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

Sep 182012
 

Much is made of the idea of a ‘personal’ God in Christianity.  The idea of God being a person, or a unity of three persons, has been with us for so long, and has been so adamantly preached as the key to having an acceptable experience of and relationship with God, that some Christians consider it among the worst sacrilege and blasphemy to speak of God in any other way.  Even so, this is precisely where the Spirit has led many Christian mystics.   It seems to me that this is part of why some Christians have a hard time understanding Christian mystics, let alone recognizing us as ‘good’ Christians.  In this post, I hope to show how, in their most authentic love of God, mystics can embrace other ways of relating to God.

There are lots of traditional biblical arguments for why a Christian could adhere to that “old time religion” in which God is conceived of as a superhuman Father, one who thinks and feels like humans do, whose mind works pretty much like a human’s does, but is different primarily because He is all-knowing, infinitely intelligent, and infinitely wise.  It’s easy to see why this anthropomorphic way of thinking about God is commonly offered, and has at times been brutally enforced, as the only truly Christian way to think and speak about God.  After all, it is the language the Bible itself most commonly uses.  The teachings about God attributed to Jesus are presented in such terms, and then the writings of the Apostles, especially Paul, further speak of relating to the risen Christ and the Holy Spirit in personified terms.

The question that arises for some of us is whether or not it’s necessary to take all that anthropomorphic language literally.  Is there no room in Christianity for people who find such language to be poignant and inspiring, yet also humbly acknowledge that they find it alone inadequate for the Supreme Being, the very Source, Creator, and Sustainer of Existence Itself?  At times, Christian authorities of various sorts have not only answered that question with “No!”,  but they have been willing to destroy lives over the issue.  Why is that?  What are they afraid of?  Where is the definitive Biblical statement that no other way of thinking about God is acceptable to God?  You won’t find it because it doesn’t exist.  There is no “shalt” or “shalt not” with regard to anthropomorphic theism.  In fact, it seems to me that the scriptures offer many opportunities to not be limited to that way of thinking about God.

Is “Person” a Fitting Term for God?

It is interesting that the English word “person” is taken from the Greek prosopon, which originally meant a theatrical mask. The prosopon represented the role, and would obviously have never been confused with the actual actor.  According to Thayer and Smith’s lexicon, in the New Testament prosopon refers to:

1. the face
a. the front of the human head
b. countenance, look
i. the face so far forth as it is the organ of sight, and by it various movements and changes) the index of the inward thoughts and feelings
c. the appearance one presents by his wealth or property, his rank or low condition
i. outward circumstances, external condition
ii. used in expressions which denote to regard the person in one’s judgment and treatment of men
2. the outward appearance of inanimate things

We can see that the word always refers to an outward, worldly, or superficial appearance, not the essence of something, which fluent speakers of Greek, like Jesus and the New Testament authors, would have known.  In many English versions of the New Testament, this word is translated as “person,” and one of the most common contexts is when it is said Jesus and God do not regard the persons of human beings (Matthew 22:16; Mark 12:14; Luke 20:21; Galatians 2:6).   To my knowledge, only once is the word prosopon used in reference to God/Christ.  It is in 2nd Corinthians 2:10 where Paul speaks of forgiving others in the person of Christ, which is to say that in such moments the believer’s presence to others is a mask of the Christ within him or her.

In all of these cases, the wording emphasizes appearances, masks upon something more essential, central, and real.  For me, this leads to a theological position that I find very reasonable: When I think of God in anthropomorphic terms, as if a person, then I am looking at a conceptual mask that helps me relate to God in a way that can be very meaningful and helpful, yet can nonetheless sometimes prevent me from experiencing God more directly and more fully.  Said another way, a mask can be very attractive, fun, informative, challenging, even threatening, and somewhat revealing in all of these ways, but if I want to get to know more about who or what is behind the mask, then sometimes I must be willing to let it fall. This is a point where great Christian mystics like St. John of the Cross and Meister Eckhart enter the theological discussion.

