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Archive for the ‘Christianity’ Category

I’ve had occasion in recent weeks to have conversations – either in person or online – with people who self-identify either as atheists, agnostics, or “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR).  A core question in these conversations seemed to revolve around whether or not there was a “spiritual” part or nature in human beings.

So my asking “What is ‘Spiritual’?” in this blog is not about the field or practice of spirituality, it’s more about how we might identify what in us is “spiritual” when we use that word.Church-New

First, let me say that at this core level, I would NOT say that our spiritual self is defined by belief in a divine being or a set of beliefs about God, faith, or church. I say that because I think there are people who are spiritual who do not hold to the belief systems of any religious tradition, per se.

At its most basic, I think the spiritual part of humans has to do with meaning – with discovering or creating meaning about life or about the events in our lives. After all, if we’re just a bundle of cells with a brain and nothing more than thinking meat sacks that are here only to eat, procreate, and create human culture for the moment, we wouldn’t seek or assign meaning to anything. If there’s nothing more to our lives than day to day existence – no larger story or reality – why would we even begin to ask what our purpose is or why we are on this earth?

But we are a species of meanings, of narratives, of stories. That is the way we are wired. We seek to see ourselves as part of something larger, to belong to a meaningful narrative, not as just at the receiving end of a lifelong parade of random acts of suffering.

I have to confess that for many years now, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about God, about spirituality, about theology, and about how that all fits with healing, wholeness, psychology, and just the basics of navigating our way through a world that is full of both beauty and terror. Joseph Campbell said that people are not really seeking the meaning of life but that we are seeking the “rapture of the experience of being alive.”  I’ve been so steeped in all things spiritual and mythological for so long that I sometimes forget that most of my fellow sojourners on this earth probably don’t spend as much brain time on these topics as I do.

That point was brought home to me again this week in an exchange with a man who identifies himself as SBNR.  He told me he does not believe in God and is not sure if humans even have a “spirit.” I’ve felt for a long time that one of the wisest voices about the human spirit and about faith is Richard Rohr, a Catholic priest and Franciscan. In a recent meditation he wrote:

The Perennial Tradition includes a recurring theme in all of the world’s religions and philosophies. They continue to say, each in their own way:

  • There is a Divine Reality underneath and inherent in the world of things.
  • There is in the human soul a natural capacity, similarity, and longing for this Divine Reality.
  • The final goal of all existence is union with this Divine Reality.

I forwarded the meditation to my SBNR acquaintance, and he responded that he really doesn’t think very often about God, or divine reality, or scripture, and that he doesn’t place much value on those things.  In a way I found that kind of stunning, then I saw some humor in my being stunned, but I finally wondered about the value of what are seen as sacred texts to a secular world.

I sympathize when people choose to not affiliate with any organized religion – I understand why people find little of value in the Church today – even though I choose to remain within the Christian tradition. But I don’t understand why people would dismiss the wisdom of sages through the centuries who have spoken and written of encounters with divine reality. Do we really think they were all lying or having hallucinations?

It seems to me that for someone to say they don’t believe in the divine reality that others have experienced is like saying you don’t believe in Istanbul because you’ve never been there, or that you don’t believe in gelato because you’ve never eaten it.

Like Carl Jung, I don’t believe in God. I know God exists. I know divine reality exists. I’ve glimpsed it.

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Tucson, Arizona is about an eight hour drive from my home in southern California, but the long weekend of the Thanksgiving holiday afforded me the time to make the trek. While visiting good friends there, I had the pleasure of attending St. Francis in the Foothills Methodist church on Sunday. David Wilkinson is the pastor there, and we share a love of process theology though he was a student of John Cobb long before I became aware of Claremont and process thought.

Pastor David drew his sermon from the New Testament story of Paul addressing a gathering  – including Epicurean and Stoic philosophers – in the Areapagus where he claims that the “unknown god” Athenians honored was the same as the creator God “in whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:16-28). One of the main points David made in his commentary was that the term “God” was better understood as a verb than as a noun, and that the God who could never be fully known would not be pinned down or boxed in but must be followed into an unknown future.

