Friday, December 24, 2010

Advent and the Exile of God 4

Jury-Rigging Judgment

What is to become of a culture in which more and more people feel that no one has the right to judge their actions but themselves?

Forty years ago, the great psychologist Rollo May sounded a warning about “the diminishment of the ‘conjunctive’ emotions‘ — our sense of connection with each other. A decade later, the sociologist Rollo May worried that the “language of social obligation” was being replaced by the “rhetoric of individual satisfaction.” If we lose the discourse of obligation and duty, he wondered, what will happen to our moral sensibility?

Judging ourselves?

One answer came recently in a class I co-led about Jesus and Muhammad. My Muslim colleague described the Day of Judgment as a time when each person reads the angelic record of all their deeds before the throne of God. Some participants liked this idea because it suggested to them that “we judge ourselves.” Hardly what the Imam or the Qu’ran meant—or the Bible, or the Egyptian Book of the Dead or the eastern idea of karma. There are real consequences to deeds, both here and hereafter, this ancient wisdom says, that have little regard for our own self-evaluations.

The simple truth is that rash or unwise actions usually result in very real kick-backs. Ignorant or mistaken policies, personal or political, threaten the web of personal or social relationships and we are likely to pay dearly for them. There really is a There there, outside the hot-house machinations of our own minds.

For example, judgment will delivered—already happening, I believe—for our continued pollution of the waters and our carbon-laden exacerbation of global climate change. The rising global temperatures care not a fig for the opinions of the deniers and industrial obstructionists.

Up against the real edges of the world

You don’t have to believe in a final Day of Judgment with fire and brimstone and eternal torture for the “E” students to recognize that days of judgment arrive quite regularly. Yet in more and more of our churches even the language of judgment is considered, well, “too judgmental.”

Which means that there is, indeed, a Reality that ‘judges’ us through the consequences of our actions. By jury-rigging judgment into a solely personal and private affair, we fly in the face of even the most ordinary common sense. Has our culture’s sense of individual importance and independence gone delusional?

Oh yes, I know most people realize they are accountable to the police, or their boss—even to their families. But the overarching narrative seems to be that ultimately we are accountable only to ourselves; a sort of Ultimate Libertarianism.

What does this have to do with God?

So, I ask, is this every-person-their-own-judge bit yet another part of the many non-theological reasons for the eclipse of God in so much modern experience? This habit of thinking, even wanting, only ourselves, ultimately, looking over our own shoulders to see how we’re doing?

The Babe of Bethlehem, the Christians say, was born to be our judge as well as our savior. He, it is claimed, embodies the eternal cosmic patterns that uphold life itself. Perhaps, if we look deeply enough into his eyes, we can see the whole fabric of earth and all its creatures, and our own lives as an inseparable part of it—a fabric that calls us to accountability every day.

This is the final post in the “Advent and the Eclipse of God” series. I hope to begin a “O Magnum Mysterium: God Unveiled Among Us” series during the 12 Days of Christmas.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Advent and the Eclipse of God 3

Silencing Silence

For while peaceful silence enwrapped all things, Thine all-powerful word leaped from heaven, down from the royal throne... —Traditional antiphon for Christmas

Sometimes, in the midst of a 24-hour silent retreat, it’s as if I can “hear” the silence. No longer the absence of noise, the silence—especially when it’s with a group of people sharing it—begins to feel full, pregnant, on the verge of disclosing something important.

The haunting cry of a bird rises and falls, as if out of a vast silent music or one hears footsteps coming down the hall that would be missed in the midst of chatter. And inwardly, the hidden and layers of heart and soul are more likely to surface.

An avalanche of sound

Our culture has been in full flight from such silences for two or three generations now. Most pre-industial folk lived without the onslaught of constant sound. They regularly walked beaten paths to wells without bluetooth receivers in their ears; weeded crop fields without I-pods shooting music straight into their brains; spent evening after evening on the porch listening to the insect and animal sounds of the unfolding night or by the winter fire without the benefit of radio or TV.

There was more space to hear their own inner music, more time to savor the sounds of the natural world, more chances to “ponder in their heart,” like Mary, important events, meanings, hopes and dreams. More time to listen to the soul.

A good friend and colleague, who spent fourteen years training to be a Jesuit before he decided to leave the order told me recently how important the long hours of communal and solitary silence had been for his formation as a young man. “I became really aware of my inner life for the first time; my moods, my deeper ponderings.” The pre-Vatican II Jesuits “got a lot wrong, but they got the Silence right.”

The gifts of silence

Silence can startle us into awe, an awe the fear of silence keeps at bay. The college-age daughter of another friend spent months as a volunteer way out in the vast savannas of Africa. A decade ago, the remote countryside was free of our kind of noise, beyond all media, mostly beyond air lanes. The vastness of the sky, the spaciousness of the land, but most of all the silence at first intimidated her, and then drew her into its power. She found it, quite precisely, awesome. It touched the hard-wired chords in us that psychologists call the numinous, the sense of sacredness. The silence became both background and constant companion.

In the overwhelming presence of nature’s basal background silence, she found that primal human sense of being both utterly dwarfed by the vast aliveness of the world and also somewhat safely-slotted into her proper species-niche. Her busy little human mind slowed down, and her thoughts emerged from an inner silence just like the call of a bird arising.

Numinosity numbed?

So, I ask, is this naturally-arising sense of the numinous, of the presence of that which makes the heart expand in awe and wonder—of God—eclipsed by our cluttered chatter-clatter-crash-bang silence-free way of life? Music is good; conversation great; cinema enriching. But, without silence, do these pull a veil in our brains our deeper responses to the beauty of the natural world, and filter out the deeper voices of the soul?

And if divinity wished to speak, how could we possibly hear the Voice amidst the din?

This is the third in an Advent series exploring some of the cultural, non-theological reasons for the eclipse of the experience of God for so many in 'advanced' societies.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Advent and the Eclipse of God 2

Banishing Soul

When I entered the furniture shop on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village that Advent afternoon, I didn’t expect to end up touching soul.