Mysticism and the Trans-Personal Perspective on God

This willingness to let go of the masks and simply open to the Ineffable Mystery of God is one way that Christian contemplative mysticism differs from other ways of relating to God and Christ.  This does not mean that Christian mysticism is about giving up faith in God as very much alive and present in and around us.  In fact, for many of us, letting go of the masks of personhood for God has made it easier for us to relate to God as Life Itself, as Love Itself, as Truth Itself, as Reality Itself, but a Life, Love, Truth, and Reality that isn’t limited to our human experiences and understandings; God’s transcendence is revered as much as God’s immanence.  A great number of us even continue to speak to God, about God, and of our relationship with God, in very personal terms.  In my own case, following in the footsteps of greater mystics, I write poetry addressed to God as the Beloved.   I bear witness that it is very natural for some of us to express our most intimate thoughts and feelings about God in such human terms.  Just as we anthropomorphize God by imagining God’s mind to be human-like but with infinite knowledge, intelligence, and wisdom, we also personalize our experience of and relationship with God by likening it to the most rewarding human relationships infinitely magnified.  We simply don’t have a better single way to communicate so much of our relationship with God than in these very personal terms.  Yet among the challenges of a trans-personal mysticism are (1) that we don’t forget it is symbolism to speak of God as a person, (2) there are other symbol systems with their own value, and (3) even the most complete, all-encompassing, and complexly detailed conceptualization falls short for the Infinite and Eternal One.

An important take-away from that last point is that what we know, or think we know, about God is transcended by what we don’t know.  To realize union with God more fully, which is the definitive aim of contemplative mysticism, we must therefore surrender to the Unknown, and we do so through the practice of unknowing. We open ourselves to the immediate presence of God freed from our beliefs, hopes, and expectations about how God “should” be present.  We let go of all words, all images, and all feelings that might arise, understanding them to be parts of a mask we put on God.  It isn’t that we are striving to attain some state of mindlessness, but rather that our awareness sinks down into the purest depths of mind where, if we are so graced, we might realize deeper union with its very source and essence, which we call Spirit, or God.  Likewise, we are not trying to eliminate all our beliefs and hopes so that we walk around in a self-induced state of agnosticism and apathy, but rather remind ourselves that our beliefs and hopes are bound to be inaccurate reflections of even greater truths.

The Existential Challenges and Rewards of Unknowing

At this point I want to address why some people are resistant to letting go of anthropomorphic theism as the only way to think about God.  I believe the short answer is fear.  We fear that it’s unacceptable to God.  We fear it will open the door to delusions or demons. We fear that people who are important to us will be uncomfortable with us, and even ridicule or reject us.  We fear we will lose a sense of confidence and direction about what is meaningful and important in life.  We fear that we will lose something that has given us comfort.  We fear that we will have to admit that we no longer think the way we once thought.  We fear that we will lose our sense of who and what we are as spiritual beings.

I think that last fear penetrates very deeply into one of our most common psychological struggles, which is facing the fact that we don’t fully know ourselves.  One of the great revelations of depth psychology is that, as with an iceberg, there is more to the human psyche beneath the surface of consciousness than above it.  If we aren’t aware of most of our own souls, how can we begin to know even the tiniest fraction about God?!  And beneath all of these fears, perhaps we can see the more basic fear of uncertainty, of the unknown, and our insecurity about simply being in the midst of forces and events that are beyond our ability to anticipate, control, or even fully understand in hindsight.  In fact, many of us have been taught that among the essential purposes of religion are comfort and support in the face of all the fear and uncertainty in life.  When fear and uncertainty are major engines for one’s religious beliefs and attitudes, and especially if one is in denial of them, then the idea of unknowing and embracing God as the Great Mystery can sound like the exact opposite of what one needs.

In my own case, despite having grown up in the Church and practicing a fairly devout mainstream spirituality, and perhaps even as a result of doing so, by my mid-20s I became aware of how much I had been in denial of my uncertainty.  One day, as I drove north on I-35W to go to class at UNT, an epiphany came to me about the extent to which I had been either fighting or fleeing uncertainty with so much of my spiritual life.  For a moment I sat there wondering, “Okay, so now what?  I’m really freaked out about how much more uncertain I am than I ever realized.  What am I supposed to do with this?  How do I do anything without some sense of certainty?”

Almost immediately I saw the image of a toddler boldly living life, unencumbered by uncertainty, and instead fully immersed in the adventure of simply being.  That’s when it not only became okay for me to be uncertain, but I began to see how uncertainty can be transformed into mystery, mystery into freedom, freedom into gratitude and joy, and all of it into love.  That’s also when my understanding of “faith” began to transform from a specific unchanging set of crystallized beliefs into something much deeper and more basic, something more about the simple will to live and to love, and the trust that anything worthy of the name “God” would understand and accept me even better than I understand and accept myself.

Finally, I want to clarify that I am not saying letting go of a strictly anthropomorphic theism and practicing contemplative mysticism is necessary in order to be a “better” Christian, or a happier soul, or a more loving human being, or whatever.  Far be it from me to prescribe what another soul’s relationship with God should or shouldn’t be.  All I can assert is that this is how it has worked out for me and some others, that it is an authentic experience and expression of Christian faith, and to describe some of its demands and rewards.

Agape