Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Letter from John

From: john
Subject: e-mails and a question


Thanks for continuing to share your thoughts -- always appreciate hearing from you.

Hey, I was thinking this weekend about something you said at that Christmas gathering we had in '09.  If I remember correctly, you said (and I may be weak on some of the fine points) people generally don't go to church for spirituality, but rather for social interaction and a feeling of connectedness.  Tough to argue with that one.  My question:  why go to a church for those things?  Why not just join a social club, meet friends at the mall or a restaurant, or gather in one another's homes?  Would be interested in your take on this.


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John, I don't mean to disparage social interaction and a feeling of connectedness.  We’re human because we’re social creatures and being connected is essential to everything else we do.  True spirituality and true religion for that matter must begin with what it means to be human in all that that entails. Religion is a corporate experience wherein we acknowledge and celebrate our common values and affirm our experience.

But spirituality is personal, not something we can share with anyone.  It's what makes us who we are in our relationships with others, with ourselves, with God.  Fact is, we seldom learn spirituality in church although the church is supposed to supply us with the classical resources of our traditions in order that we may learn the pathway of spirituality. We first learn that pathway from a number of sources, beginning with our parents and relatives and extending to friends, teachers, colleagues etc.  

At some point perhaps we are perceptive enough to discover that something is missing in our learning and experience.  We have questions with no satisfactory answers.  We sense injustice and pain in the world.  We feel a need to express our gratitude and we need help in our struggles.  We want to know more about who we are and why we are here and what is required of us. Then we look to religion to help us answer those questions.

Problem is, religion as commonly practiced often fails to give us much help.  Religion is concerned with outward forms and traditions and with conventional manners and morals Too often our religious institutions are primarily places for social purposes. A pastor frequently has no more concern, ability or education than the members of the church, especially if the pastor lacks seminary training which is not a requirement in many conservative denominations.  In the best of worlds, training or no, the church is primarily concerned with transmitting an ancient tradition in the same form and using the same words that have been used for hundreds or thousands of years with no consideration that our world has changed. We think differently, we have a different understanding about ourselves and the world, a different world view. We recognize the need to take science seriously. The situation is changing very slowly, but we are a long way from a church that takes our new knowledge and world view seriously.

The church is not creative.  BUT . . . . the passing on of a tradition is certainly not without merit.  It's usually not possible to creatively move on to a new area unless one knows where one has been previously, with some degree of familiarity with the past. That is why genuine education will emphasize the study of Latin, history, the classics IN ADDITION to science and mathematics.  The ancient traditions of the church have much to offer us but they must be reinterpreted in light of who we are and what we know now. The classical spirituality traditions, however, remain largely intact because they deal with human nature, not science or theology. The church is a repository of the best of the classical spiritual tradition, but someone must guide us to it.  The church ignores the classical spiritual tradition for the most port because the institutional church usually has a different agenda, maintaining order and control.

Classical spirituality is learned from a master teacher.  A guru, yogi, shaman or spiritual master in the Western tradition.  It's not easy to find a spiritual advisor in Western tradition because very early on in the history of the Christian church, the church all but abandoned spirituality in favor of doctrine.  It was all done in a spirit of desire for organization, control and power.  Spirituality can't be controlled and, furthermore, spirituality is actually against those things.  But spirituality in all the great religious traditions has a central core that is difficult to master and is a work of a lifetime.  It has nothing to do with doctrine or history or organization.  

Basically, spirituality consists of relinquishment of the ego, learning to love and forgive our enemies, mastery of our emotional impulses, relinquishment of materialism, abstinence and celibacy.  That being said, obviously for most of us we are going to be reluctant to become celibate hermits living in cells in the woods, although that is the classical stance for someone who REALLY IS SERIOUS.  But we understand the importance of self control, living in moderation and leaving a small carbon footprint.

Most of all the spiritual life is a struggle to master the ego.  Ego stands in the way of most of the other stuff. Now ego is a good and necessary thing up to a point.  It's what drives us to excel in our endeavors, master a trade or discipline, invent and create.  So these are good things.  But the ego that can exceed only at the price of putting someone else down, or gaining power over others is what we're talking about.  We never hear much about the Seven Deadly Sins the church once taught, but those are the impediments to spiritual development.  Pride, Anger, Envy, Lust, Greed, Gluttony and Sloth.

So back to the church.  The church is like school.  It's the starting point for the spiritual life.  Unfortunately, most people give up after confirmation or catechism or when they get old enough to intimidate their parents into letting them stay at home.  So their education ends around Jr. High.

