Dec 212015
 

This series presents, in no particular order, what I regard as the scriptural teachings most essential to Christian mysticism. It draws attention to key words and phrases, and poses some questions about them that I simply leave for interested readers to address as they see fit.  Part 1 was on the Great Commandments. You are welcome to respond in the comments section.

Teaching 2: The Farewell Prayer of Jesus

Christ_Taking_Leave_of_the_Apostles

My prayer is not for them [my chosen disciples] alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world. Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them. (John 17:20-26)

Key Words & Phrases

“I pray also for those who will believe in me….”

Jesus’ farewell prayer begins by expressing his hopes for everyone who believes in him. In contemporary Christian life, we often take the word “belief” only its connotation of agreement, consent, or submission to a doctrine. But deeper than this intellectual position is the attitude of trust, and so Jesus is saying that his prayer is for those who trust him, who have enough confidence in his claim of oneness with God.

“…that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.”

The end of this sentence suggests that the belief, the trust and confidence, he has spoken of is not an end in itself, but that it is a step that opens us to the possibility of existing in oneness, to “be one,” experiencing and knowing it, “just as” he does.

“you are in me and I am in you,” “May they also be in us,” “I in them and you in me,”

Note the interchangeability of subject and object in those statements:  God in Jesus, Jesus in God, us in God and Jesus, Jesus in us, God in Jesus, and thereby God in us.  This interchangeability communicates oneness as well as can be done in dualistic terms.

“complete unity”

In John’s Gospel, the Greek for “complete” is teleioo, and like our English word it speaks of something finally accomplished, in a state of fullness, and perfected.  The Greek for “unity” is the same as that used for “one” in this passage. Thus “complete unity” speaks of being fully one.  In the state of complete oneness, there is no longer two or any other number of things, only the one.  The subject and object dichotomy becomes meaningless, and all these statements are, in effect, simply different ways of saying the One is one.

“I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.”

Here, at the very end of his prayer, Jesus says that all the ways in which he has made and will make God known to us are for the purpose of having us come to experience the same love (agape) that God has for Jesus, and thus he will be one with us.

Questions for Meditation

  1. How does your meditation from Part 1 on the oneness of God inform the way you think about the meaning of oneness or unity in Jesus’s prayer?
  2. In mystically loving God, what is the role of belief and how does it relate to the Great Commandments?
  3. How does belief in someone or something differ from knowing someone or something? How does believing in something differ from being in it?
  4. What does this prayer say to you about possible outcomes of following Jesus, ones that he greatly desires for us?
  5. How might your life change if you were to ever know oneness with God so completely, even for just a single second, that it no longer made sense to speak of you and God as separate from each other?
  6. What would be the implications of such oneness for your relationships with other humans beings, the world, and all of existence?
  7. What relationship is there between being loving and knowing oneness?

 

Christ be with you!

Maranatha

Agape

Jul 212015
 

There is some folly in presuming to offer explanations, guidance, or suggestions about mysticism. To begin with, the very nature of the subject leads us toward, if not into, realizations about matters well beyond the abilities of human consciousness to fully grasp. Next, there is a crucial experiential (for lack of a better term) dimension of mysticism that can only be pointed toward or perhaps facilitated, but never actually communicated from one mind to another. As has been noted by many mystics and philosophers, that dimension is enigmatic and even paradoxical when viewed from an ordinary rational perspective. And of course there are the very ordinary and natural limitations that arise from trying to speak about anything without chasing down and working through every possible implication or misunderstanding. One can make statements in one context that seem contradictory with those made in another. For example, even if you were to carefully read everything I’ve ever posted on this blog, there would still be plenty of room for drawing inaccurate conclusions about what I mean.  None of these challenges are anyone’s fault, they are simply facts that we may try to integrate into our understanding of mysticism and how we communicate with each other about it.  With these points in mind, this series presents, in no particular order, what I regard as the scriptural teachings most essential to Christian mysticism. It draws attention to key words and phrases, and poses some questions about them that I simply leave for interested readers to address as they see fit. You are welcome to respond in the comments section.

 Teaching 1: The Great Commandments

Les pharisiens et les saducéens viennent pour tenter Jésus

One of the teachers of the law came and heard the Sadducees arguing. He noticed that Jesus had given the Sadducees a good answer. So he asked him, “Which is the most important of all the commandments?”

Jesus answered, “Here is the most important one. Moses said, ‘Israel, listen to me. The Lord is our God. The Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. Love him with all your mind and with all your strength.’ And here is the second one. ‘Love your neighbor as you love yourself.’ There is no commandment more important than these.” (Mark 12:28-31)

The first commandment is taken by Jesus directly from Deuteronomy 6:4-5:

Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one!  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.

The second is taken from Leviticus 19:18:

Do not try to get even. Do not hold anything against any of your people. Instead, love your neighbor as you love yourself. I am the Lord.

Key Words & Phrases

“The Lord is one.”

In the Gospel of Mark, the English ‘one’ is from the Greek heis, which has connotations of first in rank or importance, something unique, and something singular, whole, or unified.  In Deuteronomy, the Hebrew word is achad, which has similar connotations.

“Love the Lord…. Love your neighbor….”

In Mark, the Greek for love in both cases is agapaō, and in Hebrew it is ahab. Both of these words communicate love in the sense of an affectionate, intimate, caring relationship, and even a romantic one in the original Hebrew.

“all”

The Greek is holos, and the Hebrew kol. The connotations of both are the same as for the English ‘all,’ which means everything, the whole, the entirety and each of its parts.

“heart”

In Greek, kardia, and in Hebrew, lebab. These words speak of the innermost part of the human being, the seat of our thoughts, emotions, affections, desires, intentions, and will.

“soul”

In Greek, psyche, and in Hebrew, nefesh. Here the scriptures are addressing everything we regard as the personal self, and especially the very essence of our lives as creatures in this world. Furthermore, both words are directly connected with the concept of breath, and thus the literal and figurative meanings we give to the English phrase, “with every breath,” may also be found in “with all your soul.”

“mind”

In Greek, dianoia.  This is a word that the author of Mark has Jesus adding to the faculties listed in Deuteronomy. While it has the same broad possibilities as the English, ‘mind,’ also like the English word it has the more specific connotations of rational, analytical, technical, theoretical, and imaginative thinking.

“strength” or “might”

In Greek, ischus, and in Hebrew, mehod. In both cases, as with the English words, the reference is to power and force.

“neighbor”

In Greek, plēsion, in Hebrew, rea.  These terms certainly address people physically nearby, yet are also used in general reference to anyone other than oneself.

Questions for Meditation

  1. What is mystically significant about beginning with an affirmation that God is one?
  2. In telling us how to love God, why might there be so much redundancy in referencing all the different faculties of our being and all of each one?
  3. For each faculty listed by Jesus – heart, soul, mind, and strength – what are its more specific implications for how we can love God?
  4. When asked for the most important of all commandments, why might Jesus have provided not only the first but also the second?
  5. In the version of this story given in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus even says the second is “like the first.” What might he mean by that?
  6. What are all the possible ways to love another person as yourself?
  7. Christian mysticism, similar to the mysticism of other religions, has two broad categories.  One is the Via Negativa, or apophatic mysticism, where the approach to God is through letting go of all our thoughts and feelings about God to simply abide with God in stillness and silence. It tends to emphasize God’s incomprehensible transcendence.  The other way, the Via Postiva, or cataphatic mysticism, approaches God through affirming and adoring the attributes of God as we experience them manifested in our lives. It tends to emphasize God’s immanent presence.  How might the Great Commandments have relevance to both of these ways?