Nonetheless, as I ran my fingers along the lovingly fashioned oak armchair that had caught my eye in the window, the chair had a hint of ‘thou’ in it. I had stumbled into a store where everything I saw and touched was full of the soul of the person who made it. Like Michaelangelo evoking the statue out of the rock, the artisan had brought forth this creation from trees.

How did I know this? Ray Charles says that “soul is like electricity—but it’s a force that can light up a room.” I had just been in a shop with a mixture of machine-made and hand-crafted artifacts, and the difference between the two was like that between dullness and light. The machine-made birds and turtles and dogs were tangibly less alive than those that had been cradled and carved by human hands. They had soul.

Soul, not "a soul"

Soul is a quality of being, not some separate add-on—a dimension of reality that connects with the mysterious aliveness in what we encounter and creates a transformative encounter. This furniture touched me, enlivened me, quickened a sense of reverence for the living intelligence that crafted it and lingered in it.

So I ask: is the fact that we are so surrounded with machine-made stuff, rather than hand-crafted artifacts one of the many non-theological reasons for the eclipse of a lively sense of God in our world? Our forebears, after all, were surrounded by soul-saturated items: grandmother’s sampler on the wall, grandfather’s rocking chair in the corner, the local potter’s bowls and cups in the cupboard, mother’s hand-sewn clothes on their backs. Has the plethora of machine-made goods subtly helped to banish the subtlety of soul from our immediate environment?

Michaelangelo, a man “given as prey for burning beauty to devour” as he describes it, not only brought forth the figure out of the stone but infused the very stone with himself. Just compare the many copies of The David with the original — or rather realize that there is simply no comparison. The original is alive in an uncanny way. It has soul.

Embrace: an angle of vision

We have described aspects of the world in astonishing ways with our science, but, as Martin Buber tells us, the world can only be known by embracing it with our whole soul. This begins, he says, only by “embracing one of its beings” and sensing the ‘thou.’

Is the modernized soul starving in the midst of plenty by so much “it” and so little “thou” in its environs? And is that one of the many life-style reasons it’s hard for so many to have a sense of immediate contact with an all-pervasive Thou? The soul of the world, alive around us and in us is available to those subtle senses that know soul when we see it and are touched by it.

Is this the necessary state of mind, the required angle of embrace, in which to sense that world-embracing Aliveness so many through the ages have called “God”?

This is the second in a series of five or six Advent postings exploring some of the non-theological factors for the eclipse of God in ‘advanced’ societies, as well as presenting Christ as symbol and embodiment of deliverance from this state.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Advent and the Eclipse of God

1. Exiling the Stars

Just a few weeks ago, on a crisp Maine night, I saw the vast panoply of the sky again after living for many years without the sense of awe it always inspires. Where I live, the night sky is eclipsed by the haze of urban light pollution, so that only the most intense stars are able to assert themselves.

We humans have expanded without limit. There are too many of us here; besides that, our momentous busyness needs the perpetual blare of man-made light. The night sky seems to us such a small thing to forfeit, to forget.

But that night, as if for the first time, I noted again the almost three-dimensional impression which is created by the brightest stars, which seem to stand out boldly in front of the velvet-black depths of space, so close in their sparkle it almost seems as if one might touch them.

Cosmic Awe

I didn’t choose to feel awe; it thrust itself upon me, standing out there in the chilly night, mouth literally agape at the gauzy stretch of the Milky Way as it marches across the sky. Once again, I was so small, so utterly insignificant in the vastness of the universe, but at the same moment belonged profoundly to it all—exactly what Albert Einstein called “cosmic religious feeling.”

Is it a pure coincidence that atheism is most prevalent where the full panoply of the night sky cannot be seen? Does such disbelief arise more from disenchantment with ancient dogma or from a host of non-theological factors—like the banishment of the night sky?

We are a species hard-wired for awe, and perhaps without it the soul—our deepest self—shrivels, leaving only that little segment of the brain we call “rationality” stranded, high and dry, like a small island perpetually overrun by a shopping mall. Now I don’t imagine that the night sky is some simplistic proof of the existence of God, but I do recognize that something in me goes to sleep when I don’t see the gossamer trail of the Milky Way at night.

Self-imposed Exile?

One of the traditional Advent themes is Exile: O come, o come Immanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lowly exile here. The holy Story tells us we “fell” from Paradise into an exile not only from God but from the very “face” of the creation itself. (See Genesis 2-4)

How many are the ways, I wondered, that our lifestyle itself—our distraction-saturated, muzak-charged, craving-driven lifestyle—eclipses what Gerard Manley Hopkins called the “dearest freshness deep down things” and exiles us from the astonishing thereness of a world charged with awe? Our ransom from this exile is, I suspect, as close as the night sky.

If we could but see it.

To follow: In a series of five or six Advent postings I plan to explore some of the non-theological factors for the eclipse of God in ‘advanced’ societies, as well as Christ as the symbol and embodiment of deliverance from this world-alienated state.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Doesn’t the flag belong to all of us?

“I hate patriotic hymns,” one of my Facebook friends wrote after I had posted some verses from my favorite national hymn, “America the Beautiful.”

I get this kind of stuff more than I like from some of my fellow liberal and progressive colleagues, and it bothers me a lot. While I don’t start my days singing “My country ‘tis of thee” or fly the flag on a front yard flagpole, I do hang one of my three flags out on major national holidays, and my wife will tell you I can get misty-eyed singing a great many patriotic songs. I’m not ashamed to admit that I am an American patriot — a left-of-center, internationally-oriented, multi-culture-loving patriot, as ready to promote my country’s highest ideals as I am to challenge us all about its failures and mistakes.

