Sunday, August 18, 2013

JUST THE WEIGHT OF GOD

(wrtten in an attempt to clarify my own beliefs and trace the path to them)

         I know people who have had spiritual experiences--experiences which affirmed for them in some small or large way another reality--more real than the here and now. Whether an out of body experience, or one of being directed, guided, saved or found, they were left to come off of the proverbial "mountain top" or out of Plato's cave, to live by and share what they experienced.  I do not doubt that people have such experiences, but I believe they can be misinterpreted based on the individual's life experiences leading up to that moment, as well as on their natural inclinations, personality, locality, family, cultural and spiritual traditions.
     Certainly, such an experience would call for changes in a person's life and acted upon based on the interpretation (or misinterpretation) of its meaning, and I believe that very often, a person may be so sure of its meaning that a misinterpretation is not considered.  The experience may convince a person that he has the absolute truth and is now qualified, not only to share the found truth, but to judge others who may in fact have had their own very different spiritual experiences and insights.
     I myself have not had an identifiably powerful moment when all became clear to me, but there have been many other moments of intution and insight which have led me to my present state of spirituality and belief. I don’t feel, however, that I have the truth for anyone else.  I still have many questions and doubts, and I must ultimately, as Martin Buber suggests, endure the mystery of life, its ambiguity, paradoxes, and recurring moral dilemmas. I must take my collective life experiences, which include influences from the religion I was brought up in, as well as my formal and informal education; my own questions; my research, the study of other religions and cultural traditions.  Also taken into my consideration are psychological, sociological and anthropological perspectives of Joseph Campbell, Carl Jung and Erich Fromm to name of few. In short I must reconcile Faith and Reason, and do not see a compelling conflict between the two, as do others who favor faith over reason.
      I suppose I sense the spiritual when I hear it in others’ intentions, words and actions and observe it in nature.  I have also felt it reading both sacred and secular texts, and seen it manifested in "the ordinary" in so many remarkable and sometimes stunning ways.  These realizations have functioned as "mini-revelations" in which certain principles of life became clear to me, which I must strive to live by. These principles are broad and general enough to be inclusive, not exclusive, as they are truths not the truth.  After all “the brain is wider than the sky," and there are so many complex, diverse, subtle, nuanced and mysterious elements of creation in nature, the cosmos and the human being. I believe that, while the source may be One, the expressions and emanations of the One are infinite.
     Joseph Campbell asks, as he sees the root is one, the branches are many, “Are modern civilizations to remain spiritually locked from each other in their local notions…” and traditions of these myths/stories/religions, which essentially drive us “diametrically apart?” It seems so to me, at least for now, that we often focus on our differences, rather than our similarities in both faith and reason, which causes all manner of conflict and pain.
     A Jewish friend of mine told me that in Judaism, when someone says he does not believe in God, he is asked, “What kind of a God don’t you believe in?” That really gave me perspective on the individuality of spiritual experience and beliefs. In my case, I don’t believe in a “personal,” patriarchal God who has His eyes on everything, controls and brings about or thwarts things with anger, revenge, kindness or conditional love. I do not believe in a God who created humans so that He can be obeyed and adored and has created a pre-determined "elect," while others don't even have a fighting chance. This kind of God I can even begin to imagine; therefore I cannot and do not take the Bible or any other sacred text literally.
     Fundamentalism of any kind narrows and limits one’s view in all directions. I do believe the Bible (and other sacred texts), as well as world mythologies are imaginative pictures, which contain the principles or essential elements to lead a moral life. We can look to many sources for “significant if unverifiable truths” that are full of wisdom and even practical insights to live by.  Some sources, perhaps more true than other provide guidance, but literal interpretation are absurd to me.  Do I even have to mention, for example of story of Noah whom, we are told, took two of every living thing on board a boat.  Did that include bacteria and dinosaurs and the millions of species of insects and other animals, not to mention that there is no evidence of a world-wide flood, but there are stories extant with a Noah-like character in them written long before the Noah tale.  Here is only one example of how reason and common sense must trump faith.
     Also, in Genesis, an omnipotent God would have known when he created humans that they would disobey his one caution not to eat the fruit of one particular tree.  It would have been part of his plan, but, taken literally, the humans committed a “sin,” which would be a stain on humanity thereafter.  They were punished for disobeying and taking independent action from a God who knew and planned for them do so.  Does anyone really believe that it could have been otherwise, that we could all be living in a Garden of Eden right now?  Does anyone really want to live in a Garden of Eden and give up all that we are and will learn and experience from our earthly experience from which we are meant grow in our humanity?  