In their book Tending to the Holy, Bruce and Katherine Epperly write that by “invoking Stoic philosophy to undergird the life-changing wisdom of Christ’s message and resurrection, Paul affirms that divine revelation is universal despite its variability from culture to culture. Paul recognizes that God is truly present in the pluralistic theological and spiritual environment of the Areopagus.” (25) In this text on preaching and teaching, the Epperlys assert the need for public ministries to affirm the “ever-present, dynamic, and intimate reality” of divine inspiration. (24) Oddly enough, such an awareness of divine presence seems hardly to be spoken of in many churches today where politics and sexual morality take precedence.  

Back home here in California, you can find me most afternoons at one of the local dog parks with Cotton, and today we met a woman with an Australian Shepherd named Benji (we humans never learn each other’s’ names!) After sharing where I was attending school, our conversation quickly moved to a deeper level, and Benji’s “mom” told me she was a “recovering Catholic” who had little patience for a church who saw women and other faiths as “less than.” She described herself as “spiritual” and as someone hungry for a community of faith, but she wondered what the church could offer to skeptical people who reject exclusivist and misogynistic doctrine.

The Epperlys describe the responsibilities of a Christian pastor in this way:

To share the gospel so that congregants may experience the fullness of God in their lives, discover the life-transforming presence of Christ, discern the guidance of the Spirit, find comfort in times of uncertainty and pain, and commit themselves to becoming God’s companions in the quest for shalom in their local and global communities. (28)

I think if more churches did just this, we wouldn’t be bleeding out membership and headed toward irrelevancy.

 

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In the same way that tides ebb and flow, I’ve learned that my faith life can display the same kind of movement. There are times when God’s grace is surely at “high tide,” and I’m drinking from a fire hose with dreams and synchronicities abounding. Those times are heady and seductive, leaving the “low tide” periods that much more dry and distressing.

As someone who’s struggled with depression off and on throughout my life, those periods of low tide sometimes leave me wondering if God even remembers that I’m here. I’ve often joked with friends that I suspect, at times, that God may have “lost my file,” as if there’s a cabinet with manila folders all neatly labeled with each of our names in permanent Sharpie markers.

I’m just emerging from one of those dark times, and it’s been quite a rough patch.  So it surprised even me when I found myself making an impassioned declaration of faith in class the other day.

I had given a presentation where I talked about process theology’s view of Christ as “creative transformation” and Jungian psychology’s journey of “individuation” toward the archetypal Self, highlighting the ways in which I found both systems of thought complementary. I talked about Jung’s idea of the “collective unconscious,” and how it is from this shared unconscious that is both within and beyond our individual psyche that the symbols in dreams emerge, symbols that often have a “numinous” or sacred quality. Many of us who do active dream work know without a doubt that those dreams can be, in the words of Bob Haden, “letters from God.”

A fellow student asked if Jung saw this “collective unconscious” as divine, and if Jung believed in a divine “being” or not. Since Jung tried to limit his discussion to the psychological aspects, it’s not easy to pin him down on that question, but Jung did say to a BBC interviewer that he didn’t believe God exists, he knew God exists. Still, I struggled to clearly answer the question.

But then I said, “look, I don’t know what to say about the collective unconscious, but what I do know is that there’s something bigger than me that loves me.”

That, my friends, was a moment of pure grace.  

In a chapter on “wonder, love, and praise” Bruce Epperly writes in Tending to the Holy that Charles and John Wesley had a “lively sense of grace” and believed that “grace was the first and the last word of Christian experience.” (p. 22)

It was a wonder to me when those words came out of my mouth after the despair I’ve felt in the last year. Yet I think Charles Wesley was on to something when he penned these lines to his hymn “O the Depth of Love Divine”:

Sure and real is the grace, the manner be unknown;
only meet us in thy ways and perfect us in one. L
et us taste the heavenly powers, Lord, we ask for nothing more.
Thine to bless,’ tis only ours to wonder and adore.

 

 

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There’s a memorable scene in the movie “City Slickers” where the grizzled cow hand Curly played by Jack Palance passes on his wisdom to Mitch, played by Billy Crystal. It goes like this:

Curly: Do you know what the secret of life is? [holds up one finger]
Curly: This.
Mitch: Your finger?
Curly: One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don’t mean [bleep].
Mitch: But, what is the “one thing?”
Curly: [smiles] That’s what you have to find out.