So it bothers me a lot when somebody like this FB friend—whom I know as a Christian concerned about social justice and such things—”hates” patriotic hymns. Does she really think her sense of “all are created equal” and her desire for “liberty and justice for all” just sprang naturally into her brain out of nowhere, or is solely derived from her reading of the Bible? Or has she, like too many others, let the Right steal the Flag and all those songs?

Who flies the Flag?

To give another example: at a neighborhood block party a couple of years back, a gaggle of my fellow Democrat-voting neighbors were hashing over the coming election when our lone, and very vocal, right-wing neighbor overheard the conversation. “Well,” she huffed, “you can tell who the real patriots are in this neighborhood. Just look at who does and doesn’t show the Flag.” She stalked off, and they all harrumphed. Fly the Flag? “I wouldn’t ‘fly the Flag,’” one of them said. “I don’t like what it stands for.”

At that point I couldn’t keep silent. “Do you really mean that you’re going to let one political opinion own the American flag?”

“Well,” came the defensive response, “I don’t like that kind of patriotism.”

“So the Flag only stands for ‘that kind of patriotism‘ does it?” I countered. “I thought it stood for the nation and its values—that it belonged to all of us. Aren’t liberal values as ‘American’ as conservative ones? Do you really want the Flag and all it stands for to become the property of an increasingly mind-shackled Right?”

To my leftist-leaning neighbor’s credit, he went home, ordered a flag (even bigger than his conservative neighbor’s) and hung it proudly on his front porch. A symbolic gesture, but an important one; and, I hope, the sign of a change of heart.

A Confession

Full disclosure: I am a repentant Europhile. In my youth, I was swept up in an idealistic longing for something better than “plain-folks,” no-nonsense Midwestern and Southern roots of my family and community. Something more cultivated, cultured, civilized, more communitarian and just.....more....European (as I saw it). While I thrilled at the emergent civil rights movement, and did what I could to support it, as well as the anti-war movement that followed it, my focus was on all that was unfair, unjust and unrefined in American life. I relished the language of the Hebrew prophets as they thundered against the sins of ancient Israel, and easily translated that language into my own dark judgments about my own country.

And then one day, reading Jeremiah, my favorite Denouncer, I had an epiphany: Jeremiah was in such agony over his country because he loved it. He cared about ancient Israel and its people. He cared about the self-injury they were suffering by not living into a fuller realization of God’s call to make their land a haven of justice, compassion and peace. And I realized that as a citizen, a teacher and (by then) a priest and public leader, I could not presume to be “prophetic” if it did not come from a heart of love for the country I wanted to challenge to live up to its stated ideals.

So I renounced my “grass is greener on the other side” Europhilia and embraced my own national heritage. I re-read American history, became newly acquainted with the Founders, learned, over the years, more and more about all that is good, as well as sorrow-making, in this nation’s history. All that the Flag stands for.

Patriotism doesn't have to be prejudice

Patriotism, to me, doesn’t mean “my nation right or wrong.” It doesn't mean refusing to criticize your nation when it fails its own ideals (as in the wholesale internment of Japanese-American citizens in WWII). It doesn’t even mean “We’re number One” or “the Best.” It doesn't mean childishly looking down on others to bolster our national ego.

But we are what we are, and love of country means embracing what we are, the good as well as the bad. We are the first nation on earth to be founded, from Day One, on a national creed that aspires to treat everyone equally before the law, to be a haven of “liberty and justice for all.” We were founded, constitutionally, to allow and encourage freedom of religion and the pursuit of personal dreams and ambitions. And, again and again, leaders and movements have stretched and expanded our understanding of what the original Creed means. And that progress goes on, steps forward and back, but still persists in a gradually forward direction.

And progressives, most of all, shouldn't let patriotic loyalty be co-opted solely by the folks who think America is God's current chosen vehicle to impose our version of life on the rest of the world. The Flag, and all (well, most) of those patriotic songs belong to all U.S. citizens.

In our own day, it’s vitally important for this nation, with all its resources and values, to take its place as an important partner with other nations—one among many—in dealing with the daunting challenges facing the human race as we enter fully into what must be a truly global and planetary era. But we’ll never do that by denying the best of what we have to offer as a partner—or refusing to demand that we work toward implementing our vision of justice and fairness, most especially on our own shores.

So, no, I don’t hate patriotic songs, which belong to all of us, especially not ones that soar like this:

America! America!
God mend thine ev'ry flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law.

O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears.

The 4th of July, with its fireworks and patriotic songs is past. Back to the task of living into the best of what it means to be Americans.

P.S. Please remember to vote for what you care about in the mid-term elections. Congressional elections matter, and patriotism is about more than songs.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Wounded God 6: The Cloud of Glory and Jesus' Ascension

That cloud—the one that “hid Jesus from their sight”—I’ve never thought that was really one of the white fleecy ones we see in the sky. Rather it was the Cloud, a cloud of Glory, like the dazzling radiance that shone from Christ when he was transfigured, becoming a cloud which enveloped the trembling eyewitnesses who were “afraid when they entered the cloud.” Such a marvelous cloud symbolizes and embodies the nearer presence of the Divine glory itself.

The Bible isn’t quite so literalistic as many folks think. Luke knows the symbol-code when he tells his tale the climactic end of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances. He knows that in the saga of Israel in the wilderness a cloud of glory settled, again and again, over and around the Tent of Meeting when Moses entered to converse with God “face to face.” As it did again when Solomon dedicated the Temple. Not that this Cloud is mere metaphor. Rather, “cloud” is an ecstatic utterance Biblical writers use for the actual feel of the divine Presence, at least in one of its aspects. Ancient Jewish storytelling even traces that Cloud back to the beginning of creation, interpreting the “mist” in Eden as Holy Wisdom, the immanent presence of God.

