SOMEBODY OUGHT TO PAY

Who do I get mad at?

Ordinarily, somebody would pay

What it did to me

What I went through:

Uncontrollable tears

Whole week-ends spent in bed sleeping

Trying to work through sedating meds

Fighting to live, pay the bills

Someone ought to pay

 

But . . .

But did it break my contract with the world?

Point me to other import

Than making it to the top

Making it

Other matters do matter

Did it teach me that?

Break my ego

(Which is always a good thing)

Humility

Something I never knew

Until it happened

Did it teach me?

 

I’m more sound today

And I look back

To how I was

What I went through

How well I feel, now

Someone ought to pay

Or is there another way to see it?

God only knows

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Truth, Fact, and Meaning

The things we are most certain of mean the least to us.  The things that mean the most to us, we are least certain of.  The difference is between fact and truth.  We are certain of facts, we believe truths.  A chemical redox equation can be duplicated anywhere, any time, and the results will be the same.  A redox equation is fact.  But does it mean anything to us how may electrons switch valences?  Of course, the batteries that depend on redox equations power our cars and cell phones, and they matter a great deal to us.  But the certainty of the equation itself doesn’t matter much to me.  On the other hand, the fact that there are eternal consequences to the way I live now matters a great deal to me.  The truth that there is a loving Creator watching over me, leading me, guiding me towards eternally lasting happiness matters a great deal to me.  But the existence of God is a belief, not a provable fact.  The reality of eternal life is also a belief, not a provable fact.

I grew up in a family that thought only science was truth.  Even art was devalued.  Math, engineering, chemistry, mechanics–these were the things that mattered.  These were the things they called truth.  The meaning a person finds in a poem, was not considered truth.  In fact, it wasn’t considered at all.  In the Turgenev novel I’m reading, the nihilist Bazarov deprecates belief, the arts, and aristocratic values.  He believes in nothing.  This abandonment of belief thrusts him into science.  He thinks that only science is certain.

But there is much truth in poems, like Robert Frost’s The Mending Wall.  “Something there is that does not love a wall.”  There is a feeling in us that wants connection among fellow humans and doesn’t love walls that come between us.  But Frost is an artist, not a scientist.  I don’t think it can be proven that there is a human antipathy to walls that come between us.  But I agree with Frost.  I believe he is correct.  The Mending Wall means more to me than the existence of quarks.  Quarks can be proved, Frosts truths can’t.  Neither can God’s love for humanity, nor the reality of afterlife.  But even if the things that matter most to me can’t be proven, my life is more fulfilling when I act upon the truths I believe.  I don’t see how science can direct me to a full and fulfilling life, even if the facts it discovers are provable.  The things that matter most to humans are not provable; the things that are provable hold least meaning to us.

What Happened to the Christian Message?

Christianity spread like wildfire in the first few centuries CE—when it was illegal and punishable by a horrible death.  Today, mainline churches are aging, shrinking, and dwindling.   What was it that caught on to such a phenomenal degree in the early Roman Empire?  What happened to the Christian message today?  What is the Christian message?

There is a story in Acts about an Ethiopian eunuch who heard the Christian message from Philip, while riding home in his chariot.  They even passed by some water in the desert, and the Ethiopian asked to be baptized in it.  What was Philip’s message that so impressed the Ethiopian?  All Acts says is that Philip told him the good news about Jesus.  The earliest Christian message was, “He is risen!”  And I doubt that much Christian doctrine had evolved by the time of Philip’s conversation with the Ethiopian.

We have lots of doctrine now.  Swedenborg wrote 30 volumes of doctrine.  Then there’s the Church Fathers, the Catholic History of doctrines which they call the Catholic Tradition, Luther’s body of writings, Calvin, Westley, and all sorts of other Christian theologians.