     Aren't these and so many other stories throughout the world rather metaphors of spiritual, as well as psychological principles?  After all, our ability to distinguish between good and evil is generally considered a virtue! I believe the Garden story reflects the wisdom of a parent who wants to shelter his childlren, yet knows they must and will take independent action at some point to find their own way through struggle, pain, and a deepening sense that love is redemption.  It is disobedience which set Adam and Eve (and us) on a journey toward freedom, using experience, an open and searching mind, and reason to establish morality.   Authoritarian dictates, as Fromm suggests (“Disobedience as a Psychological and Moral Problem”), are the “internalized voice of authority,” which we may obey out of fear or guilt, but if we are to be adults (fully human), we must act out of our own experience and knowledge of good or evil. Then, and only then are we moral in freedom.
     I don’t believe that human nature is “fallen.” Again, I understand the Bible story as metaphor (which is nevertheless true in its meaning), that is, when Adam and Eve “disobeyed” or took that independent step, which began humanity’s evolution toward consciousness and conscience, which we are hopefully moving toward as a species. It also represents our own individual arduous journeys toward such. The New Testament, although still open to wide and subjective interpretation, speaks of becoming "one with the father.”  Isn’t this none other than coming to that knowledge of good and evil for ourselves (seeking guidance and wisdom along the way). In this way, we have a more full  understanding of what we are capable of as humans beings and what is expected of us--uniting with the Father principle in freedom is coming full circle, just as we often come round to the things our parents taught us, after making mistakes, suffering the consequences and making morality our own, not because a parent's, minister's or other mediator's dictates.  
     Fundamentalism necessarily dictates a particular interpretation from which there can be no deviation, not even Reason, which is suspect, rather than understood as a gift from the Creator. My efforts to reconcile faith and reason tell me that I must act from the inside on those simple, yet hard-to-live truths of which Christ speaks, for example: to love our neighbor as ourselves; to not judge, least we be judged; and that what we do to the least of our brothers, we do to Him).  I grapple with the moral dilemmas, both my own and those presented to us as part of society and the world.  Although I am not always able to resolve the dilemmas, or live those truths at every moment--far from it, but those are the ideals I strive toward and try to live by.
     Christ, I understand to be representative of man, precisely because He came among us and experienced life as a human.  He also taught us in the most imaginative, abstract way, mostly through parables, leaving very broad, but difficult principles to live by. One cannot interpret literally the parables in a concrete way. I believe that is why He used that form of teaching, and even when his diciples asked Him why he taught in parables, he answered with another parable, again emphasizing the imaginative, abstract, rather than rigid, concrete way--so that we have to take an active, independent part--be the fertile soil to the parable seeds. In His own words, we must live by the spirt, rather than the letter of the law.
           "Our task now is to learn that if we can voyage to the ends of the earth and there find ourselves in the aborigine who most differs from ourselves, we will have made a fruitful pilgrimage....We [will] have to come to the end of a  long journey and see  that the stranger we meet there is no other than ourselves, which is the same as saying that we find Christ in him." (Thomas Merton)
     As a believer in the essential teachings of Christ, I am more in line with the Renaissance Humanists--who thought “man is the measure of all things,” the crowning glory of creation because of his intellect and ability to reason with growing consciousness and conscience. I am not inclined toward the “cult of personality” mostly seen in fundamentalism, where the focus is on Jesus, rather than on the Christ, so that He is worshiped almost like a rock star and sung to and about as an adolescent might sing to or about a lover.  I have to be lifted up to the sacred, rather than pull it down to me with melodrama and sentiment. I can see how that pathos may be more attractive and more accessible, as it appeals to the emotion and pop culture of the day.  I can more readily imagine and feel the spiritual in Gregorian chants, or the requiems of Mozart and Faure, which embody and evoke the majestic, the profound, and sublimity of the spiritual world, as well as the human experience of life and death (without words).  