Entering into the Cloud

I sometimes wonder if I was touched by the outer edge of that Glory one night decades ago at a huge Pentecostal gathering in New York. The worship leaders were good at using devotional hymns and choruses to woo the huge crowd into a state of deeply felt devotion—a skilled liturgy of soul-opening, not the frenetic hype of some pentecostal worship. As we sang on, waves of ecstasy moved through the crowd like Wind was blowing through a field of wheat. Bathed in a cloud of radiant energy, there was a sense of a great Vastness opening above us and around us.

Since then that Cloud has crossed my path on more than one special occasion—at a (quite literal) mountaintop Eucharist with three hundred Episcopal college students doing Taize-like chanting, at a conference of Lutheran clergy on a week-long retreat reciting the many different names of God, in a quiet meditative prayer group which suddenly found itself plunged into the “silence of Eternity” — even at a rather secular 60s “encounter group.” The trust in that group had reached such a deep level that, with just one specially penetrating comment, a great, timeless Silence descended upon us all like a mantle, a vast cloud full of peace, joy and love.

So, when the Bible talks about that Cloud, my inner ears perk up, and I feel once more the writers were not just making things up, but trying their best to convey the feel of an encounter.

He “withdrew from them into heaven”

In those “clouds” that surrounded the groups I was in, there was not only “aroundness” but “aboveness.” The atmosphere “descended:” as if from above. That was the sensation: as if the ceiling disappeared—just as, in Scripture, God descends "from above.” And, in the story of Jesus’ exaltation to the “right hand of God,” the narrative says he went “into heaven,” and pictures the disciples “looking up.”

I know that, for the Biblical writers, this was not just a symbolic code, but science, too. The ancient world believed that the realm of God or the gods was “up,” on mountain tops, or in the highest heavens. This was not only the religious, but scientific model of the universe: seven or more rotating, crystalline spheres containing ascending realms of spiritual purity.

But I’m reluctant simply to relegate the Biblical narrative of Jesus' ascension to the realm of “ancient ideas” just because we now know that the architecture of the universe is different from the ancient science. I resist because of my experience of The Cloud, with its felt sense of vastness. And I wonder if, science to the contrary notwithstanding, there isn’t something true in the world-wide human experience of God being “above” (as well as “within” and “around”) — something that arises out of this felt sense of the world.

The "gravitational pull from above"

Since there is something so “uplifting” about that Presence, as if some magnetic energy is stretching us to our full height of soul and spirit, it’s not surprising that they think of the Source as being “up” and “above.” They symbolize It as the all-embracing sky, that cosmic Vastness which comes all the way down to the horizon and touches earth in an all-embracing circle. In her book on Christian mystical wisdom, Cynthia Bourgeault calls this felt sense of encompassing, stretching grace “a gravitational pull from above.” (The Wisdom Way of Knowing: Reclaiming an Ancient Tradition to Awaken the Heart)

In the light of all this, here’s my version of the Ascension: Each time the risen Christ appeared to his disciples, he was more and more surrounded by that atmosphere of enlivening calm, joy, and love until one day he “withdrew from them” as Luke puts it, entirely into the Cloud, into God, “ascending” finally into the heart of God, becoming a universal presence, a major bass theme in the music of God’s presence in the world. "He ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things," as Paul puts it (Ephesians 4:10).

But, of course, human beings cannot remain forever wrapped in such clouds, “looking up” into such foretastes of the nearer presence of God. There’s work to be done, from taking out of the garbage, to raising children, to the healing, repair and building of a world continually damaged and deformed by what human beings do when they are devoid of the love that fills that Cloud.

Watercolor above: "Glad Day" by William Blake

Next week: Who gets to share in holy Spirit?

Friday, May 7, 2010

The Wounded God 5: What is this mysterious body?

Why are you troubled?
And why do doubts arise
in your hearts?
Behold My hands and My feet,
that it is I Myself.
Handle Me and see, for a spirit
does not have flesh and bones
as you see I have.”

—Luke 24:38-39

What is this mysterious body that bears the reality of the risen Christ? As the stories tell it, Jesus appears but is not recognized until their “eyes are opened.” He is suddenly “in their midst” even though the doors are bolted. He can disappear in the blink of an eye, but is real enough to be touched and even make a fire and prepare breakfast. Most importantly, his presence seems at once as real as flesh while being “living breath:” The first man Adam became a living being, but last Adam became life-giving breath (1 Corinthians 15:45)

The stories bear witness to something beyond ordinary human experience, but perhaps our own experience of the body can give us some clues to the mystery of the resurrection. On the simplest physical level, bodies display astonishing abilities we take for granted: self-repair, transformation of food into vitalizing energy, complex and fine-tuned physical performance, and the bio-electrical generation of a measurable energy field.

More than just flesh....

But human beings, throughout the ages, have experienced their bodies not just as flesh and bone, but also “temples of spirit.” Bodies shine with the ineffable but unmistakable reality of presence. There are persons whose presence fills the room when their body enters, radiating joy or enthusiasm, anger or depression. And everyone knows what it feels like when someone “turns you off”, even if the body is right there in front of you. Something subtle is withdrawn.

Certain people seem filled with such bountiful energy that they lift your spirits without touching you, or can send a veritable flow of warmth like a current through your body through their hands. Others are such a deep hole of neediness they can drain you of energy just by being nearby. And most of us know what it's like to feel someone’s eyes on us, even if we have to turn around to find out who is staring at us.

We hardly have a vocabulary for these unmistakable, but subtle realities, and fall back on “as if” language: “it was as if she lit up the whole room.” Perhaps we ought to risk dropping the “as if.”

After all there are hundreds and thousands (most likely tens of thousands and more) who will swear to you they can, on occasion, see bodies shining with light, just like the holy pictures of saints with halos in many traditions. Not only that, you can attend any number of workshops around the nation that will teach you how to see these “auras” (in spite of the skepticism of the majority of folks who have never investigated the phenomenon).