And consider the setting of the Acts story.  The conversion of the Ethiopian occurred while they were riding on a chariot in the desert.  They weren’t in a magnificent cathedral.  They weren’t in a simple chapel.  The conversation happened in the midst of their life situation.

Mainline churches and even Jewish synagogues do pretty close to the same thing.  There are Bible readings, prayers, and a sermon.  People mostly sit there and listen, while the priest, minister, or rabbi preaches to the congregation.  It’s all very passive.  True, people do sing hymns, and recite psalms.  But I wonder if the problem with contemporary Christianity is the form, and not the content.  The way church services go, rather than the message of Jesus.

I can’t imagine that people have changed that much since Roman times.  I can’t imagine that the message of Jesus isn’t relevant.  In ancient Rome, there were temples everywhere, and people even sacrificed to the “spirit” of things like road intersections, rivers and sacred places, woods, and the Roman gods.  I heard a scholar say that pretty nearly everywhere in ancient Rome was sacred—woods, temple grounds, rivers, roads, lakes, everything.  Were the ancient Romans more tuned to religion than we are now?

Maybe.  Science took over in the 19th and 20th centuries, including psychology.  Science gives us a world view that doesn’t need God.  This would be unthinkable in Roman times.  Even merchant ships sacrificed to Poseidon to give them safe travel.  Psychology has taken upon itself the task of legislating morality to us.  Psychology has taught us to be vulnerable, to be open, to express our anger, to seek self-gratification, self-expression, self-fulfillment, and also to love and work.  But psychology’s message doesn’t include God, says nothing about God as the grounding for morality, as a soft science, is not spiritual.  Then there is the legacy of the Enlightenment and Immanuel Kant.  The upshot of Kant’s philosophy is that we don’t need revealed scripture, or even God, or religions, because reason can lead us into moral behaviors.  All these forces have made the message of religion less relevant.

But there is still a large percentage of people today who call themselves spiritual but not religious.  Spirituality has not diminished even if religions have.  Why are spiritual people saying that they are not religious?  Maybe it is because what they think religion means.  On the simplest level, maybe religion conjures up images of sitting in a building listening to a preacher talking at you.  Then there are some of the doctrines that have evolved over the centuries and millennia.  Christians teach that God gets angry at humans, that God punishes, that God calls for genocide, that God murders unbelievers, that God casts the wicked into hell.  These are behaviors that we disapprove of in humans—in fact, these are behaviors that Christians teach believers not to do, and yet God does them.  If I believed these things, I wouldn’t be religious either.  But my God is loving, is all love, can do nothing but love, forgive, and seek to make humans happy.  Maybe my beliefs aren’t all that Biblical, but they are Swedenborgian.

The Christian message I hear, and I believe, is the message of love.  God loves, Jesus loves, and we are invited to love God and to love one another.  That message is in all the Gospels, which were written in the first century CE.  It is likely that that message was told to the Ethiopian.  This message of love was taught in a time when people were murdered in the Coliseum for entertainment.  A time when roads were lined with people being crucified.  When gladiators killed to entertain the masses.  This society heard the message of love and Christianity flourished as an underground movement.  If a society like that of ancient Rome responded to the Christian message of love, would an enlightened society like ours respond less?

I don’t think the message of love falls on deaf ears today.  I don’t think that science has rendered us dead to spirituality completely.  Though apathy is widespread today, I believe that people still care.  I think that the problem with Christianity today is that the original message has gotten buried under human thinking and church traditions.  Philip converted the Ethiopian on his chariot.  If Christianity can integrate with the workaday world, perhaps it will resurrect.  I don’t think the Christian message means sitting facing the altar listening to p preacher hold forth.  It can mean that, for those who like it, but doesn’t have to be.  Then there are all those messages of hate in the name of the church that turn people off.  I think the message of love is still relevant.  While churches are dwindling, I’m not sure that the Christian message is.

Why Sacred Texts?