 Click here to continue to Part 2

Christ be with you!

Maranatha

Agape

Nov 212014
 

The Feast of Christ the King is celebrated on the last Sunday before Advent, and this year it is November 23rd.  It is an official Solemnity instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1952.  According to his encyclical, it should be a time of remembering that a Christian’s allegiance to God should come before all other loyalties, and thus serve to unite us in peace regardless of whatever personal, political, and sectarian issues might divide us.  As I consider the meaning of this Feast, it very easily connects in my mind with the world into which Jesus would be born and the place that he would take in that world.  Beyond that, it speaks to me of a common experience for those pursuing a mystical relationship with God.

The nation of Israel and the Jewish faith have a long history of desire for the coming of the Messiah, and especially in the form of a Divine King who will bring peace and harmony to all humanity.  This theme runs throughout the story of Jesus and his disciples, some of whom were zealots and hoped he would lead them in a divinely sanctioned political solution to the plight of Israel.  We Christians, and Muslims too, are heirs to this doctrine.  In some accounts, Jesus seems to have promised he would fulfill it, even if only after his crucifixion and resurrection.  It also appears that some of his followers continued to expect him to return and play that role after his ascension to heaven.  Even now there are many Christians who consider that to be the prophetic promise of Revelations, just as there are many Jews who continue to wait for the Messiah King, and Muslims with similarly fervent beliefs.  For just a moment, take some time to reflect on the many millions of Jews, Christians, and Muslims who have spent their lives hoping, praying, longing, and even pleading for God’s presence to manifest in this world in such a tangible and dramatic way.  How many of these people, how many generations of them, have staked their lives upon it, have gone to their graves and even sent others to their graves for it, and yet never saw their hopes and prayers fulfilled?!  That history may be a powerful testimony of faith, and even beautiful in some ways, but are there not also profound threads of tragedy and sadness running through this legacy of our religions?

Interestingly, it can be argued that Jesus never meant to be taken literally about any of that, but that he was instead urging his followers to completely reenvision the Kingdom of God.  Many of us regard Jesus as teaching us to seek a transformation in our hearts that then radiates God’s love out into the world through our presence. We consider this to be closer to the life Jesus actually lived, and more worthy of our time and energy than begging for a Holy Dictator to come clean up our mess for us.

For now, I’d like to note that many people who consider themselve mystics, or perhaps aspire to be mystics, have a parallel notion in their minds and desire in their hearts.  When we read the accounts of some of the great Christian mystics, it can be easy to expect that the coming of God’s presence will be a dramatic experience that overthrows all our doubts and sense of separateness from God.  We hope for an event in which Jesus descends from the heavens to fill us with a fantastic flood of light, life, and love.  We dream of a personal Apocalypse in which the Messiah delivers us from the mess of our own personal humanity.  And why shouldn’t we want something like that, especially when some of those who have claimed it happened to them also claim that we can have it too?

But, just as there is a parallel between our desires for a political Messiah and our desires for a personal revelation of mystical union with God, perhaps there is also a parallel with the fact that Jesus didn’t come back as a Messiah King during the lives of his immediate disciples, or during the lives of the following generation, or the one after that, and so on for generation after generation through the present day.  Perhaps, just as we can come to a new and more fruitful understanding of what Jesus meant by the coming of the Kingdom, the parallel is coming to a new and more fruitful understanding of mystical revelation that doesn’t depend upon an extraordinary experience.

What might that new and more fruitful understanding be?  I think there were some well known scriptural answers to that question even before Jesus.  Consider first the story of Elijah:

Then He said, “Go out, and stand on the mountain before the Lord.” And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore into the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. So it was, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood in the entrance of the cave. Suddenly a voice came to him, and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

So, unlike the dramatic way in which Moses encountered the immediate presence of God, Elijah’s experience of direct communication was only “a still small voice.”

Likewise, in Psalms 46:10, in the middle of many dramatic verses about God’s power in the world and praising and exalting God, there is this one small statement about actually knowing God:

Be still, and know that I am God

These scriptures that Jesus and many of his twelve would have known, urge us to realize that knowing God’s presence isn’t always a sudden and dramatic event. An experience of God may be very quiet and gentle, and perhaps so much so that we might not even recognize it for what it is.

And then there is the prayer that Jesus spoke for his followers as recorded in the Gospel of John, chapter 17.  In that prayer he expresses his desire that his followers and their followers will come to know their oneness with God just as Jesus does, which is certainly one of the most mystical things in the Bible.  He finishes that prayer with these words:

And I have declared to them Your name, and will declare it, that the love with which You loved me may be in them, and I in them.

That statement highlights love as the revelation of our union with God, and it is echoed in 1 John, chapter 4:

If we love one another, God dwells in us, and his love is perfected in us.  Hereby we know that we dwell in him, and he in us, because he has given us his Spirit. … And we have known and believed the love that God has for us. God is love; and he that dwells in love dwells in God, and God in him.

There are many important things that could be drawn out of these words, but for now it is especially noteworthy that the love that is God is not something highly unusual that only comes to a specially blessed mystic. It is the love we have for one another!

O Holy One Who is Love itself, help us to be aware of Your mystical presence in our ordinary lives. Let us know You are with us through the love that we receive from others and that we give to others. As we encounter every smile on the faces of others and on our own faces, every kind word spoken by others and by us, every gentle touch given by others and by us, as we experience every simple act and expression of human love, let us realize it as an immediate manifestation of Your love, a ray of Your light that stretches directly back to the Source, the very Heart of Divine Love.  May we know Love as the great King of our lives. Amen.

Maranatha

Agape

Apr 142014
 

During Holy Week, it isn’t uncommon for Christians to take time in reading, meditation, prayer, or dialogue to reflect on the themes of the coming Easter celebration.  For most Christians, Easter is a time to celebrate the physical resurrection of Jesus as proof of God’s love for humanity.  We often speak of everything that led up to it — all the betrayal, physical suffering, and emotional anguish suffered by Jesus — as if those things are just necessary plot elements in an elaborate melodrama written by God.  It’s as if they merely point to that one moment when the laws of nature seem to be overruled so that Jesus can rise from the dead, all with the single purpose of bolstering our hope that we don’t have to fear death.

Excuse me, please, but I find this perspective on Holy Week to be a little vain.  To me, it is heavily interwoven with our desires to hold onto our own self-concepts, to avoid the reality that all things must pass, and thus try to maintain the many illusions that we create for own comfort.  In other words, we can too easily focus on the Resurrection because what we really want from God is a promise of a glorious immortality.   We hope to be delivered into some idealized state of perfection in which we will never have to experience radical change again, and then we can spend all eternity feeling completely satisfied with ourselves.