Then there are the stories of the liminal dimensions of flesh from all around the world: the bodies of Hindu holy men and Christian saints which do not decay after death, emitting the faint odor of roses; the rare Tibetan Buddhist lamas (in our own times) who, when dying, seem transformed into a rainbow of light; the Indian avatars, like the 19th century saint Sri Ramakrishna, who are literally transfigured before the astonished eyes of thousands of people and shine “with the light of the noonday sun” (as we are told Jesus did on a certain mountain top).

I know a priest who saw a radiantly shining monk in Massachusetts back in the 60s. And consider the eyewitness testimony of Motovilov, a disciple of the 19th century staretz Seraphim of Sarov. "It was as if my eyes had been opened, for I saw that the face of the elder was brighter than the sun. In my heart I felt joy and peace, in my body a warmth as if it were summer, and a fragrance began to spread around us." When the disciple confessed his astonished reaction, the saint responded, "Do not fear, dear fellow. You would not even be able to see me if you yourself were not in the fullness of the Holy Spirit. Thank the Lord for His mercy toward us." (See St. Seraphim of Sarov by Valentine Zander)

Stretching our experiential boundaries

Why then (bodies being so mysterious) should we find the stories of Jesus’ transfigured and transformed Presence—so real it could be touched—incredible, as so many modern Christians do? I remember well my seminary New Testament professor making fun of St. Paul’s “baffling attempt” to explain “spiritual bodies” in 1 Corinthians 15. It was all based on “strange ancient beliefs” he found “unintelligible.” He preferred, as do most modernists, some sort of “spiritual illumination” to the vivid realism of the gospel narratives.

Having already been introduced to some of the world-wide lore about the spiritual dimensions of the flesh, I was uncomfortable with his modernist scorn 47 years ago. Today I’d suggest he follow a reading program in comparative mysticism and find a real Hindu yoga teacher who could explain to him the yoga tradition’s actual experience of the multi-layered “subtle bodies” that make up the human reality.

I had my own surprised experience of these subtle dimensions once during a three-year series of Polarity Therapy treatments—a combination of acupressure and “energy balancing.” The gentle acupressure touches set of a palpable flow of energy along the “energy meridians” described by Chinese medicine. All of a sudden I “saw” very clearly a column of intense white light running from head to foot through the center of my flesh. The experience lasted for ten minutes or more, filling my body with a sweet warmth and a kind of cleansing “breath.” "What is this?" I asked the therapist. “Oh,” she said off-handedly (using the language of her tradition's energy map) “that’s just your etheric body.”

Call it my imagination if you will. I’ll be more inclined to take you seriously after you’ve had three years of these treatments yourself, or really studied the world testimony to the higher capacities of the body.

The challenge of the stories

My faith doesn’t stand or fall on such experiences, nor on the every literal detail of the biblical Resurrection stories. I doubt they are exact videotape versions of what happened. But I do think they seek faithfully to put into narrative form an Encounter that contains, but far transcends, what we experience at the luminous edges of our fleshly existence. Jesus, whose body had already shown many subtle powers in his lifetime, had crossed a threshold into the spiritual dimensions of human existence and appeared to his beloved community in what Christians have called his "glorified body".

And the stories challenge us to wake up to the miracle of our own embodied existence, where flesh and bone already shine, at times, with the light that will be our sum and substance after we are "changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another." (2 Corinthians 3:18)

Maybe it's something like that column of white light I saw, and believe is still there in the deeper dimensions of my own flesh—and yours.

Next week: Resurrection Now

Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Wounded God 4: Was it all “finished” on the cross?

They thought it was finished—and that they were finished with it: “We had hoped that he would be the one to redeem Israel.”

But he was dead, and the glorious mission seemed over. Then, through appearance and visitation, through illumination and encounter, they came to realize it had only begun. Their own involvement in the redemption of the world, that is; for it became clear this startlingly alive, transformed and enduring Presence was not going to accomplish it without their active participation: “As the Father has sent me, so send I you.” (John 20:21)

One wonders how they felt about that. The gospels, of course, present a picture of astonished joy, and surely that was the main reaction. But there are also indications of continuing uncertainty and doubt. We even find the apostles (hiding out?) in Galilee even after receiving Christ's risen “peace be with you” greeting with its commission to “remit sins.” And what are they doing? “I go a-fishing,” Simon Peter declares, and they all hit the boats. (John 21) What’s that about? Possible yearnings to go back to the familiar life they had left behind to follow him on this wild-goose-chase of Messianic hopes?

Not your ancestors' Messiah

So consider this possibility: Jesus had dismayed them by getting himself killed while they had stubbornly, against all warnings, still believed he would give them plum positions in a new government. (Mark 10:36-38) Then he surprised them by reclaiming their lives after his death. By being crucified, he had re-defined the meaning of “Messiah” in the most wrenching way: the one who was supposed to be the great Rescuer had not performed the expected rescue. Indeed, the heart of the meaning of a crucified Messiah is that God is not, primarily, a rescuer. Redemption doesn’t work that way.

Of course they had been challenged to accept this all through his ministry. According to the gospels they just refused to absorb fully what he showed them. From the beginning he made them his partners, trained them, sent them out in the power of the Spirit to share in his work. On the way to the Holy City, while they vied for those governmental positions, he asked them if they were willing to undergo his “baptism” — persistence to the kingdom vision even at the cost of life.

So now, underneath the joy and excitement, there’s maybe the final shock that, after all, the world isn’t going to be miraculously saved from its reckless and destructive ways, souls aren’t going to be brought from darkness to light, without a commitment from them that will cost them (as T.S. Eliot puts it) “nothing less than everything.”