I was recently on holidays in the Caribbean.  I was immersed in nature, with the lush foliage, palms, the ocean and snorkeling, sunsets.  It is not easy to explain, but being in nature served to shuck off all the city anxiety, worry, and stress.  I fell into a natural way of being.  Taoists would call it being in harmony with Tao.

My fellow companions on this vacation and I talked about our upbringings and how our past determined the present issues we confront in our life growth.  We talked of spiritual ideas like reincarnation, Scientology, Buddhism, and Swedenborg.  My worldly concerns were gone, and I found myself falling naturally into spiritual interests.  This and the healing power of the love my partner, her sister, and her sister’s partner all felt together.

Then I returned home, and got caught up in the wheels of the world again.  There was one striking impression that I experienced as I returned to work.  I am a pastor.  And in the middle of my first church service back from holidays, I saw the open Bible on the altar.  I thought about how little I was involved with the Bible while on holidays.  And yet there was a deep spirituality about my holidays.  I felt like so many people in the world today.  I wondered why the words of a bronze-age storyteller matter today.  Matter to me, to my spiritual life.

Ralph Waldo Emerson had similar doubts about the relevance of Israelite history and the landscape of Palestine.  His language is somewhat hard to read, but the examples he cites from the Bible are so strange and opaque you get the idea—Emerson doesn’t understand why he needs to read the Hebrew Scriptures.

“What have I to do,” asks the impatient reader, “with jasper and sardonyx, beryl and chalcedony; what with arks and passovers, ephahs and ephods; what with lepers and emerods; what with heave-offerings and unleavened bread, chariots of fire, dragons crowned and horned, behemoth and unicorn? Good for Orientals, these are nothing to me. The more learning you bring to explain them, the more glaring the impertinence. The more coherent and elaborate the system, the less I like it. I say, with the Spartan, ‘Why do you speak so much to the purpose, of that which is nothing to the purpose?  My learning is such as God gave me in my birth and habit, in the delight and study of my eyes and not of another man’s. Of all absurdities, this of some foreigner proposing to take away my rhetoric and substitute his own, and amuse me with pelican and stork, instead of thrush and robin; palm-trees and shittim-wood, instead of sassafras and hickory,- seems the most needless” (Representative Men: “Swedenborg; or The Mystic).

Emerson wants to rely on his own lights, his own mind, draw metaphors from his own natural world—“thrush and robin . . . sassafras and hickory.”  Emerson thinks that he doesn’t need sacred scriptures.  Instead, Emerson thinks that his own mind, birth, and habits are sufficient modes of spiritual inspiration, “My learning is such as God gave me in my birth and habit, in the delight and study of my eyes and not of another man’s.”  This is the basis of Emerson’s criticism of Jacob Behmen and Emanuel Swedenborg.  They bound their imagination to Christian symbolism and the Bible, “Swedenborg and Behmen both failed by attaching themselves to the Christian symbol, instead of to the moral sentiment, which carries innumerable christianities, humanities, divinities, in its bosom.”  Instead of relying on the Bible and Christian symbolism, Behmen and Swedenborg should rely on their own minds, their own moral imagination, says Emerson, “the moral sentiment, which carries innumerable christianities, humanities, divinities, in its bosom.”

However, I think that there is value in mining sacred texts for spiritual direction.  I think that there are things in the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Scriptures that are of value today—taken with advisement.  I admit the antiquity of the Hebrew Scriptures, and the Christian Scriptures.  But everything we think, every judgement we make, everything we know, we learned—either from our family, our city, our country, our schools.  We are born ignorant of everything.  We need to learn everything—to walk, to talk, to think, to make judgements, to hold spiritual ideas.

This is where Emerson mistakes.  He writes, “My learning is such as God gave me in my birth and habit, in the delight and study of my eyes and not of another man’s.”  First, there is no delight and study of Emerson’s eyes.  Every delight and study came to Emerson from another person.  Someone taught him manners; someone taught him civility; someone taught him language; someone taught him the habits he practices.  I think that his New England culture taught him much of who Emerson was.  He himself says so, “My learning is such as God gave me in my birth and habit.”  His birth and habit came from the New England Culture he grew up in.