     I believe that the people in our lives are the ones we came here for and with, teaching and learning being reciprocal. We are not here to be obedient, or even to worship, but rather to strive to become fully human (developing our higher selves), which involves our effort to understand, to reconcile reason and faith, to be aware of all that we have been given and to treat everyone with abundant compassion. Our guidance and wisdom can come from a specific or a combination of the world's spiritual teachings.  We must, however, search, be open, flexible and willing to live with ambiguity, paradox and mystery, striving all the while to "live" the essential truths. While I have the cultural and personal conditions to be grounded in Christianity, I can also see the Eightfold Path of Buddhism as an invaluable support to live those essential teachings, doing so without fear or guilt. Accepting Christ for me means knowing that Christ is Love, pure and simple, but not so simple to live, as it is a process, not an event or a moment in time, though a direction can come from spiritual insight or experiences. 
     Truth is truth, no matter where we find it, and it can be found in sacred texts, as well as world literature/mythologies. If taken literally, however, we forfeit reason, as there is no room to challenge in any way.  The response to any challenges to a literal interpretation of a text, results in accusations of blasphemy, ignorance of “the truth” and worse, all of which means the person challenging is the lesser." Questions and challenges may be felt by fundamentalists as persecution, which becomes the “battle cry” because, according to some sacred texts, persecution is what can be expected from infidels or non-believers, that is--anyone who believes differently--even those who consider themselves a member of the same religion.  A different interpretation threatens to unravel the whole fabric of belief, exposing the sometimes self-delusional, self-deceptive, defensive, ethnocentric and egocentric tendencies and ways of getting around ourselves that human beings are prone to. We see these responses and tendencies in all religions, ranging from disagreement, to persecution, to violence and atrocities, as the various sects and denominations "stand their ground" for their interpretations of "the truth."
     It is a kind of circular reasoning: the more extreme the fundamentalism and absurd the claims (which always provoke challenges and riducule), the more "believers" feel persecuted and justified. Case in point: the proclamations from evangelist Pat Roberts (and others) that some natural disasters are punishments from God, or his prediction that, if they were ever in need, God would not help the claimants who brought a case against their school board who had voted that intelligent design must be taught. The conservative judge (appointed by George W. Bush, an advocate of teaching intelligent design), after hearing the case, ruled that intelligent design is not science and was "religion in disguise" (“Judgement Day” Nova available on You Tube). Then there was the extremist________who went to rallies for gay marriage and carried the sign "When a fag dies, God laughs."  These, of course are not the most extreme, ironic or harmful examples of actually going against the essential teachings of Christ, but they do show how fundamentalists claim persecuted because rational people of all persuasions call them on absurdities, ironies and hypocrisies.
     Too often, it is denigrating the "other" that distracts us from living those essential teachings, shifts our focus and engenders a compulsion to judge.  For example, if Christian, we may be distracted from loving one another as Christ loves us, or really caring for the least of our brothers.  I must conclude that this is the case in the above examples and other instances of quoting or interpreting sacred texts, such as has been done to support slavery and the submission and opression of women. Immigrants, those of other ethnic or cultural origins, and those who are disenfranchised out of circumstances they were born into: these are our brothers and sisters and not to be judged as sinners or takers. These and other worse examples extremism, I would suggest, are not really out of belief a higher being and a literal text, but of the lower self which often seeks to feel superior to others, much of it at a subconscious level, and often with little reason or wider education, other than in said texts, conveniently interpreted to discriminate, engender hate and even violence.
     How can we conveniently ignore that It is not up to us to judge, or denigrate. Can we not let God do the judging in His own time?  We cannot understand all the circumstances and reasons why there is apathy, evil, depravity, corruption, violence and social problems. We can, however, as many do in all faiths and traditons, work toward change wherever it is needed without exclusion and demonizing, which creates only discord, rather than the peace and understanding that may come if we imitate Christ or seek to see the Christ in others, as Merton suggests. 
     I think of the sacred books, as well as the great literary epics and mythologies, as maps which can guide and direct us, but never reveal the many detours and vistas, byways and hidden paths, nor people we can meet as brothers along the way. In their essence, they contain all we need to know, but we also must use and expand our minds, hearts, and souls through other knowledge and experiences, rather than following only the clearly marked major highways of dogma and doctrine.
     Reason also tells me that there is no one book that can be taken literally, especially considering that throughout the history of humanity, many of the same themes, motifs, stories, images and wisdom can be found in many traditions and cultures, with local variations. They are either all right or all wrong. Here is where faith and reason must be weighed and balanced. Those who take any text literally are nevertheless “interpreting” it influenced by a particular sect’s or denomination’s understanding espoused by their leaders/teachers, or by their own experience and temperament, as well as cultural/geographic aspects, and psychological needs and idiosyncrasies.  