So, let’s consider an alternative to this way of thinking about the Passion of Jesus.  Let’s deeply consider two moments that many of us find powerfully compelling and hard to reconcile with the notion that the Passion is merely prelude to the Resurrection.  The first is the time Jesus spent in Gethsemane, so desperately fearful about what was ahead of him that Luke says an angel came to give him courage!  Even after the angel appeared, Jesus was still so distraught that he was sweating blood as he prayed.  Does this sound like the behavior of someone who knew it was all going to conclude in a glorious supernatural event?!  Even the miracle of an angelic appearance didn’t snap Jesus out of his horrible dread.  The second moment of this nature is when he was crying out on the cross, feeling abandoned by God.  Once again, we should stop to seriously and prayerfully reflect upon whether or not this is something that would be said by a human being so thoroughly united with God that he knew all things.  No, Jesus obviously doesn’t have complete confidence that he will be resurrected to a life after death the way it is later portrayed by some of the gospel writers.  These moments show us that Jesus was far more like us than many of us want to believe.  He was a human being confronting the facts of his suffering and death, and he was miserable and afraid because of it.

Of what benefit is this view of the Passion?  The short answer is that the story of Jesus is thus an even more meaningful example to us of acceptance, faith, and love.  It wasn’t foreknowledge of his resurrection that carried Jesus through his ordeal, but rather it was his commitment to what he felt in his heart was worthy of sacrificing everything, including his own existence.  What was it that was so worthy of such sacrifice (literally meaning “to make sacred”)?  This is a question we will revisit.

It may well be that the author of the earliest gospel, Mark, recognized that this story of willing self-sacrifice was not only an important part of the story, but that it was the most important.  After all, the original version of Mark ends with 16:1-8, and thus all we have is an empty tomb, a young man only claiming that Jesus will appear again, and the three women running away in fear.  We are left with a lot of unanswered questions, and Mark therefore evokes both our instinctive fear of the unknown as well as our equally deep-rooted hope.  How fitting this is!  And it is especially fitting for those of us who, like the three women, don’t have the benefit of actually seeing Jesus risen in the flesh.

This is where we can return to that question about self-sacrifice.   For you, what is worth the sacrifice of everything, even your own life, with no promise at all that there would be anything but oblivion afterward?  Surely there are many answers people might offer, but consider for a moment the possibility that they all come down to love in some form — love of family, of friends, of country, of humanity, of freedom, of truth, or, perhaps ultimately, of love itself.

Let’s follow that question with these:  How am I willing and unwilling to make such sacrifices?  How am I avoiding or entering into the darkest unknowns love points toward?  More specifically, how am I letting go of my treasured notions about myself in order to be more completely and wholly devoted to love?  How am I putting a narrow love of self above a more expansive and inclusive love?

If you’re like me, you encounter lots of different “voices” in yourself when you turn within to meditate and pray with such questions.  One voice is critical, judgmental, and unforgiving.  Another voice is accepting, comforting, and encouraging.  Another is defensive, fragile, and desperate. Still another is disinterested, apathetic, and indifferent.  Yet another is tempting, seductive, and self-indulgent.  And there may be others.  From what I can tell, this is all very ordinarily human, and we are all challenged to deal with a complex reality of mixed and muddied attitudes, motives, and intentions.  Penetrating just a little behind these veils reveals that we are mysteries to ourselves, and thus brings into question our pretense of certainty and deep conviction about many things, not the least being our religious beliefs.  Just this little bit of honest self-awareness can be terribly uncomfortable, at least at first, and so it can be seen as a significant step in taking up the cross of Jesus and beginning the work of sacrificing our illusions.

Embracing the mysteries of life, both those within and without, leads back to the very questions that have driven many of us into religion, even if we weren’t fully aware of them.  This can be frightening because it forces us into some degree of confrontation with the truth that we don’t really know everything that we want to know, or even think we should know.  It forces us to, in some way, admit that we have uncertainties and doubts about many things that we would rather be able to take for granted.  In fact, many of us have been raised with religious admonitions that such uncertainties and doubts are unacceptable, even evil.  But Jesus himself experienced them!  Unless we are willing to say part of Jesus was unacceptable and evil, then we have to rethink the notion that uncertainties and doubts have no place in our faith.

Logically, faith cannot exist without uncertainty and doubt.  Where there is complete and undeniable certainty, there is no room left for faith.  Faith is therefore not the opposite of doubt, not the cessation of uncertainty, but rather it is an ongoing response to doubt and uncertainty.   Yet faith isn’t merely the choice of one possible answer among many, but is instead a deep conviction about and commitment to something that we feel in our hearts is worthy of our devotion even in the face of the most threatening uncertainties, like those suffered by Jesus, and worse.  The aim of penetrating into our doubts and uncertainties is therefore not to abandon faith, but to refine it, making it increasingly focused upon the one thing that is most worthy of devotion.

Suppose I speak in the languages of human beings and of angels. If I don’t have love, I am only a loud gong or a noisy cymbal.  Suppose I have the gift of prophecy. Suppose I can understand all the secret things of God and know everything about him. And suppose I have enough faith to move mountains. If I don’t have love, I am nothing at all.  Suppose I give everything I have to poor people. And suppose I give my body to be burned. If I don’t have love, I get nothing at all. 1 Corinthians 13:1-3

Now we see only a dim likeness of things. It is as if we were seeing them in a mirror. But someday we will see clearly. We will see face to face. What I know now is not complete. But someday I will know completely, just as God knows me completely.  The three most important things to have are faith, hope and love. But the greatest of them is love.  1 Corinthians 13:12-13

Despite what many preachers would have us believe, we don’t need to be obsessed with the promise of resurrection in order to live our faith well.  In actuality, if our faith is like that of Jesus, we love more freely simply because how we express love right here and right now is what matters most to us.  This isn’t a path of works alone, doing good things because that’s what is expected of us.  It is a path in which unconditional love increasingly becomes the driving force of our lives, shaping our faith, hopes, and our works in its own way.

O Mysterious One we know as Love Itself, help us in every moment to willingly give all for love, to make every moment sacred with love, to greet our doubts and uncertainties with faith in love, to seek the changes love begets as the continual rebirth we most desire. Amen.

Agape

Feb 062013
 

This post continues on the theme of the previous post, The Illusion of Separateness.

We begin before the beginning, outside of time and space, with the Nameless, Faceless, Indescribable One that is the Source and Ground of All, which we simply refer to now as…

1. Unity

Genesis

origen1

2. Duality within Unity

In some way that defies our complete understanding, ‘within’ the Transcendent Unity we call ‘God,’ there is an ‘intention’ for the freedom of otherness to be.  Some of our creation myths try to explain why this happens, yet others leave it as a mystery.  The story of Genesis, for example, does not explain why God wills creation; we are only given a beginning of space-time in which God creates the distinction of heaven and earth. From this basic duality, of Godself and other, arises all the diversity of creation in response to God’s will, and all of it is declared “good,” which is to say that, at least so far, things are as they should be.

Note:  In this context, ‘other’ refers not only to other persons, but anything considered to be ‘not me.’  This is an important point to keep in mind as further points refer to ‘others.’

The Fall and the Spiral of Illusions

3. The Illusion of Separateness

Despite the multiplicity of forms in creation, careful reading of scripture reveals that it is all actually one.  Everything and everyone lives, moves, and has its being in God. There is nowhere that God is not. Yet we can become intoxicated by duality and thus fail to perceive our unity with the All and the One.  This is the symbolism of being tempted by the serpent, eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and ejection from Eden.   The self-other binary of duality has become a veil on unity, a distraction from it, and is thus distorted into the illusion of separateness.  It is not a fall from grace, but a fall from the intimate awareness of grace.