We are fated to our local customs, our family’s habits, if we do not look outward.  There may be much good in our local habits.  But to remain only in one’s local habits can be limiting.  There can also be falsities and misguided values in our localities.  This is why we need input from other world-views.

The Bible is a 1,500-year-old record of humanity’s encounter with God.  Even if some of it comes from a bronze-age culture, it is still a sincere record of humanity’s encounter with the Other.  Buddhist Scriptures, too, are the product of intense thought, meditation, and spiritual inspiration.  Where do we get our own ideas of spirituality?  I will admit that we can receive spiritual influx directly from God, or the angels.  But a little reflection will show just how much of our spiritual thought and beliefs came from parents, teachers, school, church, local culture.

I suggest that more than we might realize, our spiritual beliefs are, in fact, “another man’s” and not “the delight and study of my eyes.”

 

Dupery for Dupery

I was talking about God with an acquaintance who told me, “I just don’t see enough evidence.”  The absence of evidence led this acquaintance to disbelieve in God.  I made the observation that lack of evidence does not disprove.  His disbelief in God was on the same level of my belief in God.  Neither were founded on proof.  My acquaintance’s disbelief was actually a fear of being duped.  My belief was actually a hope that God is real.  His disbelief is fear; my belief is hope.  Both positions are emotive, not logical.

What I am talking about is not my own idea.  It was formulated in the nineteenth century by the philosopher William James.  I am paraphrasing James’ wordy language in the above paragraph.  James says it better—and funnier—but he is hard to read.  James says,

“To preach scepticism to us as a duty until ‘sufficient evidence’ for religion be found, is tantamount therefore to telling us, when in presence of the religious hypothesis, that to yield to our fear of its being error is wiser and better than to yield to our hope that it may be true. . . . Dupery for dupery, what proof is there that dupery through hope is so much worse than dupery through fear ? I, for one, can see no proof; and I simply refuse obedience to the scientist’s command to imitate his kind of option, . . .” (The Will to Believe).

Dupery for Dupery.  Is my hope worse than my acquaintance’s fear?  With a philosopher’s precision, James distinguishes between two approaches to truth.  There is the quest for truth and there is the avoidance of error.  Those are two different paths.  James:

“Believe truth! Shun error!-these, we see, are two materially different laws; . . . We may regard the chase for truth as paramount, and the avoidance of error as secondary; or we may, on the other hand, treat the avoidance of error as more imperative, and let truth take its chance.”

If we are talking about something that doesn’t matter all that much—like the appearance of sunbeams being due to a colloidal suspension of water in the sky—maybe fear of being duped is more important than the quest for truth.  But if something matters a whole lot—such as whether I should devote my life to love and thereby find eternal happiness—then fear of being duped may not be as important as the hypothesis that there is a God.  In the case of something that matters a whole lot, I think holding a belief that could be true based on some evidence may be more important than disbelieving out of a fear of being duped due to insufficient evidence.

Living life spiritually is something that we cannot be neutral about.  Either we decide to live spiritually, or we wait for sufficient evidence, all the while living according to only material norms.  But we can’t wait in some neutral space between spirituality and materialism.  People can live good lives, but not spiritual lives.  Spirituality to me means living from spiritual motives, for spiritual purposes, according to spiritual norms.  Without spiritual intentionality, good people appear to be living according to civil law, habit, common sense, but not conscience.  And I think there’s a difference.