Or, for most other people, they never have any training at all in the classical spiritual or religious traditions of their culture.  Neither they nor their parents have any religious or spiritual memory.  We have up to three generations of those people now.  I leave it to you to decide how society has been helped by that.

Let's lay aside the empty notion that anyone is "saved" from declaring that they believe in an empty set of words such as, "I believe I am saved because I believe in Jesus and that I'm going to heaven and anyone who doesn't is going to hell."  Well, saved from what? to what? for what???

Salvation is a hugely misunderstood and misused word.  Not denying it's relevance, but only after intense parsing.  I was hoping that when Pope John Paul II declared that "heaven is not a place and hell is not a place but those are metaphors for a relationship with God" that the matter would be put to rest.  

But the need to believe is stronger than the belief itself.

Spirituality is not about believing in anything.  It's about how we live, how we walk the pathway.  About relationships.

So I think everyone should go to church, or synagogue or mosque or whatever.  And take the kids.  Tell the kids that their religious training is as important as their education at school when they object, as most of them do in our self-indulgent culture. They also make up excuses to stay home from school if we let them get away with it.  And after they are grown they can decide for themselves what to do next.  BUT until then, they are going to be trained in the basics which is what raising children is all about.  Without that training, they won’t be in a position to decide anything because they won’t know what’s out there.

If a person attends one of the mainline denominations that hasn't completely given itself over to the pop culture "church lite" trend, if they attend a church that takes the liturgy seriously which means the whole monte including the traditional scripture readings (there are four in the Christian church) and basically ignores the sermon (unless the pastor is particularly gifted at oratory) over the course of the first 18 or 20 years of their life they can get a pretty good start at mastering the "basics".  (The sermon is the least important thing that happens in a classical liturgical service.) You can explain to the kids that Adam and Eve and all those good stories are metaphors. Their relevance lies in looking for meaning, not in actual fact. Spirituality is concerned with meaning.

If every parent understood this necessity, maybe some of the people who have quit the church because it is failing to update itself would stay around to kick butt and challenge their pastors and seminaries to do a better job.  And withhold their tithes if they don't.  What if parents gave up on public education.  Yeah yeah yeah,  I know.  Many of them seem to have done just that.


Thursday, March 3, 2011

God in the Age of Science

There is a scene in the film “The English Patient,” where a young women steps outside her door in the evening and glances down to find a small lamp at her feet. When she looks up she sees a trail of small lights leading off into the distance. Intrigued, she follows the lights until they lead to an open door. She hesitates a moment before entering for an encounter with her lover.

It’s an enchanting, wordless moment that that only a medium like cinema could capture. Some things defy description, like first love, or holding your newborn child, or experiencing a night sky filled with stars or hearing Bach’s Christmas Oratorio for the first time. These are things which so fill our hearts that we experience far more than we can say or understand.

Encounters, epiphanies, experiences above or outside of ordinary time, we try to remember them. So we write poetry or music, or we paint, or we tell stories. Ordinary telling won’t work for us. The telling has to contain something of the magic of the moment so we use poetry, metaphor.

In a world that science has so thoroughly demythologized, there seems to be very little poetry left. In fact, the whole genre has pretty much gone out of style. People used to sit around in smokey cafes for hours on end listening to poetry. Prizes were given and poets were idolized and medialized.

In ancient times, bards, traveling troubadours were welcome guests at feasts and other public gatherings and they not only preserved the lore of the culture in preliterate societies, but were the sources of the news of the times. And they delivered their messages in verse, in metaphor. The history of poetry and public recitation to capture the imagination of the hearers and to preserve and immortalize human events goes back as far as the beginning of human language.

In a world with so little leisure, so little time, so little awe, so much mechanized, so much mundane, so little consolation, so little contact with the deep enduring things of life, we want our news fast and to the point in thirty minutes between commercials. We tire quickly of Victorian novels with endless descriptions of pastures of Queen Mary’s lace and musing about the meaning of a dropped handkerchief.

But with our technological proficiency, our material well being and our instantaneous communication with ever evolving hand held devices, we can’t help but feel a sense of loss, of being disconnected and anxious. There is little to console us, either in the news, or at the office, or in the world at large. And modern cinema which is so filled with violence, speed and impersonal sex so often reflects our inner anxiety and fear .