4. The Illusion of Lacking

Our delusion of separation is at odds with our latent memory, or intuitive knowledge, of unity; it is a dissonance, an incongruity, felt by us as incompleteness.  It is the root of all uneasiness, all discomfort, with self and others. In Genesis, this uncomfortable feeling of lacking and need is revealed in Adam’s lonely desire for a mate, and later in the couple’s shame about their nakedness.  Out of our deep knowing of unity as truth, a desire emerges to eliminate the discomfort that accompanies the illusion of lacking and need.  Yet that desire can conflate with a desire to expand self, because self is perceived as the most immediate thing, and thus least illusory, within the illusion of separateness.  In such confusion, we believe others must be drawn into self in order to rebuild wholeness and thus relieve our existential discomfort.  Desire is thereby revealed as more fundamental than need in our existence.  Everything perceived as a need is actually something we desire in order to maintain or undo the illusions of separateness.  Even the need to survive disappears if one no longer desires to live.

5. The Illusion of Acquiring/Possessing

Acting in response to the illusion of need and the desire to expand self, self attempts to relieve discomfort through acquiring/possessing others (people, things, ideas, experiences, etc.), and thus ironically defends, perpetuates, and compounds the illusion of self’s separateness.

6. The Illusion of Strengths/Weaknesses

In the processes of acquiring and possessing, we perceive patterns within a binaries of (a) ease versus difficulty and (b) ability versus inability.  We compare and contrast self and others in these ways, conceptualizing different kinds of talent, skill, and knowledge, and judging each other according to competence in acquiring and possessing.

7. The Illusion of Conflict with Others

We experience that others acting to acquire and possess can interfere with our acquiring and possessing, even completely preventing or undoing our own acquiring and possessing.  We therefore conclude that some others must be outperformed, if not eliminated, in order for self to acquire and possess as easily and freely as possible.

8. The Illusion of Winners/Losers

We perceive a success-failure binary in the competition to acquire and possess.  Winners are judged as good because they model the illusory ideal of defending, perpetuating, and expanding self.

9. The Illusion of Self-Improvement/Self-Diminishment

We perceive a progress-regress binary in winning and losing, and thus in developing and maintaining (acquiring and possessing) self-efficacy, which is our sense of ability to achieve success in drawing others into self.

Notice how every step reinforces and compounds the previous steps, and thus our energies spiral out into an ever larger, more complex, and more unmanageable illusory existence.  Yet, every step also offers the possibility of awakening to these illusions.

What are we to do about all of this?

Some spiritual traditions seem to insist that the whole phenomenon of otherness is either a cosmic mistake or a flaw in the spirit of humanity.  The fact of duality, of the self-other binary that is at the very heart of creation, is judged as the fundamental evil that makes all of creation corrupt.  This way of thinking often leads to re-assessing self as the most immediate falsehood rather than the most immediate reality, and thus to the conclusion that the only way out of illusion is to utterly destroy self.  A similar but more extroverted reaction is the quest for an idealized world in which all distinctions of otherness, and thus all differences, are eliminated.  It is, in effect, an attempt to eliminate diversity and establish universal conformity to some imagined state of perfection.

Unless we take the view that the Adonai of Genesis is a false god, a deluded and megalomaniacal demiurge bent on making a cosmic mistake, then we cannot conclude from our myth that creation, with its dualism, is an evil to be undone.  Instead, our creation myth suggests that the primary problem is the illusion of separation, and Jesus promises that it is possible to overcome, or be delivered from, this problem.  It might seem paradoxical, but he calls us to return to awareness of unity while still participating in duality.  As we shall see, such a call only seems paradoxical when viewed from a position still fully immersed in the illusion of separateness.

Lucidity

cosmic-eye-mandala-print

As frequent readers of this blog are likely to know, lucid dreaming is my favorite analogy for a state of being in which one has awareness of unity while still participating in duality; in lucid dreaming, one clearly knows he or she is dreaming while the dream is happening.  It is a state less enmeshed in the illusions of separateness between self and the various ‘others’ experienced in the dream, and yet the dream and one’s presence in it continues to manifest.  Anyone who experiences lucidity knows what a liberating moment it can be.  What may have, only seconds before, seemed like an unbearable nightmare can suddenly be experienced with a light heart, even a sense of humor, not unlike a Halloween house of horrors.  More pleasant dreams can have their beauty magnified as the wonder and awe of their artistry is more deeply appreciated.  Imagine what it is like to realize that the mind you call your own is somehow mysteriously creating and sustaining an entire world around you, and with incredible detail and vibrancy.   If you have had this experience, then you may also know what it is like to begin working with the dream as a piece of art, shaping and crafting it according to your own wishes.  A nightmare can be completely transformed into an experience of peace and joy.  A monotonous repetition of typical events can be seized as an opportunity to break the laws of physics and fly in the air or breathe underwater.  Almost anything is possible, and no ugliness seems quite as genuinely threatening to you or any ‘other’ in the dream.

Mystical insight, enlightenment, revelation, or whatever you want to call it, can impart a similar liberation with regard to our presence in the so-called ‘waking world.’  According to some mystics, philosophers, and physicists, our ‘waking world’ is like a shared dream in which all of our seemingly individual minds are participating with a consensus, both conscious and unconscious, about how things should work.  Individuals who become lucid in this world attain some measure of liberation from the ‘rules,’ and thus greater freedom and power to consciously shape the world.  Furthermore, just as one can fade in and out of lucidity within a dream, we can do so in the waking world.  One moment we can remember unity and enjoy our freedom in greater measure, and the very next moment again fall into the sleep of illusory separateness.  Therefore, the mechanisms of lucidity are, to some extent, obviously beyond our conscious control, at least for most of us.  On the other hand, the desire to experience lucidity, and the intention to maintain it, do seem to make a significant difference.  If the great sages and seers of history have spoken truthfully, then there is not only a Spiral of Illusions, but also a Spiral of Lucidity that we can engage.

Why?

Why… does God do this?  …are we here?   …seek lucidity? This takes us full-circle back to the beginning.  Genesis doesn’t say why God creates, only that God does, and that God considers it good. We can therefore conclude that it is not an evil to be destroyed, a mistake to be undone, or a prison to be escaped.  The Genesis myth further suggests that we are created to be God’s partners in creation, tending to God’s garden while directly aware of God’s presence; we have the innate potential to be conscious participants in manifesting the All’s infinite possibilities.  In addition, we learn that we are endowed with freedom, for without it we would be severely limited in our ability to intentionally transform things from one state into something new and different, yet that freedom also makes it possible for us to forget and ignore the unity of the One and All.   These observations lead me to believe that when we ask the why questions, what we are really seeking is some understanding of what we should do with our existence and freedom, as if that answer lies external to our own hearts’ desires.  If we are indeed created to be free co-creators, then the more meaningful question is this:  What do you want to do with your existence and freedom?

There are many more questions and implications we could continue to explore, such as what this model suggests about our perceptions of good and evil, sin and morality, heaven and hell, grace, salvation, and every other aspect of our lives, religious and otherwise.  But, in closing, you are especially welcomed to reflect upon how these possibilities might relate to our understandings of love – what it is, why it is the Greatest Commandment to love God with all that we are and our neighbors as ourselves, and the ways we can do so.