So we’re back to the quest for truth and the fear of being duped.  James quotes Fitzjames Stephen effectively.  And I’ll let James’ use of Stephen conclude my reflections, too:

“We stand on a mountain pass in the midst of whirling snow and blinding mist through which we get glimpses now and then of paths which may be deceptive. If we stand still we shall be frozen to death. If we take the wrong road we shall be dashed to pieces. We do not certainly know whether there is any right one. What must we do? ‘ Be strong and of a good courage.’ Act for the best, hope for the best, and take what comes. . . . If death ends all, we cannot meet death better.” [Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, p. 353, second edition. London, 1874.]

Craving Transcendence

I believe that humanity needs transcendence.  We need moments that take us out, above, the tensions, pressures, stresses, and hum-drum complacencies of daily life.  There is a scene in Dickens’ Great Expectations that illustrates this.  A certain clerk at the office of an unscrupulous, callous lawyer is described as appearing like a mailbox.  His mouth is set so stiffly, it appears like the steel slot that you slide letters into.  But as he walks out of the office, and heads to his domestic life, his innocent home life, his face relaxes, takes on lively expressions, and his innocence emerges.  At home, the clerk finds a kind of transcendence.  His humanity retreats in the hostile environment of the law office, and re-emerges in the safe home in which he lives.  In Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne meets Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale, her lover, in the woods, far, far from the pressures of the intense Puritan village in which they live.  And perhaps the most clear literary example of transcendence is in the medieval romance Tristan.  In this work, the lovers Tristan and Isolde meet in the forest in a special “Love Grotto” which is a kind of cave that resembles a medieval cathedral.  Their bower of love, away from the life of the castle court, is a protected, transcendental place in which their love can be freely—carefreely–expressed.

We all need a place like the safe domesticity of the clerk at the law office, the woodland refuge of Hester and Dimmesdale, or the Love Grotto of Tristan and Isolde.  A place or an environment in which we feel safe, and more than safe, uplifted spiritually.  For ages, humanity has found transcendence in relationship with God.  A connection with God was found to be ecstatic, uplifting, calming, peaceful, enlightening.  The roots of many religions teach that God is somehow above the created world, and that connection with God would lift a person out of the pressures of worldly life, transform one’s emotions and thoughts, elevate one’s soul.  “In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world,” Jesus said (John 16:33).  Religious transcendence is found in prayer, worship, meditation, devotional reading, and charitable works.

I have seen efforts to find transcendence without God.  This is because many today are renouncing belief.  Without God, and with a craving for transcendence, where can people find that place apart from the world, above the world, better than complacency?  I see in TV and cinema episodes that look like transcendental places.  One common transcendental space is in the experience of love.  Lovers create a kind of bubble which is known only to the couple.  Finding someone who treasures you above others, as lovers find, makes a person feel special.  At least to the beloved, you are more important than other people.  In strong love relationships, the beloved is treasured above anything else, everything else.  That feeling of being special to one other human, lends the feeling of transcendence, creates a space that we don’t find in the world.  Often the world can feel harsh and unloving.  In the movie The Big Chill, the friends lament their eventual return to the tough world they view from the treasured solace of their friendship.    These reflections suggest two other options for semi-transcendence: family and friendship.  Friendship is like love, but not as intense.  Indeed, lovers often are best friends, but best friends are most often not called lovers.  And families seem to hold the widest array of love relationships.  Parents love their children sometimes even more than their partner, and they also have that mutual love that couples know with their partner.  So family life is another powerful place of transcendence.  It is a place where the stresses of the world can be let go, and where each family member is special just for who they are.  Robert Frost calls family, “Something you somehow haven’t to deserve” (The Death of the Hired Man).  Other means of semi-transcendence can be art (the rapture of music), nature, sports (especially the communal experience of a live game), or, unfortunately, drugs.

