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.

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.

Dec 032010
 

The New Man: An Interpretation of Some Parables and Miracles of Christ

This book has been out of print for some time now, though there are reasonably priced used copies available.  The title and image are linked to free online versions.

Table of Contents

new man

Click here to read the book!

I The Language of Parable
II The Idea of Temptation in the Gospels
III The Marriage at Cana
IV The Idea of Good being above Truth
– The Miracle at the Pool of Bethesda
– The Good Samaritan
– The Laborers in the Vineyard
V The Idea of Righteousness
VI The Idea of Wisdom
VII Simon Peter
VIII The Idea of Prayer
– Introduction
– The Necessity of Persistence in Prayer
– The Necessity of Sincerity in Prayer
– Response to Prayer
– Request in Prayer
IX The Sermon on the Mount
X Faith
XI The Kingdom of Heaven
XII Judas Iscariot
Appendix

If you are a Christian, or any other seeker, who is beginning to look for more than literal meaning to the messages of the New Testament, then you’ll find this book a powerful starting place.  If you’re already well down that path, then you may also find things here that not only resonate with your own thoughts and experiences, but can bring fresh insights and challenge you in new ways.

Dr. Maurice Nicoll provides a profound view of the depths that we might plumb in the parables and messages of Jesus. Nicoll’s concern is not as much with historical or theological views of Jesus, but rather how the Gospel accounts of his life and teachings can show us the way to fulfill our potentials as spiritual beings. In the front of my copy (Fifth Impression), Nicoll clearly states his purpose in “A Note on the Author”:

The intention is to indicate that all teaching such as contained in the Gospels, and many other older and newer teachings, in the short period of known history, is about transcending the violence which characterizes mankind’s present level of being. It affirms the possibility of a development of another level of being surmounting violence.

Nicoll’s poignant interpretations are significantly shaped by his impressive background in medical, psychological and philosophical studies; he was a student of Freud, Jung, Gurdjieff and Ouspensky. He believes the central psychological idea of the Gospels is the movement toward rebirth, which is to awaken as a person with a deeper understanding of self and others. Nicoll calls this movement “inner evolution”, and stresses that it must be engaged by the whole person – thoughts, feelings and actions.

One key he offers to using the Gospels for this kind of work is to view the various characters and elements as symbolic of aspects or dynamics of the soul.  For example, he takes up the symbolism of the Pharisee* not so much as a member of an historical group, or even a way of characterizing others in one’s life, but as:

…the Pharisee in oneself, to the insincere person in oneself who, of course, cannot receive any real and genuine psychological teaching without turning it into an occasion for merit, praise and award.

Another significant element of Nicoll’s view is a hierarchical appreciation of the relationship between the human and the divine.  In fact, this seems to be the very basis of his views on prayer.  He posits that prayer is an attempt to communicate upward to heaven, and as such requires persistence to the point of “shameless impudence,” yet, perhaps ironically, with a sincerity born of utter humility: “Unless a man feels he is nothing, prayer is useless….”  Even so, Nicoll makes it sound as though enough pious nagging will force God into serving us as we wish: “Only persistence and intensity can cause the higher level to respond.” (my emphasis)  On face value we might find these views troubling, but it would be extremely unfair to take Nicoll on face value, for he also says:

And let us also remind ourselves that the attainment of this higher level possible for Man is called heaven or the Kingdom of Heaven in the Gospels and that it is within a man, as a possibility of his own inner evolution or re-birth of himself, and that Man at the level he is on, as an unawakened creature, an unfinished experiment, is called earth. These are the two levels, the higher and the lower, and some very great differences exist between them, as great as the differences between a seed and a flower. Thus communication between these two levels is difficult. The mission of Christ was to bridge, to connect, and to bring into correspondence in himself these two levels, the divine and the human….

Nicoll insists that “by an evolution of the whole psychic man, that is by an evolution of all his mind, his love, his will and his understanding”, the “Man of the Kingdom”, the “New Man” of Christ in us, can be born.  In the end, it seems to me that Nicoll has essentially come around to saying one’s prayers are more likely to receive a positive response as one’s whole being is more attuned to the divine.  In other words, one is more likely to get what is wanted because one is more likely to persistently and sincerely pray for what is most in harmony with the divine.

Some readers will find one of the most challenging themes of the book to be about placing Good above Truth (Nicoll’s capitalizations).  For Nicoll, issues of Truth are inevitably interwoven with differing perspectives of understanding and opinion. His concern is that doctrines and laws too often stand upon that very subjective and all too often self-serving foundation, because the person who has not attained a higher level of Good “can twist the higher Truth to suit his vanity.”  It isn’t that doctrines about Truth are to be ignored, but rather should be seen as stepping stones meant to lead us to higher levels of knowing and being Good.  So it is that even the most hallowed doctrines are misunderstood if they are not considered secondary to Good:

The Mosaic Law, or, at least the ten commandments, are instructions from the side of Truth, as to how to attain a level of Good, where, as commandments, they have no further meaning. But if they are taken as an end, and not as a means of an end, they become stumbling blocks.

Nicoll speaks of this shift of priorities from Truth to Good in the Gospel language of the first becoming last and the last becoming first.  He argues that this reversal is central to the mission of Christ, for it places our understanding of Truth within the context of Good, and not vice versa, which enables us to serve the higher purposes of doctrine, the spirit of the law rather than merely the letter.  This seems to connect well with Jesus’ statement that “all the law and the prophets” hang upon our love for God and our fellow human beings.

Finally, throughout the book it’s clear that Nicoll urges his readers to engage the challenging work of connecting with the higher levels within themselves.  While he speaks much about the honest self-awareness, genuine humility, integrity and commitment such attainment requires from the human being, he doesn’t have much to say about Divine Grace.  This omission is unfortunate because Grace is such a significant element of the Good News.  Perhaps Nicoll would say the capacity and the opportunity to do that work are themselves gifts of Grace.

[* In fairness, it’s worth noting that although the stereotype of the Pharisee is often used disparagingly among Christians, Jesus and the Apostles actually had some good friends and supporters among the Pharisees, such a Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea, and Gamaliel.]