Agape

Oct 122012
 

While I and many others have a lot to say about Christian mysticism, it’s worth considering how using ‘mysticism’ as a modifier for ‘Christian’ is somewhat redundant.  In other words, it can be argued that Christianity is already mystical by nature, and that all Christians are therefore mystics, especially if they understand this aspect of our religion.  The purpose of this post is to make a case that Christianity is indeed a mystical religion, and discuss what value there may be in continuing to use terms like ‘Christian mysticism.’

For the purposes of this post, let’s begin with Merriam-Webster for a conventional understanding of  ‘mysticism,’ ‘mystical,’ and ‘mystic.’

Mysticism:
1: the experience of mystical union or direct communion with ultimate reality reported by mystics
2: the belief that direct knowledge of God, spiritual truth, or ultimate reality can be attained through subjective experience (as intuition or insight)

Mystical:
1 a : having a spiritual meaning or reality that is neither apparent to the senses nor obvious to the intelligence <the mystical food of the sacrament>
b : involving or having the nature of an individual’s direct subjective communion with God or ultimate reality <the mystical experience of the Inner Light>

Mystic:
1: a follower of a mystical way of life
2: an advocate of a theory of mysticism

Notice these key words:

  • union
  • direct communion
  • direct knowledge
  • subjective communion

These words speak to a connectedness with God, a oneness with God that mystics believe, and some may actually know, is possible to experience or realize.  Technically speaking, it follows that to use ‘mysticism,’ ‘mystical’ or ‘mystic’ as a modifier for ‘Christian’ could imply that Christianity itself isn’t inherently mystical, and that some of us have added mysticism to it.  So we should ask if that is the case or not.

Does Christianity already include mysticism? Let’s begin to answer that question by reviewing some relevant scriptures.

Jesus Declares the Kingdom of God is Within

“Asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, He replied to them by saying, the kingdom of God does not come with signs to be observed or with visible display, nor will people say, Look! Here [it is]! or, See, [it is] there! For behold, the kingdom of God is within you [in your hearts] and among you [surrounding you].” (Luke 17:20-21 AMP)

The Prayer of Jesus for His Followers to Know They are One with God

My prayer is not for them [the disciples] alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one — I in them and you in me — so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.  (John 17:20-23)

St. Paul on Our Interconnection with God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit

While in Athens, Paul argued for the closeness of God by quoting the Cretan philosopher Epimenides:

…he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’  (Acts 17:27-28)

Speaking to the Corinthians, Paul made these statements:

Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? … For it is said, ‘But whoever is united with the Lord is one with him in spirit.’ … Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? (1 Corinthians 6:15, 17, 19a)

St. John on Love as Union with God

No one has ever seen God. But if we love one another, God lives in us. His love is made complete in us.  We know that we belong to him and he belongs to us. He has given us his Holy Spirit. …  So we know that God loves us. We depend on it.  God is love. Anyone who leads a life of love shows that he is joined to God. And God is joined to him.  (1 John 4:12-13, 16)

There are many more scriptural references we could draw on, but these words attributed to Jesus, St. Paul, and St. John are enough to suggest that, at the very least, it is possible to personally know union with God, even if only under certain circumstances.  It is also understandable why some of us find in them the further revelation that we are already one with God, though we may not be aware of it.  From these passages, it is obvious that mysticism as previously defined is an inherent part of Christianity, unless we take their words as nothing more than the loosest form of metaphor. (But be careful, for if we take it as nothing more than flowery prose, then we have poor grounds to take Jesus more literally when he says, “I and my Father are one,” a statement central to his prayer for his followers.)  All Christians, if by the term we mean those who consider themselves adherents to the theology of Jesus and his Apostles, are therefore mystics as defined by Merriam-Webster, whether we recognize ourselves as such or not.

Given this conclusion, what value is there in using terms like ‘Christian mysticism’ ‘mystical Christianity’ or ‘Christian mystic’?   We begin to answer that by acknowledging the simple fact that not everyone uses or understands the meaning of ‘mysticism’ offered above, and neither do all recognize that Christianity fits that definition. Likewise, many of us have personally experienced varieties of Christian spirituality that hinge more upon emphasizing the distance between God and humanity rather than upon our communion with God.  To overtly use these terms is therefore to emphasize one’s own commitment to intentionally engage in and/or draw attention to this aspect of Christianity.

Finally, I want to suggest that a technical redundancy is the least of all risks in using these terms.  One of the bigger risks is reinforcing a perception that mysticism is an innovation within Christianity, a departure from the “faith of our fathers,” if not some entirely foreign and heretical appendage grafted onto our religion.  Therefore, whenever we speak of mysticism in Christianity, I think we have a duty to help others understand that we are talking about something lived and taught by Jesus and his Apostles, something they prayed that all their followers would come to know.  Another risk is building up spiritual pride through the notion that, in applying these terms to oneself, one is somehow identifying oneself as a ‘better’ Christian, or, God forbid, even a ‘true’ Christian.  It is for this reason that some of us choose not to apply them to ourselves.   While that might be the wisest option for some, I don’t believe it should be a rule for all, anymore than I believe we should avoid calling ourselves Christians because we might be prideful in doing so.  I think Jesus’ teachings about sharing the Good News and letting our lights shine are instructive in this context. Even so, these same teachings remind us that our loving actions are the best testimony and fruits we have to share with others, and that any words we might use without them are no more than noisy gongs and clanging cymbals.  Any mysticism that doesn’t eventually yield such fruit is, at best, a distraction.

Agape

Jun 252012
 

Seeking a God to Glorify, by Leroy T. Howe

Glorify coverHere is what I wrote for Amazon.com:

“This book is a wonderful read! Dr. Howe guides us through his own journey of spiritual formation, or faith development, courageously sharing the kinds of deep questions, thoughts, and feelings that many of us have been trained to avoid and deny at all costs. Supported by his exceptional scholarship, Dr. Howe’s thinking is as penetrating and clear as his compassion for humanity is warm and accepting. This soulful combination allows him to voice great sympathy for the profound struggles of religious life, especially with church doctrine, while also permitting him to be both funny and surgically precise in criticizing a great deal of popular dogma. Personally speaking, at every turn I felt as though I was reading the thoughts and feelings of a true kindred spirit. Dr. Howe knows the only god truly worthy of worship is the God who is Truth and Love. This being the highest possible concept of God, we best honor God through our own genuine commitment to the principles of truth and love, and so we must seriously question any doctrine, text, or authority that leads elsewhere.”

With regard to mysticism, Dr. Howe speaks clearly of a world-shifting spiritual experience  in which he felt connection with an infinitely caring “Knower.”  He also alludes to exploring some methods of spiritual practice, yet he never labels his faith as mystical.   Even so, many of us will find that his work belies a truly meditative depth of reflection, if not a genuinely contemplative openness to the still small voice of the Spirit in his own heart and mind.   One of the nice things about the lack of the mysticism label, combined with his personable writing style, is that it illustrates an approach to communing very deeply with God to which almost anyone can relate.

Dr. Howe also has his own excellent blog: Faith Challenges – Searching for a Credible Faith.

As a more intimate note to readers of my blog, I’m happy to point out that Dr. Howe dedicated this book to his good friend, Dr. John F. Miller, III.  John was my philosophy professor in college, my first meditation teacher, has remained a mentor all these years, and is one of my dearest friends.  Given that John’s career as a philosopher is most noteworthy for championing love above all else, it’s no surprise to me that Dr. Howe would dedicate this book to him.