My feeling is that these attempts to satisfy the universal craving for transcendence are not sufficient.  I think that they will lead to frustration.  Seeking something that lifts one out of the human situation can’t be found by other human creations.  I have felt the kinds of semi-transcendences that I listed briefly above.  And in my better moments, I have felt religious transcendence.  I have experienced the semi-transcendental episodes in cinema, for instance, and for me, they don’t fulfill my own craving.  It feels really good, indeed.  It does create a space outside the pressures of the world.  But it doesn’t uplift.  It doesn’t bring peace.  And so with other efforts to get away from it all, but not all the way to heaven.  Granted, as a believer, I have expectations grounded in religious experiences.  But as a human, I do feel love, friendship, family, art’s rapture, the enjoyment of sports, the quiet of nature (which, arguably, is God’s creation, and at least, not a human creation), and have experienced drugged relief.  My experience of spirituality feels higher than the other forms of transcendence.  In fact, my experience of love, friendship, family, art, and nature is enhanced by my spirituality.  I think the craving for transcendence can be relieved only by a transcendental Reality.  I don’t think that the craving for transcendence will ever be forgotten or sloughed off.  Humans will always want a place apart.  But I don’t think that humanity will find that place apart without God.  I see endless frustration, maybe unconscious frustration even, when finite forms are used to fulfill what is essentially an infinite urge.

The Reaper Is not Grim

The world-view Fitzgerald paints in The Great Gatsby is bleak.  He describes a billboard with a pair of unseeing eyes overlooking a town covered in ashes:

“But above the gray land and the spasms of bleak dust which drift endlessly over it, you perceive, after a moment, the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg. The eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg are blue and gigantic–their irises are one yard high. They look out of no face, but, instead, from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles which pass over a nonexistent nose. Evidently some wild wag of an oculist set them there to fatten his practice in the borough of Queens, and then sank down himself into eternal blindness, or forgot them and moved away. But his eyes, dimmed a little by many paintless days, under sun and rain, brood on over the solemn dumping ground.”

These billboard eyes that brood over the dumping ground are a parody of God.  God is supposed to look over the whole created world; God is supposed to know the workings of humanity and to provide for everyone’s salvation.  But God’s divine oversight is translated into a weather-beaten billboard depicting unseeing eyes, in Fitzgerald’s vision of the world.

And with no God in their life, the people in The Great Gatsby flit about their meaningless lives like moths,

“In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.”

The Psalmist has an analogous view.  We are as grass or wildflowers, which sprout and die away in a moment.

15 As for mortals, their days are like grass;
they flourish like a flower of the field;
16 for the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
and its place knows it no more (Psalm 103:15-16).

But the Psalmist sees the world much, much differently than Fitzgerald does.  God loves the created world God made, and each one of us.  We are not presided over by an unseeing billboard.  We do not vanish into emptiness after a short meaningless life like moths seem to do.  God’s love is from everlasting to everlasting—it is eternal.  And though our life in the material world seems to be as short as a wildflower, God’s love remains with us forever:

17 But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting
on those who fear him,
and his righteousness to children’s children,
18 to those who keep his covenant
and remember to do his commandments.

It is out of fashion to see the world as one created by Love, watched over by a Loving Creator.  And in many ways, it can appear that Fitzgerald’s vision of a world evacuated of God is happening now.  In Fitzgerald’s day, people spoke of God’s all-seeing Providence.  Hence Fitzgerald’s image of the unseeing eyes would have been recognized as a parody of God’s Providence.  Today, I fear, so few people think of God, that the meaning of Fitzgerald’s image would be lost.

Regardless of fashion today, there is a God.  A God whose love is unchanging and from everlasting to everlasting.  Time loses it’s meaning when we think of eternity.  From everlasting to everlasting means eternal.  The from and the to, are awash in the everlasting.

With God, life has more meaning, more glory, more pain, more struggle, more ecstasy than without God.  We are free to believe or ignore.  But our belief or lack thereof doesn’t change the facts of reality.  To invoke the Psalmist, a wildflower alone declares the care, the love, the existence of a Loving Creator.  And though we may be as wildflowers in our short time in the material world, our real relation to life involves a relationship with a loving Creator, awash in the everlasting.

 

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