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.”

 

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Faith in Unbelief

I am one struggling to have faith in unbelief.

Contrary to many, I feel that religion is a positive force in the world.  Where else will a person find teachings that oppose the excessive consumption, greed, and vanity of western capitalist culture?  Where else will a person be valued not by the clothes they wear, but by who they are?

The May meeting of the Faith and Order Convening table of the National Council of Churches of Christ USA just concluded.  There are 38 different Christian denominations that are members of the NCCC USA.  I think that we do a pretty good job of working together considering the differences among our 38 denominations.  Some may find it hard to believe that there are 38 different Christian denominations–and I don’t think that there should be.

As a Swedenborgian in the NCCC USA, I have an uphill battle.  Despite the good will we have for one another, there are still religious prejudices.  Although there is an impressive list of poets, philosophers, and literati who have been avid readers of Swedenborg, the Swedenborgian connection has been actively suppressed.  Scholars and theologians don’t want a Swedenborg in their world.

For things like this, and other division-causing reasons, some have turned away from religion.  Perhaps many.  As a believer, this concerns me.  Religion has taught me so much wisdom, and has guided me out of hellish behaviours that I can’t imagine life without it.

But spiritual people, who aren’t religious, do find guidance and a higher power.  Where, I wonder, and how do such people find their way to God?  I know that God flows into every heart and mind and guides.  Even without God, people live good lives and have conscience.

I would have to have a trust in humanity to believe that without the nurture of religion, people will find their way to a life dedicated to others, and not themselves.  To believe that unbelievers have it in them to save themselves and the world around them, and to care.  Robert Frost puts it well, “Whether we have it in us to save ourselves unaided.”  It’s that “unaided” that gives me pause.  Without God, without religion, where does humanity find that power to save–save themselves, and the world?

I am one struggling to have faith in unbelief.

T S Eliot and the Absolute

In The Lovesong of J Alfred Prufrock, one theme is the interplay between self and other.  The narrator appears to be overpowered by the social forces with which he interacts.  He is “fixed in a formulated phrase,” “pinned and wriggling on the wall” by others.  His constant refrain–“Do I dare,” “How should I presume?”

But there is more than spinelessness at work here.  The narrator is on the verge of asking, “An overwhelming question.”  Some think that he is going to propose marriage.  But Eliot and the narrator are possessed of greater depth than nervousness about proposing.  The overwhelming question is, in fact, religious.  The fear is of bring up deep matters in a superficial environment.  How should I presume?  The narrator has “wept and fasted, wept and prayed.”  The narrator is about to break the complacency of a tea party,

Would it have been worth while,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it toward some overwhelming question,
To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”—
If one, settling a pillow by her head,

Should say: “That is not what I meant at all. That is not it, at all.”

I recently wrote about being true to oneself regardless of social pressures to conform.  But I must confess that there are environments in which a person can’t be oneself, especially when one is particularly spiritual.  When one is in a superficial environment, one can’t really talk on a depth level.  It would not be received.  One would be ridiculed, ignored–as in Eliot’s poem–even be met with anger.  Try being a divinity student in a bar.  The social disjunct, the ridicule, the inappropriate context all make it nearly impossible to be spiritual in a secular environment, a secular world.  How should I presume?

Eliot himself was Prufrock.  He kept his Christianity to himself until his reputation was firmly established.  Then he converted to Anglo-Catholic Christianity publicly and wrote Four Quartets.  At that point his literary career became a bit suspect.  And much of his later work, like The Cocktail Party, is bland to the point of being insufferable.

But I am a fan of Eliot.  And as a Swedenborgian, I know what it is like to have a deep spirituality that one can’t speak of in most public venues.  I have expanded my social network to include an interfaith organization, an interdenominational Christian organization.  And in these environments I can be openly Swedenborgian and be well-received.  But in the blues club, in 12-step organizations, in casual environments I seem to need to keep it all inside.  It isn’t a matter of fear.  It is more a matter of good taste.  I would not abandon my Swedenborgianism, it’s just something others don’t care to hear about, and I respect the others with whom I socialize.  In Jacob’s dream, the angels ascended and descended the ladder–they didn’t stay always at the top.