    Literal interpretations do not involve proven facts through scientific inquiry, study and research gleaned over hundreds of years from the natural and cosmic worlds.  Therefore, astronomy, geology, archaeology, psychology, sociology, and anthropology and logic in general, are suspect. They are not sources for consideration and information. This certainly narrows and limits not only our perspective, but also our imagination and even our livlihood and vocations. Those who believe they have "the truth" verbatim must then take on the impossible task of fitting everything in the universe into what they already believe, rather than starting out objectively toward inductive logic (as does science) while still holding the mystery of creation and the spirt of the law. 
     Then, there is the circuitous, historical evolution of texts with multiple, alternative translations, the selection of certain ones over others to become part of a Cannon. For me, it is just too open to error, corruption of original intension of a spiritual leader, such as Christ, not to mention the personal, political and cultural manipulations.  How an anyone believe that through it all, somehow God saw to it that that whatever text we have is His absolute word.  I prefer to adhere to the spirit of the law, rather than the letter of it, not because it is easier or less moral, but because it more demanding and requires resourcefulness and cultivation of virtues in our development toward becoming free, moral beings
     It has been said that if we knew the good we would do the good. What is the good? While we may not be able to ultimately define good, or truth for that matter, I am sure that growing to know it and do it involves Love, Compassion, Kindness, Fairness, Charity, and many others virtues/states of mind or being, including adversity, pain, sacrifice and suffering and, yes, contradictions and ambiguity. It is just that it takes much practice and discipline, insight and openness to develop, sustain and enact these virtues toward others, especially toward those who do not believe, look or live as we do. 
     One would have to admit, taking facts and reasoning into account, that all of these texts were written by human beings, inspired, maybe, but also bound by geo-political, cultural/local time and place, with inherent prejudices and perhaps with “misinterpretations” of their own spiritual revelations. I think this is most evident in the portions of texts that are opressive and dangerous to women.  Certainly women are the portal for life and thereby have a kind of inherent power in the ability to bring it forth, and also, by the the nature of the sexual drive, women arouse desire in men. Feeling their own power challenged and their own desires aroused, men felt that it is women who are to blame for their urges--not the inability of men to control themselves.  Therefore woman had to be (and still do) tamed/suppressed. Reason should tell us that these portions of “the truth” which discriminate and oppress are no more than psychological projections, but, nevertheless are still at times acted upon to the detriment of women and others, including whole societies. 
    If the world religions in their fundamentalist, extreme forms and followers have shown us anything, it is that they are divisive and sometimes destructive. They foster suspicion and superstition, a sense of superiority and spirtual pride, and, in their most extreme forms, can limit or take away civil rights, human rights and dignity. We have seen these attempts, sometimes successful in our own country’s history and certainly presently in other countries, so that The "other" becomes the enemy (the infidel, the devil incarnate, the anti-Christ) and in the worst cases are marginalized, oppressed, imprisoned, brutalized, and murdered by the thousands.
      Having been present at my parents' deaths—at the moment when time and place no longer existed for them, when spirit departs from the body, I saw that life and death are sacred and profound mysteries. I felt that the essence of who we are does not get snuffed out with the last breath. Though I do not believe in the traditional descriptions of heaven and hell, I do believe that we must in some way account or be aware of all that we did or did not do in our time on the earth.
     Seeing the body only, without the individual spirit that animates it is the ultimate affirmation that we are not our bodies—and that we cannot be ultimately confined in one bodily sheath any more than our minds, hearts and souls can be defined by or contained in one book, philosophy or religion. 
     Our essence and our mission here is greater than the body or mind can comprehend or imagine, greater than our individually-lived lives can manifest and are as infinite as the universe, which is to say, "just the weight of God.
The Brain—is wider than the Sky—
For—put them side by side—
The one the other will contain
With ease—and You—beside—

The Brain is deeper than the sea—
For—hold them—Blue to Blue—
The one the other will absorb—
As Sponges—Buckets—do—

The Brain is just the weight of God—
For—Heft them—Pound for Pound—
And they will differ—if they do—
As Syllable from Sound (Emily Dickinson)

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