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Archive for the ‘What is God Like?’ 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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Those who study religious pluralism – especially in recent years – talk about the necessity to honor the fact that some religions have very different “ultimates,” or core ideas about ultimate reality. Though there has historically been a tendency to try to boil different religions down to the same basic truths – such as loving one’s neighbor as oneself or fostering compassion – many scholars today feel strongly that this approach does a great disservice to all religions.

In a text edited by David Ray Griffin entitled Deep Religious Pluralism, Jeffery D. Long describes three basic types of religion that differ in these ways: their ultimate religious objects, their descriptions of salvation, and their worldviews. As he describes them,

  1. Theistic religions are oriented towards a Supreme Being, a personal God, and are productive of salvation, or a right relationship between God and the practitioner…
  2. Acosmic religions are oriented towards an impersonal Absolute, or Ground of Being, and are productive of realization or enlightenment…
  3. Cosmic religions are oriented towards the cosmos itself, the cosmic order, and the spiritual beings that inhabit it, and productive of harmony within this cosmos and right relations with these beings. (131-2)

I could feel the storm of protest arising in me before I even got to the next paragraph where Long then acknowledges that “some element of each category is present in nearly every world religion.” My protest would have been based on the fact that I’ve perceived for a long time that all three perspectives are ultimately true. Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950, who Long describes as a “Bengali sage,” was one who experienced all three religious perspectives, incorporating all three equally in his system of “Integral Yoga.” (145)

https://i2.wp.com/library.sriaurobindoyoga.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/Sri-Aurobindo_bio-240x300.jpg

Sri Aurobindo

Pure Being is the affirmation by the Unknowable of Itself as the free base of all cosmic existence. We give the name of Non-Being to a contrary affirmation of Its freedom from all cosmic existence – freedom, that is to say, from all positive terms of actual existence which consciousness in the universe can formulate to itself, even from the most abstract, even from the most transcendent. It does not deny them as a real expression of Itself, but It denies Its limitation by all expression or any expression whatsoever. The Non-Being permits the Being, even as the Silence permits the Activity. By this simultaneous negation and affirmation, not mutually destructive, but complementary to each other like all contraries, the simultaneous awareness of conscious Self-being as a reality and the Unknowable beyond as the same Reality becomes realisable to the awakened human soul. (Life Divine, 28-9)

I’m especially intrigued by his understanding of these opposite ultimates – Pure Being and Non-Being, Silence and Activity – as complementary.  This idea of complementariness of seemingly opposing religions has been knocking around in my brain for months now, and I’m eager to read more of Aurobindo’s perspective.

 

 

 

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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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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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In a 1959 interview with the BBC, Swiss psychologist C.G. Jung was asked if he’d grown up believing in God, and he answered that he did. The interviewer then asked if he now believed in God. Jung responded that the question was difficult to answer. “I know,” he said, “I don’t need to believe, I know.” We might ask what he knew and how he knew it. Of course I can’t speak for Dr. Jung, but I believe he meant that since he’d personally encountered God – since he’d had direct experience of God – his experience replaced “belief” with more concrete “knowledge.”

A deeply important part of my spiritual journey has been the practice of dream work and the examination of synchronicities – those occurrences in daily life that seem to be meaningful coincidences – along with other kinds of inner work based on the psychology of Jung and those who work in his tradition. I’ve also – like many Jungians – used myths, fairy tales, and sacred wisdom stories to show me where I am in my journey, as they reveal archetypal patterns of life and the psyche. This kind of psycho-spiritual practice has led me to experience a God who…

  • speaks to me personally through dreams and powerful synchronicities
  • reveals meaningful stories to me when they are most helpful
  • is moving me through refining fire for transformation and healing|
  • calls me to my true path or destiny just as God called Abraham, Jacob, Mary of Magdala and others.

