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Archive for the ‘Human Nature’ 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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We are at war.

And not just in Afghanistan.

Today’s horrific events in Newtown, CT are just the latest in what seems like an endless parade of gun deaths in the United States. But they seem even more shocking because they were mostly children between the ages of 5 and 10. Children, who were in the middle of their school day in a town people describe as “friendly.”

President Obama’s remarks today included these words:

As a country, we have been through this too many times. Whether it’s an elementary school in Newtown, or a shopping mall in Oregon, or a temple in Wisconsin, or a movie theater in Aurora, or a street corner in Chicago – these neighborhoods are our neighborhoods, and these children are our children. And we’re going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics.

In recent years, we have seen,

  • 28 dead in Newtown.
  • 6 dead in Oak Creek.
  • 13 dead in Aurora.
  • 13 dead in Columbine.
  • And so far in 2012, 400 – many of them children – dead in Chicago – more than the total U.S. troop deaths this year in Afghanistan!

In the United States alone we have 87 gun deaths every day.

What will it take to stop the madness?

What will it take for us to take madness  and mental health seriously?

Why has the United States become a culture of death?

A feminist writer named Kimberly George made these comments today:

We grieve today an absolute tragedy in Connecticut. It is particular in its horror, but it is simultaneously not disconnected from the violence harming teenagers on the streets of New Haven, the Atlanta Child murders, the domestic violence in our homes, the children killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nor do I think it is disconnected from the children on whose backs this country was built, and the children killed in the colonization of the Americas. I think all of this horrific violence is interconnected…all of it needs profound healing. And we desperately need poets, prophets, artists, those who can lead lamentation, those who can help lead us in imagining and building a much different world in which every child is valued.

Fifty years ago, poet-prophet-songwriter Pete Seeger wrote an anti-war song that included these verses:

Where have all the young men gone?
Long time passing
Where have all the young men gone?
Long time ago
Where have all the young men gone?
Gone for soldiers every one
When will they ever learn?
When will they ever learn?

Where have all the soldiers gone?
Long time passing
Where have all the soldiers gone?
Long time ago
Where have all the soldiers gone?
Gone to graveyards every one
When will they ever learn?
When will they ever learn? 

I ask today – what will it take for us to foster a culture of life, where every creature is seen as sacred?

When will we reform our policies around gun access and types of weapons and ammunition that are available to anyone with the funds to buy them?

When will we begin to stop letting parents treat their children as property that they can abuse, sowing the seeds of violence in these precious souls?

When will we begin to take mental illness seriously and approach mentally ill people with compassion and effective treatment?

When will we ever learn?

 

Note: Here’s a nice post on what to say and what not to say to people who are experiencing these kinds of losses.

You also might enjoy reading my previous post on “Abstractions and Illusions.”

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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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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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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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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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