Who wouldn’t be tempted to return to the fishing business? But there he is, a mysterious figure on the shore at dawn, asking them about their catch, and hosting yet another meal, challenging them to shoulder the task yet once again: “The works that I do you will do, and even greater works than these." (John 14:12)

The suffering of Christ is not yet complete

The resurrection challenge to them is to shoulder his task and take their place in the drama of God's own soul-and-world redemption. “As he is, so are we in the world.” (1 John 4:17)The joyful parts of this will be healing the sick and building compassionate community. The risky and possibly sorrowful parts will involve challenging the power-structures of evil in the world and their vicious kick-back, as Jesus did. The johnny-come-lately apostle Paul puts it this way: " my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions." (Colossians 1:24)

Something "lacking in Christ's afflictions”? Paul's statement, taken at face value (and how else could we take it?), would be considered the rankest heresy in many conservative Christian circles. A wide swath of Christian teaching speaks of the “finished work of Christ upon the cross” and hymns proclaim that “Jesus did it all.” All we’ve got to do is accept Christ’s “finished work” by faith, and —behold!— forgiveness of sins, eternal life are ours.

Nonetheless, there it is, along with all Jesus’ acts of initiating his followers into his work, Paul’s bold statement that he is a “co-worker” with God (1 Corinthians 3:9) and his mystical perception that Christ dwells, quite literally, in the heart of the believer, working together with us for good in a difficult world that needs repair, rebuilding and redemption from its evil possibilities.

I don’t mean at all to deny that Cross and Resurrection are cosmically decisive events. I accept completely that Christ was "delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification" (1 Corinthians 15:3), and the whole apostolic proclamation that if we enter into the mystery of Jesus’ dying and rising our whole relationship to God is realigned. But to believe “Jesus did it all” and we just "accept it by faith" is to miss the very meaning of the wrenching re-definition of Messiah as the Crucified One, the embodiment of the Wounded-yet-persistent-God. We must make up "what is lacking....”

The resurrection challenge: participation in Christ

The name of this process is participation. God doesn’t save the world alone, and we certainly can’t do it alone. We are co-operators, synergoi as Paul puts it, literally “co-energizers.” (! Corinthians 3:9)

The “kingdom does not come by observation” (Luke 17:20) but by gradual processes like plant growth and bread rising. In Christ, God has united human nature itself with Divine nature so that the divine Spirit works “by, with, and under” human effort. The cross is sign and seal of God's perpetual entry into all human difficulty and suffering, of God's taking it all into his heart to open every circumstance to the air and light of the Spirit.

The beloved spiritual “He’s got the whole world/ in his hands,” comforting as it is, is only half true. The missing verse is “He gave the whole world/ into our hands,” as Genesis 1 so clearly tells us. Fortunately, even larger swaths of Christian thought from Patristic days onward have realized that participation is key.

Continued resistance to the challenge

But, as the New Testament seems to indicate, not everyone got the message. Some voices in the apostolic literature still imagine the Eschaton, the “restoration of all things” is just around the corner, just as some sectors of Christianity, continue to gaze longingly at the clouds, fervently expecting the return of Jesus now, in this generation, in spite of the repeated failure of the outside Rescuer to appear. Christ is the revelation and enactment of a Pattern, the sign of how grace works to bring good out of evil and work redemption even in the midst of tragedy. And that Pattern reappears again and again in lives and situations, redeeming to world.

The risen Christ, finding habitation in hearts and lives that welcome him, remains ready to take our mistakes and tragedies into his wounded hands and begins weaving them into larger patterns where healing and good emerge in ways small and large—

—if we participate lovingly and trustingly in the Pattern of the Wounded One who persists in embracing the world whole and entire: beauty, goodness, and tragic failings alike.

Graphic: Marc Chagall's White Crucifixion

Next week: The glorified Body and our flesh

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Wounded God 3: “He broke the bars of the prison”

Whatever else happened to those ardent but bewildered disciples during the resurrection appearances of Jesus, the transformed Presence of the Man they had known was real to them—unmistakably familiar, palpably convincing. “We have seen the Lord,” they say. And by that they mean, among other things, that the same soul-liberating power they had experienced around him in the days of his flesh had returned in an unmistakably familiar but transformed mode.

What was this unmistakable Presence like? The stories speak of a suffusive breath of Spirit that brought joy, forgiveness, and peace to men and women wallowing in despair and self-loathing; of a series of Illuminations that broke the fetters of their limited understanding of the meaning of Jesus’ life; and of the spiritual Fire that burned away illusion and opened new doorways to the future.

“We have seen the Lord,” yes; “but now we see him—and ourselves—quite differently.” The Jesus of their past memory—and their own memory of themselves—is now set into the radiant spaciousness of God’s compassionate mind and expansive purposes. They go forth with the message that the “mind of Christ,” the all-pervasive Spirit of God, is available to all who will access it to liberate humanity from the powers of sin and death which underlie and support all the oppressive systems of this world’s life.

A Presence that "takes away the sin of the world"

“Christians believe that they can still meet this human being,” the historian Diarmaid McColloch says, in ways not unlike “the experience of the disciples....They are convinced this meeting transforms lives, as has been evident in the experience of other Christians across the centuries.” (Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years). I would add that this experience of the divine power that was in Jesus is not limited to Christians, but appears in other guises and other names. As Jesus says “I have other sheep who are not of this fold.” (John 10:16)

I’ve seen this Presence at work often. I remember sitting in an Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOA) meeting for the first time and being amazed at the palpable atmosphere of compassion in the room as people shared a variety of frustrating experiences, painful wounds from the past, and scary challenges. As each difficult situation was shared, no one offered “helpful advice” or burbled “O poor baby.”

The receptivity of the Silence was profound. Every word and feeling was taken into a cleansing, loving, accepting atmosphere that welcomed and embraced both the words and the soul that uttered them. The sense of empathy, of interconnection deepened. Hearing so much pain was not depressing, because the spirit—and Spirit—in the room was not only healing but oddly invigorating. As I left the meeting, I realized I had been experiencing the "sin of the world" being "taken away" that the New Testament speaks of. The power of the past to hold us in its grip was being broken by sharing, confession, and welcome into a larger space that imparted a sense of connection with others, a sense that life is bigger than the wounds, and a Love that poured through, not just from, the group.

