felt the significance of such a simple ritual. The very act was like a thread of history, linking Eve to her mother and to past generations, all of whom found comfort from the woes of life – toothaches to heartaches – with a calming reassuring cup of tea. (86)

Between the years of 2006 and 2009, I lived in the north Georgia mountains near the small town of Clarkesville and it’s the place I consider the home of my soul. During that period, I wrote a twice-monthly column for the local newspaper, and in one of those essays I described a recent visit to a monastery.

I spent a few days earlier this year in silence at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Georgia.  It had been a very hard and sad December for me – for a lot of reasons – and once we rang in the New Year I just felt the need to leave behind all the distractions of telephone and email for at least a few days.

The Monastery was established in the 1940’s when a group of Trappist monks traveled to Georgia from Kentucky to build a new community.  It’s a beautiful place with a lake, ducks and geese, and the beauty continues inside as well, especially in the cathedral with its soaring ceiling and stained glass windows.

Retreatants that come to the monastery are welcome to join in any, all or none of the worship services led by the brothers, but what felt most holy to me was the last service of the evening that began with the monks’ chanting in a deep darkness broken only by candlelight.

When your soul is carrying heavy burdens, the evocative beauty of holy ritual can lift those burdens like steam rising from a comforting pot of tea.  Holy moments of synchronicity kept tapping me on the shoulder, showing me over and over again that God saw me and knew my heart.  And after a Divine accident put a book in my path that brought tremendous healing, I knew once again that I had been touched by Grace.

Tea and Grace. Sometimes that which is most simple and earthy can be accompanied by that which is most holy.

 

 

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Just a little over 16 years ago, a three year old boy fell into the gorilla enclosure at Brookfield Zoo in Chicago and lay lifeless on the ground until a female gorilla named Binti approached him. Did she hurt him? No. Rather, Binti picked him up and cradled and comforted him, just as if he was one of her own. She then carried the boy to the door of the enclosure so that paramedics could take him out.

Frans de Waal, a primatologist in Atlanta would not be surprised at this gorilla behavior. I heard a presentation he delivered in 2010 at the American Academy of Religion conference where he talked about what he describes as “the roots of morality” in animals. In a blog for the New York Times called “Morals without God?”, de Waal describes humans’ similarity to apes in this way,

No one doubts the superiority of our intellect, but we have no basic wants or needs that are not also present in our close relatives. I interact on a daily basis with monkeys and apes, which just like us strive for power, enjoy sex, want security and affection, kill over territory, and value trust and cooperation. Yes, we use cell phones and fly airplanes, but our psychological make-up remains that of a social primate. Even the posturing and deal-making among the alpha males in Washington is nothing out of the ordinary.

At both Zoo Atlanta and a wildlife sanctuary in northeast Georgia, I had my own “close encounters” with primates that though, while being a safe distance away or behind glass, showed me without doubt how much we have in common, and how much presence and subjectivity lies behind their eyes.

Process theology supports this view of our connection to the non-human creatures with whom we share this planet. In Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed, Bruce Epperly tells us that “process theology asserts that humankind is embedded in the process of planetary evolution…” Episcopal priest and philosopher Alan Watts said in lectures collected as Tao of Philosophy that the earth “peoples” in the same way that an apple tree “apples” and that humans are more like the apples on the tree than we are like the birds sitting on its branches. In other words, humans, like all animals, are just part of the ecosystem.

Some religious people balk at the concept of human embeddedness within creation, but I remember how it felt to lock eyes with an adult male chimpanzee, how the deep connection from one sacred being to another was unmistakable. In Atlanta, I asked de Waal if he’d ever had a similar experience, and he said that most primatologists entered the field because of just such an encounter.

We can celebrate and not fear this embeddedness because, as Epperly writes,

 The fact that humans, chimpanzees, and apes share 99 percent of their DNA and have common ancestors in no way diminishes the wonder, value, and beauty of human existence. In a lively meaning-filled universe of experience, to say that humans have evolved from less complex forms of life does not deny human worth or our unique relationship with God, but places our lives in the context of a God-inspired universe in which the whole earth is full of God’s glory (Isaiah 6:3) and everything that breathes praises God (Psalm 150:6).

Being part of the ecosystem means we can be at home here, and embrace the kin that live amongst us, whether they walk on two legs or four, or have fur, feathers, or fins.

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I’ll never forget the day that in a class on “Jesus and the Gospels” at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, Dr. Ray Pickett made this comment: “Crucifixion was the Roman Empire’s response to Jesus; resurrection was God’s response to the Roman Empire.” I loved the power and simplicity of that statement.

In Proverbs of Ashes authors Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker make a compelling case against both traditional and contemporary Christian interpretations of Jesus’ death, but the greatest power of the book lies not in its theological arguments – though they are very strong – but in the vulnerability displayed in the telling of their personal stories involving violence, childhood sexual abuse, and other forms of victimization experienced both in their own lives and in those of others they encountered.  Parts of the book are emotionally devastating.  Ultimately they question whether anything remotely like salvation can ever come from violence.

Had he desired to do so, Jesus could have wrought the reign of God through power and might – some of his followers may have even expected or hoped for that kind of outcome – but Jesus went the opposite route; he became completely vulnerable to his tormentors. It’s typically taught that his sacrifice is what saves us.  

Many years ago, I went through a wrenching heartbreak when a man I was dating chose to date someone else. Up to that point, both of us only had a tentative toe in the dating waters, keeping much of our hearts behind a curtain – or wall – of fear. We both feared rejection and I feared vulnerability, and so we confronted an impasse rather than relationship. But a day or so after he broke the news, we opened up to each other in a way we’d not yet done, disclosing our innermost thoughts and fears. As I drove in tears the next day to visit friends in another state, I thought about our hearts broken open, at the freedom that brought, about Christ on the cross, and about how it seemed when we were at our most vulnerable, we were really at our most powerful.

And in that moment, I felt the presence of God in the car with me.

In the book, Rebecca Ann Parker writes of her repeated sexual abuse as a five year old at the hands of her next door neighbor. She describes one especially horrific episode this way:

When I was raped as a child, there was a moment that I have been able to remember in which I was quite sure I was going to die – and perhaps I was, in fact, close to being killed…In that moment I knew that there was a Presence with me that was ‘stronger’ than the rapist and that could encompass my terror. This Presence had a quality of unbounded compassion for me and unbreakable connection to me, an encompassing embrace of me and for that matter, of the man raping me. I understood that if I died, I would somehow still be with this Presence, this Presence would ‘take me up,’ this Presence was ‘greater than’ death, and ‘greater than’ the power of the man who was raping me. This Presence could not stop the man from killing me, if he chose to. And, at the same time, it could stop him. Because, I knew, if he noticed it he would be stopped. You couldn’t be aware of this Presence and do what the man was doing to me. He only could do it by not noticing, not knowing. So, this Presence did have the power to save me from death and there is a way in which I believe it did. (p. 211-212)

Parker recognizes that our awareness of the Presence of God is sometimes made keener in such moments as when we are near death or in crisis, but she’s equally adamant that the Presence is with us – and available to us – all the time and everywhere.

But we have to be open to it to see it, to feel it, to recognize it. We have to be a little bit vulnerable.

 

Note: One of the best talks I’ve heard about vulnerability is the TED talk Brene Brown delivered a few years ago (that has now been viewed over 6 million times). It’s well worth a watch.

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