There’s an only slightly less opaque conversation between Jesus and Martha that appears in the Gospel of Luke (10:38-42). In that story, Jesus and his disciples are welcomed at the home of sisters Martha and Mary. While Jesus is sharing his message with the assembled guests, Mary is plopped down at his feet, listening attentively while Martha is “preoccupied” with getting everything ready for dinner. Martha’s not too happy about this arrangement and takes it up directly with Jesus.

Martha came to him and said, ‘Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to prepare the table all by myself? Tell her to help me.’ The Lord answered, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things. One thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the better part. It won’t be taken away from her.’

Most biblical scholars pit Mary and Martha’s tasks against each other, either asserting that clearly contemplation and study are of higher value than domestic work, or, in the case of feminist scholars, pointing out that everyone would have gone hungry if Martha hadn’t been in the kitchen doing work that men have typically negated or taken for granted. I’m not so sure Jesus was dismissing domestic work in favor of contemplation so much as he was urging Martha to focus on the “one thing” that was important to her in that moment rather than being “worried and distracted by many things.” My suspicion is that if Martha had been peaceful in her meal preparation, doing what she could do by herself without succumbing to the pressure of time while allowing Mary to do what was important to her in the moment, Jesus would have honored her choice as much as Mary’s.

In his text Four Seasons of Ministry, Bruce Epperly notes the need for healthy balance in ministry and quotes Charles Hummel on the importance of finding “freedom from the tyranny of the urgent.” (62) Our Buddhist sisters and brothers teach the freedom that comes from doing even mundane tasks mindfully, as this mindfulness brings a sense of inner quiet. In Holy Adventure, Epperly notes that “the church as the body of Christ exists to join seamlessly the inner journey of contemplation and the outer journey of action in its vocation as God’s partner in bringing healing and wholeness to all creation.” (123)

Maybe if we can learn to do just the one thing that is necessary in every moment, we’ll bring more healing and wholeness to our lives and the lives of those around us.

I think even Curly and Mitch might agree.

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Influenced by the surrounding zeitgeist of courtly love and the Beguine movement, 13th century Flemish mystic Hadewijch of Antwerp embraced a very embodied mysticism. As Andrew Dreitcer writes in his notes for a class on Christian Spirituality through the Ages, “For Hadewijch, the Divine was known most fully in and through the experience (with attendant physical and emotional manifestations) of loving and being loved.” In courtly love, the love of the knight for his “sworn love” was infused with erotic human desire married to spiritual transcendent passions in a way that was both “exalting” and “humiliating,” “passionate” and “self-disciplined,” and “illicit” and “morally elevating.” [Maria Bowen, “Hadewijch: Background Notes” (San Francisco Theological Seminary, January 1995), 5, 7] These pairings were sometimes consummated though not generally.

“Hadewijch was the first to appropriate the image of courtly love as love for God,” writes Bowen, and she perceived a reciprocal relationship between God and humans as lovers to one another.  In the midst of this deep intimacy and mutuality between humans and God, God is still portrayed as “distant” and an “unattainable lover” who must be “conquered.”  With such an emphasis on mutuality, I wonder why she doesn’t see God more like Francis Thompson’s “hound of heaven” who either never ceases in God’s pursuit of us, or even a God who is deep within us and must only be awakened within? What if our longing for God is stirred within us by God’s already existent presence?

 I wanted to write a poem that honored Hadewijch’s style of mystical love poetry, and so this is what I will offer as my testament to the God in whom I live and move and have my being (Acts 17:28).

 

The Beloved

My heart yearns for the Beloved

my body aches

to merge in union with the One

who sees my holiness.

If only my own eyes could see

what my Beloved sees of me.

If only my own ears could hear

what my Beloved hears of me.

If only my own mind could know

what my Beloved knows of me,

I would be healed.

If I, like Mary, let him

have his way with me,

I will conceive his Word

and birth divinity.

So ravish me, Beloved.

Satisfy my desire.

Enter every closed and darkened place

and pour your radiant Light,

your blazing Love

into every part of me.

Set me on fire,

so that all that is dross

is turned to ash.

And I am left

breathless,

shining.

 

 

 

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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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