Witness from treating trauma

My brother-in-law, an M.D. with training in “Somatic Experiencing” a disciple that addresses the psychological dimensions of trauma, sees in this a parallel to his work with trauma victims. “In trauma, whether physical or psychological” David says, “too much happens too quickly. Neither psyche nor body can cope, and everything gets compacted in a dense, painful, interlocking mass. Whatever reminds you of the trauma sets this compacted mass off again. You’re stuck inside the prison of the memory, which leads to all kinds of avoidance behavior.”

What can unlock this prison? All the “sympathy” in the world won’t do it, and standard talk therapy runs the risk of simply re-traumatizing the patient by hauling up memories that he can’t cope with. David’s complementary medical method involves a form of Vipassana meditation—a way of simply being fully present to your experience, and welcoming whatever occurs or comes up from within. Through focus on relaxation, breathing, and centered focus (the ABCs of meditation), with the presence and guidance of a compassionate guide to support and reassure, bits and pieces of the traumatic memory unfold themselves at their own pace, piecemeal, without being forced. “The psyche knows how to heal itself, given breathing room, and surrounded by an atmosphere of compassionate receptivity to hear what wants to speak itself,” David says. “Eventually the ‘it-was-all-too-much-to-cope-with’ story the person is trapped in dissolves and is replaced by a new narrative connected with the rest of life. The person is no longer crippled by the deadening grip of the past.”

A Presence available throughout time and space

Now you may say, ‘Do you really mean that’s there no more to the Resurrection than that?” Not at all—though that would be quite a lot. Rather, experiences like this give me a clue to what at least one aspect of Presence of Christ must have been like for the original witnesses, for it certainly had a similar result: their entire story of Jesus and themselves, a story that had ended in failure, fear, shame and hopelessness was re-visioned and redeemed. They were "ransom, healed, restored, forgiven" and given a new energy and aim in life.

As a believer, I’m sure that the Dazzling Presence was so real it was as if they could touch the wounds in its side—the signs of Jesus’ own trauma transformed. As they ate and drank it he sat among them. But they simply stood closer to the source of the Presence that surrounded me at the ACOA meeting. It has come to me again and again kneeling at the altar rail to commune with Real Presence, and I’ve felt It in spiritual direction sessions where someone’s imprisoning past gets miraculously re-set in a new framework, and energies are released that will create a new future.

So, even though there's a lot more to Jesus' resurrection than this aspect, what I have "seen and heard and touched" of the "Word of life" (1 John 1:1) looks a lot like resurrection to me. Quite enough to bring forth yet another soul out of the tomb.

Next week: Was it really "finished" on the Cross?

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Wounded God 2: "He opened the Scriptures to them"

One thing is clear from the stories of Jesus’ appearances to his followers after his death: he gave them a radical new angle on the ancient Scriptures of Israel. This new angle would radically alter their view of how the grace of God operates in the world.

The new angle was that the Crucified and Risen Man is the key to understanding the entire saga of Hebrew history, and God’s ongoing work in the world. Jesus as the messenger and embodiment of God’s Way with humans “opens” a different way of reading the Scriptures. Such a radically changed reading of sacred texts would, more and more, drive a wedge between the new Jesus movement and emergent rabbinical Judaism, rival claimants for the heritage of ancient Israel enshrined in the Hebrew Bible.

The early Christian movement was a hot-bed of inspired utterance, vision, and out-of-the-box angles of vision on the possibilities of human nature, alternative constructions of society, and the ways grace can operate. We get a glimpse of the beginning of this mystical fervor in the resurrection stories when we are told of incidents where the Risen Christ “opened the Scriptures to them” and in the book of Acts where the new insights continue, opening the movement to non-Jews and bringing Paul’s radical views into the fellowship.

Beyond the issue of "proof-texts"

At the center of all this is the reality of a Jesus who has somehow managed to pursue the disciples after his defeat. In the light of this, previously obscure verses in the Psalms and Prophets now appear clearly before the astonished eyes of the disciples as they re-read the Bible and see the Crucified One revealed in startling new ways: “It was necessary that the Christ suffer and rise again.”

We can easily misunderstand the experiences of the disciples if we reduce this all to a series of “proof texts.” Christian conservatives still hold fast to the historic list of “prophecies” which, they feel, “prove” that Jesus is indeed Israel’s promised Messiah. Other Christians, under the influence of historical-critical biblical scholarship, point out that most of these “proofs” are wrenched out of their historical context in the Hebrew Bible. And, they will point out, that to beat Jews over the head with these texts (as was the custom of the medieval Church) has led to great evils against a people trying their best to be true to the God of the Covenant.

But the debate about the power or non-power of the proof-texts misses the point. Because of what happened to Jesus, the disciples now saw the Creator of the world and the Shepherd of Israel as The Wounded God, the One patiently seeking to teach, woo, lure humankind away from its self-destructive paths, and all too often being betrayed and rejected. They saw Jesus foreshadowed in the story of Joseph, in the Exodus from Egypt, in the suffering servant of the Exile, in the mysterious pierced prophet of Zechariah. And because of this, they could never read Israel’s story, or their own, the same way.

They see that the cause of God, again and again, is crucified, dead and buried. And yet, again and again, the Divine Love returned, again and again to embrace those who had failed it, resisted it, or ignorantly misunderstood it—returned with mercy and forgiveness, to resume once again coaching, enlightening, expanding understanding, prodding to new ventures designed to further the best interests of humankind and all creation.

The paradoxical good news

This is good news for humankind, however counter-intuitive. Really good news for a species that, sometimes in spite of its best intentions—and often because of truly self-serving, ultimately destructive intentions — hasn’t yet learned how to “get it right” on so many things that we need for our survival and long term well-being. It is good news because it tells us that the creative Intelligence that broods over and within our life in the world knows how to take mistakes, failures, and tragedies in stride, continuing to work “with those who love him to bring forth good.” (Romans 8:32)

This message was a "stumbling block to Jews" because Messiah is meant to come in Triumph, and "foolishness" to non-Jews who believed that deities were removed from ordinary human suffering. But, for Christians, it remains a valid and revelatory reading of ancient Israel's holy book, though this does make all other readings invalid. (Nor does it suggest that Jews and others do not have their own insights into the pattern which Christins call "cruciform").