Though one can see similar divine encounters in the stories of God’s people revealed in Christian and Jewish scripture, this is not the kind of God that is described by the traditional or classical Christian theology that was so heavily influenced by Greek thought. Traditional theology describes a God who is:

  • Wholly other; who cannot and does not interact directly with humans except through supernatural revelation and that kind of thing stopped when the last page of the Bible was written,
  • Absolute Ruler, Unchanging, the Unmoved Mover, and not influenced by humans’ situation or sufferings,
  • So offended or dishonored by human sin and error that humans are therefore separated from God by an unbreachable chasm,
  • No longer reachable by direct experience of “regular” people no matter what early Christians experienced,
  • And, that our personal experience of God should not be trusted because there’s no way to “know” or “prove” that we are encountering the “real” God as God is in God’s self

Who is the God you know? And if you don’t feel that you know God, which God would you put more trust in – the Unmoved Mover, or the God who knows your deepest troubles and who calls to you, personally, as “deep calls to deep” in that still, small voice?

Many in the church would have you believe that the only theology that is “right” is what has been handed down for centuries in our tradition. But as Bruce Epperly reminds us in his text Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed,

Postmodernism cautions us that all theology is concrete, situational, and time bound. Postmodern theologians warn us that universal theological statements are abstractions that can be both oppressive and irrelevant to flesh and blood human beings… [on the other hand] Process theologians affirm that people can still tell a universal story, but…this story is grounded in experience and perspective and must be open-ended and liberating. (p. 1)

Each one of us has our own theology, and we are engaging in theological activity “whenever we try to discern the meaning of our lives, fathom the reality of suffering and tragedy, and discover our place in the universe.” (p. 2)

The question is, does your theology help transform your life and your heart? Does your theology open you to experiencing the Living God so that you can say you know God exists? Does your theology free you from whatever binds you?

If not, what good is it?

 

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I’d spent half that day in 1995 holding on to my hat as the open-air truck bounced us around Canyon de Chelly, a most beautiful National Monument in Arizona. Under expansive and gorgeous azure blue skies, we saw cliff dwellings perched precariously in the red-brown canyon walls, examined pictographs sketched centuries earlier, drove through occasional groves of green cottonwood trees, and passed homesteads of Native Americans who farmed in that rugged landscape. When the “shake and bake” truck tour ended, I decided to get a bird’s eye view of the canyon from one of the overlooks at the rim.

I drove my rented car into the lot of the first overlook I came to, noticing that there were no other cars and no other people. I walked out and sat on a rock hundreds of feet above the canyon floor, watching the now-ant-sized truck tours below and listened to the hawks and the gentle breeze.  It had been an interesting vacation where I traveled alone, flying from Atlanta to Albuquerque, renting a car, and driving about a thousand miles to see a good bit of the American Southwest. This canyon was my last stop before getting back on the plane the next day.

As I sat on that rock, in what the Celts would have called a “thin place,” my awareness and sensory experience suddenly underwent a dramatic shift. My consciousness expanded and I could fully feel in every cell of my body this one truth: I was an infinitesimally small speck of dust in the universe. And I was connected to everything. I would say that the rest of my life since that moment has been an attempt to integrate that one truth. That moment – one that could be called “mystical” – revealed the Holy for me. It was certainly a “big” picture view.

Last week, I wrote about meeting God in a hummingbird, probably one of the smaller of the earth’s creatures. So the Holy can be revealed just as clearly in the “small” picture view as well. But isn’t it all too easy to miss God in those small moments?

As a scholar of process theology, I am most drawn to this school of thought because of the way in which it presents God as being very much in this world, not just transcending it. In “emerging process spirituality”, writes Bruce Epperly, “God is present as a source of guidance and inspiration in every moment of experience and in every encounter. According to process theology, all things and every moment reveal the holy.” (p. 132, Emerging Process) He writes,

Revelation is not other-worldly, nor does it draw us away from our concrete experience of God’s wholeness/holiness in the here and now of historic, relational, and embodied experiences. Encountering God calls us to love God in this concrete, ever-emerging world, rather than deferring issues of justice, peace, and self-realization to a disembodied afterlife.