Jun 152012
 

It seems to me that understanding what we really mean by “faith” is one of the most important exercises in being a Christian.  It also seems that for most Christians faith is defined in terms of assent to specific theological ideas.  Said more bluntly, our predominant contemporary approach to faith is the practice of proclaiming and otherwise acting as if particular doctrines about God and Jesus are facts, no matter what we truly think and feel. We can call this dogmatic faith, because it is doctrinaire in its attitudes and also because it is largely an attempt to have faith in the doctrines rather than in our personal relationships with God.  As a central part of dogmatic faith, many of us have been trained to resist, conceal, and deny what we truly think and feel, especially if it includes any disagreement, doubt, or uncertainty about doctrine.  The self-conflict that naturally results from such a practice is sometimes even touted as praiseworthy internal warfare against demonic deception.  In effect, we’re taught that faith means an active distrust of our own hearts and minds.  Is this what Jesus and his earliest followers intended?  Is this what God wants?  I have strong faith that the answer to both of those questions is a resounding “no.” In an effort to loosen some of the chains of dogmatic faith, this post looks carefully at the meaning of faith in early Christianity, shows how it connects with mysticism, and explores some implications for our religious life.

Faith Defined

When we look at the ancient Hebrew and Greek words for faith, we find not only a greater breadth of meaning than dogmatism but also a very different emphasis.  In the Tanakh, a key Hebrew word translated into English as “faith” is emunah, which more specifically connotes an active trust and confidence in someone or something.  In the New Testament, the words relating to faith and belief are the Greek pistis (noun) or pisteuo (verb), which similarly connote trust, fidelity, and reliance.  Among other places, pistis appears in what may be the most commonly cited Christian scripture to define faith, Hebrews 11:1:

“Faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us assurance about things we cannot see.” NLT

This little statement is a concise yet penetrating revelation about the intimate relationship of faith and hope.  Hope is the anticipation of something we desire, and as such it has both emotional and intellectual components. The intellectual aspect is an idea of what we want to happen, and the emotional aspect is a positive feeling that it will happen.  Faith is therefore specifically identified as the root, source, or power behind that positive feeling in hope.  With faith as a prerequisite, hope cannot be contingent upon what a person should feel or think.  No matter how clear a vision might be for what we think we should hope, if the personal emotional conviction is not also there, then there is no real faith behind it, and thus there is no real hope. Pretended hope is faithless, and thus isn’t hope at all.  Hope is a deeply personal experience that isn’t a matter of choosing one option over others because someone else encourages it; that is merely consent at best.  Hope can certainly be influenced by others, and even shared in common with others, but each person’s hope must be her or his own, driven by his or her own faith.

Along those lines, note that this verse doesn’t say faith is confidence specifically in church doctrine, in what we hear from the pulpit, or even in scripture.  In fact, the second clause clearly specifies that faith is about unseen things.  Doctrines, preachers, and scriptures can all point toward things that we cannot see, but they themselves are seen, and thus they are not the ultimate objects of our faith, our greatest trust, confidence, or reliance.  This observation is supported by taking the full context of Hebrews 11,  in which all the examples cited for great faith – including Able, Enoch, Noah, Sarah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses – are credited for acting upon their own very personal and immediate experiences of God’s call, for acting upon their hope in serving the Divine, and not for their submission to religious authorities and doctrines.  Some of these examples further reveal that faith cannot be equated with the positive emotional aspect of hope.  With Noah, for example, while his faith in the purpose of the ark may have been positive, his faith in the coming deluge would have been sorrowful.

In this view, we can see that faith is deep trust and powerful conviction connected to one’s personal awareness of God. It is not a particular feeling, not just a function of emotion, but instead the presence of something else that stirs emotional responses in us.  It is not a matter of choice, not merely a derivative of conscious reasoning, but rather a power that rises up from the spirit within us to direct our reasoning and choices. If faith isn’t simply the product of conscious processes like thinking and feeling, it must come from some other place.  In psychological terms, we would say that faith rises up from the unconscious, perhaps intuitively or even instinctively, and as such it bears a striking resemblance to what we mean by the word will.  In terms of Christian spirituality, the New Testament consistently says faith is a gift from God.  Some Christians understand this to mean that one either has faith or does not, depending on Divine intervention.  On the other hand, some of us believe that all people have received faith from God, but for one reason or another not everyone experiences it as consciously directed toward God. It might instead be directed toward science, nature, humanity, love, happiness, peace, power, life itself, or any number of other things. My experience suggests that everyone has a deep compelling conviction that something is most worthy of their trust and allegiance, and faith is therefore an inherent guiding function in human beings.  Again, this is not unlike how we speak of the will.

Faith and Authenticity

Each of us has our own faith, just as each of us has our own sensations.  We can no more give our faith to someone else, or take someone else’s faith into ourselves, than we can see through each others eyes, hear through each others ears, or smell through each others noses.  We can describe those experiences to each other, we can describe how we have been affected by them, and we can even lead each other into situations that will produce very similar experiences, but the experiences themselves are nontransferable.  Faith is like this in that the conviction that something or someone is trustworthy happens internally, as do the thoughts and feelings connected with that conviction.  In effect, we cannot simply adopt someone else’s beliefs as our own.  Even if we trust someone else’s ideas and conclusions more than our own, we must first have faith in our own ability to make that judgment, and our own faith in the other person is still our own faith.  It is therefore inescapable that all decisions start with faith in one’s own ability to make those decisions, even if it seems to mean turning all ensuing decisions over to someone else.  Every acceptance of someone else’s choice is thus a response to our own faith.  The really important questions are therefore about the degree to which we are responding authentically to our faith, acknowledging and honoring the fact that its source and presence is within ourselves.

Let’s ask some of those questions in the context of three very basic ideas we Christians share about God:

1. God is the source of all truth and love.
2. God’s supreme will is for truth and love to reign above all.
3. Our love for God should be done with all that we are.

If this is all true, and my faith tells me it is, then which better honors God – fully accepting our responsibility for what we think and feel, or trying to pretend it can be turned over to someone else, or to a church or a book?  Is it even possible for us to genuinely believe that God expects us to lie to ourselves about what we really think and feel?  Can we come to any reasonable conclusion that our salvation is determined by trying to force ourselves to believe, or pretend to believe, a particular set of theological notions?  And if that is indeed the way one defines a faith necessary for salvation, then how is that not actually a path of works to try earning God’s unmerited grace?

I suspect that somewhere in each of us is the very natural hope, and thus the faith, that God really does want us to love God with all of our heart, soul, and mind, just as Jesus said.  To me, this must mean that God wants our complete authenticity, including our doubts and uncertainties, and definitely not our disingenuous conformity to doctrine or tradition.  I suspect that denying what we truly think and feel is therefore more about fear of human judgment and punishment than it is about pleasing God, although the religious training many of us have received can make it difficult to know the difference.

Faith and Scripture

While faith itself may be innate, the mind driven by faith must focus that energy upon something.  Yet the mind makes mistakes for all sorts of reasons, including poor information and faulty logic.  The mind stimulated by faith therefore benefits from having reference points and guidelines that have been tested by time.  Likewise, we benefit from guidelines on how to manage the very powerful feelings stimulated by faith.  These are the purposes of the Bible in Christianity.  Even though there was no New Testament as we know it for many generations of early Christians, and it has only been in the last few hundred years that most Christians have been able to read the Bible for themselves, it has become central to making Christianity the unique religion that it is. Yet the Bible is neither the religion itself nor the supreme object of our faith, and it is certainly not a manual for an inauthentic “fake it ’til you make it” imitation of faith.