In former times, although life was brutal, short, and much more at risk, there still were consolations. For many, the quiet evangelical purity of domestic life, an intimate acquaintance with seasonal change in farming communities, neighbors one could count on, long evenings at home with no where to go so people shared more of their lives with each other. And, there was the consolation of religion. The assurance of permanence in a hereafter no matter how difficult life could be where a reward awaited those who persevered and endured and a reunion with those one loved. No such assurance today. Science has effectively dismantled heaven and hell and it seems we are left to our own devices and on our own in our struggles.

In a democratic society, as long as we have our youth, our health, our job and adequate insurance, we generally feel pretty good about this. But somewhat shaky. We’ve lost the glue that once held communities together. We have lost our stories. And along the way in our disenchanted world, we seem to have lost God along with hope of heaven or fear of hell. And in a mobile society where we move because of the job every few years, or flip houses in an overheated housing market, we’ve lost our neighbors and sense of community. We have lost the sense of anything permanent.

Would it be fair to say that we may suffer a loss of hope? Hope is the convection engine of life. That in spite of everything, tomorrow is another day. Someone or something will be there. That in spite of everything, when there is no way out, there will be a way through, or over, or around. And at the end when the lights go out for us, or for the ones we love are gone, there will be God, the ultimate source of hope.

Hope is a trail of lights leading off into the unseen distance with a promise at the end. Have we traded hope for anxiety? Because in a world where noting is permanent, what constitutes the ground of hope? How do we find God in a disenchanted world that has lost all it’s stories, all it’s poetry, all it’s sense of place? Is God anything more than a figment of an immature imagination? Is there anything permanent, anything we can trust?

Well, for many of us, in spite of all, God is still there. There still is hope and wonder. There still is that newborn child, that sky filled with stars, music, love, things we experience far more than we can understand. There still is that string of lights leading us off into the unknown in hope. Into the things we most value and cherish.

But the stories we’ve told about God have changed. We can’t do with virgin births, miracles outside the natural order of things, third day resurrections or reincarnations or the Red Sea partings. We can’t do with a god that favors one group of people over another or sends catastrophes that disfavor others. Those gods are too small and unreliable.

No one has a clue what God is. To understand God we rely like the poet on clues and metaphors. And yet, God must at least must be reality as we understand it. Wherein we do not know, therein we may not speak, except in symbolic language.

But what we can do is to understand that all human language, even scientific language, is poetry and metaphor at best. There is a necessity at the heart of all knowledge, a need to know, whether the knowledge is formulated around a primitive campfire or in a laboratory. So we use what tools we have available to us. We use models and metaphors to explain what we experience. The difference is that in the modern world we understand that all models are subject to testing, to revision, to new understanding. Often we only have a story but our stories must evolve as our experience evolves.

“Can’t you see I’m doing a new thing?”

Physics may have eleven different string theories, (stories) but experience is reliable. An experience that is verified by the experiences of others. A hundred years ago, physicists gave up trying to understand “what” subatomic particles were and instead began to focus how they worked. Experimental physics took over the field from descriptive physics. This was huge! Philosophers and theologians had spent 2000 years or more focused exclusively on What something was. What are the elements? What is an atom? What is energy? What is God? What is the nature of Jesus, divine or human?

Holding that newborn, gazing at that starry sky, having our first love, we don’t have to ask “What is it?” We say, “Behold!”

We know what we value.

What we can “know” about God comes from deep within ourselves and only through what we ourselves experience, not from anyone else’s experience or observation. Like the new quantum mechanic physics, it comes from the “observer-participancy” kind of knowing. It’s as close as our skin. It’s evolved with us. It’s a string of lights that illuminates a pathway of hope. And it consists of at least three things.

It begins with that newborn, who has evolved to reach in hope for the breast and to smile in love at recognition of her parent’s face. And in the wonder and excitement of that child exploring his world with his first step and with each new discovery. It bursts into song running through the park and laughs at the antics of a puppy.

Second, the “knowing” continues in the experience of community. In love, forgiveness, compassion, generosity, hospitality, helping others, being cared for by and in caring for others. In learning how to trust.

Third, through our experience with a natural world that never ceases to amaze us. A miraculous world increasingly revealed to us by science and discovery in and through human community. “A world that reveals no beginning and no end.” Where each new area of knowledge opens up vast territories for the wonder of new discoveries.

The real world of human experience is where we find God. With all we know and all we have yet to discover beyond our wildest dreams. God is love. God is what we value. God is a string of lights luring us on to what we value. We might say, God is the lure to value present in every living thing.

If there is a God, then God is the the name we give to the ground of being of all that is and the future and the harmonious reconciliation and consolation of everything we value. God is the highest thing we can possibly think. And much much more.