Might God be revealed in our day-to-day encounters with friends? In our workplace? In our dogs, cats, and the wild things out back? In our battles with depression? In the crying infant a few rows up in the airplane? In our night time dreams and the meaningful coincidences or synchronicities that give us pause? Where do you meet the Holy?

 

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In one chapter of his book Religion in the Making, created from lectures delivered in Boston in 1926, Alfred North Whitehead explores the historical effect on religion of travel beyond what he calls “the tribe.” He suggests that when people were exposed to “others”, strangers, outside the tribal boundaries in a way that was kindly, those extra-tribal explorers could think more “dispassionately” (and with less hostility) about others than before their travels. The result of empires and trade was that “everyone traveled and found the world fresh and new. A world-consciousness was produced.” (p. 29) Whitehead felt the “disengagement” from one’s social location that came with travel led to a change in how people perceived their relationship to God. In the old way of thinking, he writes,

Alfred North Whitehead

Conduct is right which will lead some god to protect you; and it is wrong if it stirs some irascible being to compass your destruction. Such religion is a branch of diplomacy. But a world-consciousness is more disengaged. It rises to the conception of an essential rightness of things…The new, and almost profane, concept of the goodness of God replaces the older emphasis on the will of God. In a communal religion, you study the will of God in order that [God] may preserve you; in a purified religion, rationalized under the influence of the world-concept, you study [God’s] goodness in order to be like [God]. It is the difference between the enemy you conciliate and the companion whom you imitate.  (p. 30)

Too many religious people these days talk about God as if God were an enemy to “conciliate” or placate. According to a 2010 article written by Amanda Terkel on thinkprogress.org, Virginia State Delegate Bob Marshall (R) suggested that year that women who had had abortions were punished by God through being given disabled children in subsequent births. Who could even worship such an evil and immoral god? Shouldn’t we at least be able to assume that God has the level of morality of the best human beings we know?

One of my greatest email pleasures is reading Fr. Richard Rohr’s brief meditations that arrive in my inbox bright and early each day. A recent entry touched as well on the idea that God and Jesus might best be thought of as those we should imitate due to their goodness. He writes,

 It seems to me that it is a minority that ever gets the true and full Gospel. We just keep worshiping Jesus and arguing over the exact right way to do it. The amazing thing is that Jesus never once says, ‘worship me!’, but he often says, ‘follow me’ (e.g., Matthew 4:19).  Christianity is a lifestyle—a way of being in the world that is simple, non-violent, shared, inclusive, and loving. We made it, however, into a formal established religion, in order to avoid the demanding lifestyle itself. One could then be warlike, greedy, racist, selfish, and vain at the highest levels of the church, and still easily believe that Jesus is ‘my personal Lord and Savior.’ The world has no time for such silliness anymore. The suffering on Earth is too great.

The suffering on Earth is great, indeed. Does it lessen that suffering or increase it if we pummel others with an image of a God who is not worth worshiping or following? It seems pretty simple. If your God tells you to kill an ambassador, or to kill an abortionist, you’re listening to a false god.

Update:  As I can hear the distant hoof beats of accusations of heresies such as Arianism on the horizon,  I just want to clarify a line of thought in this post. First of all, Fr. Rohr does not use the word “imitate” and it’s really not the exact word I’m looking for here.  Nor am I saying that we should not worship and be filled with praise over the grace that flows to us from Christ. What I believe, though, is that those who worship Christ but who are not willing to walk his path are merely projecting their healing onto Jesus as an outer figure, but that those who follow Jesus, walking the Way he walked, will experience the inner transformation of the Christ, and realize the Reign of God that Jesus realized as present right here, right now. In Spiritual Traditions for the Contemporary Church, Boniface Ramsey, O.P. writes of the spirituality of the early Church: “Christ was the measure, the model, and the goal of the spiritual life.” This is still true for Christians.

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