If we rely upon the Bible as a central aid in loving God with all our heart and mind, we have a responsibility to develop the deepest and clearest possible understanding of its meanings.  For many of us, dogmatic faith has insisted that understanding the Bible is simply a matter of regarding it as a perfectly complete, plainspoken, and inerrant dictation from God.  For others of us, this approach requires far too much confidence in the human beings who wrote, edited, compiled, and translated the works in the Bible, no matter how inspired they were.  When we look at the history of the Bible, we clearly see it has been and still is subject to the same human shortcomings and follies as other literature.  We therefore cannot claim to know exactly what Jesus said, what was and was not put into his mouth by the writers of the gospels. Supposing we did know that much, we still couldn’t honestly be so certain of precisely what he or they meant that we could exclude all other possibilities; there are just too many complicating factors. Very few of us are qualified to know how translation into our own native language skews the meanings we gather from the Bible, and those who are qualified can and do come to stalemates where one possibility is as valid as another.  The greatest Biblical scholars cannot say with complete certainty when Jesus was and wasn’t speaking in some degree of metaphor, and they cannot avoid being confronted with passages that conflict with each other in different ways. Even the attempt to read something as literally as possible sometimes leads to radically different understandings.  With all of these observations, it is quite reasonable to conclude that we are all actually interpreting everything in the Bible, whether we realize it or not.  Furthermore, when faced with various passages that seem to conflict with each other, making decisions about which ones are closer to the truth as we understand it automatically makes everyone a “cafeteria Christian” to some extent.

But with all the different possible directions to look for meanings, how do we know which ones to pursue?  This is where faith always steps in for each of us.  The nourishment we select from the buffet of possibilities is determined by our faith, how each of our hearts and minds are moved by our own trust and conviction in what is true.  Referring back to Hebrews 11:1, we can see that paying attention to our hopes is an important part of the process.  Being honest with ourselves about what we hope a scripture means can help us look more directly into what our faith is telling us about the truth of ourselves and our relationships with God. Of course, this doesn’t mean that we won’t misunderstand and make mistakes, but it does mean that they will at least be honest misunderstandings and mistakes.  That’s not only as it should be, it’s the only way it can be if we are going to be as authentic as possible, and thus it would seem that God would expect as much.  Furthermore, we don’t need to have answers for everything but we should admit (at least to ourselves) when there are some things that we simply do not believe.   Some people say that in such cases we must suspend our own disbelief and place our trust in doctrine.  But we should ask how it honors the God of Truth to try filling the gap of doubt with someone else’s thoughts, especially when the “still small voice” in one’s heart is speaking otherwise.  It seems to me that sometimes faith requires us to wrestle with the angels.

Conclusion: Mystical Faith

Referring back to “Faith Defined,” we once again consider the figures cited as examples of faith, and especially what the Bible says about their relationships with God.   We consistently find that they communed directly with God: They heard God, they spoke with God, they walked with God, and they even argued with God.  In the end, they all served what they best understood to be God’s will no matter what anyone else thought, said, or did.  Their immediate personal relationships with God are emphasized as central to their faith, and not their relationships with scriptures, doctrines, religious institutions, or any other mediating entities.  Those secondary things certainly played important roles at various times, but none were ever more important to our exemplars than the voice of the Spirit speaking through their own trust in God, their confidence in their personal relationships with God, and their convictions about what would best serve God.  In short, their faith was exceptionally authentic, and it was also exceptionally mystical.

What made their faith mystical is that it was unmediated.  Because mystics are concerned with the fullest possible realization of unity with God, we seek to commune directly with God.  The mystical way is as literal as it can be in reading and responding to the call to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength.  We turn inward to open the Holy of Holies, the place of God’s immediate presence in our own beings, and we do so trusting that God wants our authentic love more than anything else.  So it is that we strive to quietly lay our hearts and minds bare before God, respectfully avoiding, at least before God, the pretense of beliefs we do not actually hold.  We are confident that the hopes arising in and from these moments are evidence of our faith being formed by God’s infinite wisdom and love.  Yet, because turning inward also makes us more profoundly aware of our humanity, we understand that we can err in the thinking, the management of emotions, and the actions driven by the energy of our faith.  We understand that there are consequences for such errors, but we trust that the loss of Divine Grace will never be one of them. We also hope to learn through those consequences, and thus follow our faith into greater experiences and expressions of love.

With this deep awareness and acceptance of our own humanity, we realize that faith, the voice of the Spirit, can lead individuals and groups in somewhat different directions. It is therefore easier for us to welcome and love others with beliefs different from our own, and especially in matters of theological doctrine.  In fact, our faith leads us to open our arms wider to embrace and celebrate the differences, not only the similarities, arising from all people’s relationships with The One who is Truth, Life, and Love Itself, and thus evolve together into greater fulfillment of the prayer, “Thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven.”

Maranatha

Agape

May 092012
 

origin of satanThe Origin of Satan: How Christians Demonized Jews, Pagans, and Heretics, by Elaine Pagels

The title of this book seems somewhat misleading if all you see is, “The Origin of Satan.” The rest of the title is the real story.  Even so, by the end of the book I had a renewed appreciation for that “origin” business, since for me it became a constant reminder of how distorted and manipulated the idea of Satan has become from its Jewish roots.  It’s a good read, and I definitely recommend it for anyone ready to shake off some of the convenient dichotomies in our faith’s popular notions of Satan and evil.

The chapters of this book are:

  1. The Gospel of Mark and the Jewish War
  2. The Social History of Satan: From the Hebrew Bible to the Gospels
  3. Matthew’s Campaign Against the Pharisees: Deploying the Devil
  4. Luke and John Claim Israel’s Legacy: The Split Widens
  5. Satan’s Earthly Kingdom: Christians Against Pagans
  6. The Enemy Within: Dehumanizing the Heretics

Through these chapters, Pagels very thoroughly shows how a fringe idea (of Satan as a rebellious and fallen angel) evolved into a means for some members of the oppressed minority of early Christianity to define themselves in opposition to the evils they experienced and perceived in the world.  She then carefully illustrates how this new doctrine was expanded as part of official Christian theology, and how it was increasingly used as a way to stigmatize anyone or anything that would stand in the way of the emerging ecclesiastical hierarchy and its ambition to exercise worldly power.

As we should all know, this doctrine eventually became the justification for “good Christians” committing all the same heinous sins of oppression and persecution (and with even greater magnitude) against other minorities, both internal and external to the Church.  We became what we hated.  If Jesus spoke truly about knowing his followers by their fruits, then what has history shown us about the spirit of this doctrine?

One take-away for me is that it’s painfully obvious many of us are still playing this bloody game today.  And don’t think that I am merely taking a shot at militant evangelicals and fundamentalists; Christians calling themselves mystics, progressives, or liberals can do it too, and too often these various factions viciously hurl the accusations back and forth at each other.  Let’s also acknowledge the presence of this demonizing tactic in many contemporary Christians’ attitudes toward other religions, nations, political philosophies, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and so on.  I’m afraid that almost any wing of popular Christianity could, if too closely tied to political power, repeat this sad, gruesome old story of “lawfully” abusing those judged as under the influence of the Devil.  I’m also convinced that some of us are actively trying to do just that today, and not only in the USA.

The questions begged by this book include these:  What will it take for us to collectively let go of this temptation, this addiction, of demonizing others?  How do we do it without using the same dehumanizing tactics against our Christian siblings who hold onto this human-made doctrine as if it were a divine law?  How do we more fully express the wisdom and spirit of the Sermon on the Mount?

My guess is that it’s all got something to do with love and the mystical relationship with Christ and the Holy Spirit in one’s own heart.  What do you hear emerging from the stillness and silence in your heart?

Jesus Christ, our beloved brother and teacher, and Mary Sophia, our beloved mother and counselor, may your merciful, forgiving, selfless love heal us and inspire us to more freely serve as your vessels in this world. Amen.

Apr 062011
 

In part 2, we considered the possibility that Satan – the voice of selfishness and the temptation to take the east way out – led Jesus to confront his own sense of existential emptiness and spiritual hunger.  In doing so, it was suggested that Jesus experienced compassion for all others who suffer not only with physical hunger but with these deeper issues, and that he also realized such challenges are not best answered through temporary acquisitions the way physical hunger is by physical food. To attempt satisfying our spiritual needs in such ways would be to put economic power above faith.   It was further suggested that Jesus realized our emptiness and spiritual hunger are not wrongs to be righted, not lackings to be eliminated, but are instead natural symptoms of our freedom and the will to live it.  There is liberation in welcoming and embracing them.

For the second and third temptations, I will offer an expanded hypothetical dialogue between Jesus and Satan.

The Second Temptation

The Adversary’s next pitch, this time for political power, amounts to something like this:

Okay, Jesus, you’ve realized your freedom and your will to do something meaningful with it.  You care deeply about all of humanity, and you realize economic power isn’t the ultimate answer.  After all, a full belly doesn’t solve all the world’s problems, does it?  So think about this:  You could fulfill the prophecies of the Messiah and rule all the nations of this world, and in doing so you could command things to be whatever you wish.  You could end all wars, stop oppression of the weak and the righteous, put an end to hunger for everyone, and make the world a utopia.  Just imagine!  The New Jerusalem!  Heaven on earth!  Now that’s something the Son of God should do, right?

This proposition has got to sound pretty good to Jesus, and we can imagine it would be an even bigger temptation than pursuing economic power alone.  But then Jesus hears something to this effect:

Of course, the rub is that all these ignorant human beings were created with free will, which means not everyone is going to want to get on board with your plans.  Unless you want rebels and insurgents undermining everything you do, you’re going to have to make everyone want to get on board.  And, to be blunt, the only way that’s going to happen is if you acknowledge the fact that it’s my spirit running the show down here.  I mean, Jesus, just look around!  Distrust, selfishness, temptation, manipulation, violence – these are things that really move people!  Embrace these principles and, with your powers, you’ll have the whole world eating out of your hand, and the rebels and insurgents be damned! Literally! Hahahahahaha!

Jesus doesn’t fall for it.  Tyranny isn’t the way to peace and love, and so  he responds:

It is written: “Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.”

Jesus has realized the wisdom that a 20th century bard would express in this way:

There is no political solution to our troubled evolution. Have no faith in constitution. There is no bloody revolution. We are spirits in the material world.  (“Spirits in the Material World”, by the Police, written by Sting)

The Third Temptation

The voice of Satan doesn’t miss a beat:

Okay, okay, so it’s a religious solution you are here to provide. I can dig it!  So come with me.

Whether in a vision or in actuality, Jesus finds himself atop the temple in Jerusalem.

Look at all those people down there, thirsty for God’s grace,  hoping and praying for miracles, and making sacrifices because they believe they have to appease a jealous, angry, vengeful Father.  And no wonder!  This living hell is a long way from the Garden of Eden, and there isn’t a soul down there who doesn’t know guilt and shame.  I’ve got to hand it to you – you’re right that no amount of money and no king is going to cure those diseases.  What people need is to actually see that God really is with them right now, loving them just as they are, and that they can welcome that love and let it live through them. But what is it going to take to wake them up, Jesus?  If preaching, prophecy and rituals were enough, then things clearly wouldn’t be in such a mess, would they?

No.  What they need is just what they are praying for – a miraculous sign that makes it obvious God is among them.  If you could pull off a great miracle like that, one that would prove beyond any doubt you are the Son of God, then surely everyone will listen to you.  They’ll know how divine you are and that you speak the truth.  All believers will recognize you as the Great Shepherd, and you’ll have the kind of power to change lives that priests and preachers only dream about or pretend to have.  You could show everyone the way to peace and harmony, and they will listen because they will have seen for themselves that you and your Father are one.

Nothing would prove who you are and open the way for the one true religion better than beating death itself!  Jump off of here and let what is written in the scriptures be fulfilled. Let the angels do their duty and catch you in front of all these witnesses!  Go on! It will be a glorious and awe-inspiring event that all of humanity will remember for all time!

Then, slowly and softly, almost in a whisper, the Accuser adds:

And, if you’re not the Son of God…? Well, then you’ll die quickly in a supreme leap of faith and be freed from all of this mess anyway.

So, what do you say?

Jesus answers:

The Scriptures also say, “You must not test the Lord your God.”

This statement may seem fairly simple, but it communicates more than may be apparent at first glance.   Let’s not forget that a temptation is not tempting if one does not feel tempted.  So how is it that Jesus feels tempted?  If, as so many in the Church believe, Jesus knows beyond any doubt he is the one and only incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity, if he knows he is possessed with the most miraculous of divine powers, if he knows his path is to offer himself as the Paschal Lamb for all of humanity, then wouldn’t he know that he would survive to complete his mission?  If all of that were true, then how would throwing himself off the temple be a temptation to him and a testing of God?  This act would be tempting to Jesus because Jesus himself is very aware of his humanness and uncertain of the extent to which he is specially divine.  The voice of temptation keeps digging at him, “If you are the Son of God….”  It would be a test of God to prove, once and for all, who Jesus is, and perhaps not only to prove it to everyone else, but also to Jesus himself.    If this is not Jesus’ experience, then there would be little to no temptation or test of God in this moment atop the temple.  In the end, it seems Jesus decides to heed the laws of nature, gravity in this case, and trust God will work through him in other ways.

But what if this line of reasoning is off target and Jesus is quite certain the angels would catch him?  Why wouldn’t he add that miracle to the list of others he’s going to accomplish?  Perhaps Jesus knows such an act would only reinforce the perception that God is most with those who are born special rather than with everyone, including the poorest, the meekest, the sickest, the least of humanity.  Maybe he knows it would only make him seem more an object of worship than a teacher to emulate.  Maybe he knows that kind of confusion is already destined to become a bigger distraction from his message than he would prefer.  Perhaps he knows that even people who might witness such a miracle wouldn’t believe it, and that some of those who at first believed would in time doubt their own experience.  Maybe he knows it would very soon become another point of religious argument and division rather than one of faith and kinship.  It seems reasonable that Jesus could have foreseen all these things and, whether or not it would be a test of God, the temptation to prove God’s love through some grand miraculous event just will not send the messages he wants to send.  In the end, it seems Jesus finds the promise of religious power to also be more of a distraction than an aid to helping people welcome and live with Divine peace and love.