And it remains both stumbling block and foolishness to so many in our culture — and in the churches — who see brokenness only as "failure, stupidity (or) incompetence," as Walter Bruggemann puts it. "In such ideology there are no genuinely broken people."

Since Christian history, is about as full of disobedience, betrayal, and tragedy as ancient Hebrew history (and, for that matter, all histories) this is specifically good news for a Church all to often intent on wrapping the image of righteousness about it as a defense rather than opening its brokenness to God — and a culture that, increasingly, can only "apologize" for failure, sin, and destructiveness.

As Bruggemann puts it, The that there can be no healing, for there has not been enough candor to permit it. In the end, such denial is not only a denial of certain specifics--it is the rejection of the entire drama of brokenness and healing, the denial that there is an incommensurate Power and Angst who comes in pathos into the brokenness, and who by coming there makes the brokenness a place of possibility...generosity, candor...and resilient hope." (The Unsettling God: The Heart of the Hebrew Bible)

Monday, April 5, 2010

The Wounded God: Meditations About Resurrection

I. Did he still carry the dark of Hades in his eyes?

When he appeared to them, that startled and soul-shaken band of grieving disciples, Jesus carried the wounds of his torture with him. Whatever the reality of that transformed body was, the past had not been obliterated. So as Jesus faces his disciples, his wounds remain—and meet theirs.

The text does not speak of their wounds, which are not visible. Rather it speaks of their hesitancy in believing the surprising news, and their slow, reluctant opening to belief even when he appears to them. But surely they were wounded by their cowering as he was executed. And who knows what resentment had brooded in them against Jesus for pushing them beyond their limits into a "Test" — which they had failed? Their wounds meet his as his dark stare meets their guilty, fearful, and hopeful eyes.

He greets them with, however, not with accusations, but with “Peace be to you," and greeting meant to invite their "and with you, peace." Carrying his past and theirs, he is not imprisoned in it.

In the light of such a somber beginning to the Resurrection, the Hallelujah and Hoopla of most Easter Sunday services often seems a bit too much — as if by shouting loudly, beating drums, and blasting away on trumpets we try to reassure ourselves that death isn’t such a big deal, and evil is easily undone. "The three sad days are quickly sped" neglects the descent into the timelessness (and, historically, the perennial return) of the powers of darkness.

Descent among the dead

In Pico della Mirandola’s remarkable “Risen Christ,” Jesus seems to carry more than his physical wounds back from the grave. The somber stare of his seemingly deadened eyes speak not only of the memory of the cross, but the eyes seem dark with the shadow of Hades itself. As early Christians believed, "he descended among the dead"(1 Peter 3:18-20; 4:6).

Descents into Hades were popular in ancient literature. Just recall the sad tale of Orpheus seeking to reclaim his beloved Eurydice, or Ulysees visiting his father. Jesus was believed to be successful where Orpheus was not —but who was the “beloved” he set out to find?

Astonishingly enough, as noted in the my Holy Saturday blog, Jesus descends to give all the rebellious souls who “refused to obey” in the Great Flood the chance of a new future. He went to rescue these condemned sinners (not just the righteous saints of the Old Covenant, as medieval Christianity wanted us to believe). He went among those alienated from God, stuck in the darkness of their self-chosen alienation.

To reverse the past? Not possible. They had been in “the prison” since the Flood, living with the consequences of their resistance to their own best interests. Deeds have consequences. Apologies are weak antidotes when mistakes, or misdeeds, have taken a real toll. But he went to give them a chance for a different future—the same opportunity he had given lepers, prostitutes, tax collectors, the rich, and the poor in his lifetime. As his light went among them, they could see their past in a new light, and their long lament over the tragic mistake of refusing Noah’s message became the penitence that can lead to new life. They were, we are told, “made alive in the spirit.”

Entering the heart of alienation

How did he do this for those “in darkness and the shadow of death”? The story doesn’t tell us, but I think he entered into the heart of humanity’s own alienation from God. Souls that are large and deep can do this. They can feel, from within, the fear, bitterness, and despair of the human heart without being lost forever in the darkness.

Jesus somehow immersed himself in both the God-forsaking and the God-forsakenness—all without losing his taproot in God’s love. He had learned from his own moments of dereliction, his own moments of “testing” by the Darkness, how to find his way back to the Light. He was able to share that secret with those in the prison of alienation, remorse, and hopelessness. Given hope, their own innate, but darkened connection with God re-ignited.

Such transfigurations of past mistakes into sorrowful learning are not confined to the realm of Hades, of course. The past is always rewritten, moment by moment, by the present. The memory of betrayal can change in the light of repentance and a renewal of relationship. What had seemed the end of a relationship can be seen as a painful episode, but not the end of possibility.

And yet to “forgive and forget” seems a bit utopian. If wounds are deep enough, scar tissue always remains. The issue is how we carry it. We forgive and remember, with gratitude, that the dark past is not the prison we feared it to be. Then, and only then, can we dare utter "Alleluia."

Next week:

Reordering the past: "He opened the Scriptures to them."

Friday, April 2, 2010

God’s Dark Night of the Soul

My analysis of the Passion as tragedy is inspired by the work of the great Russian-British philosopher and historian of ideas, Isaiah Berlin. For Berlin, Moral conflicts are "an intrinsic, irremovable element in human life" and constitute the tragedy of human life. It is much harder, but considerably more conducive to moral growth, to see things from this perspective, rather than our usual either/or, good guys/bad guys dichotomy. This does not mean all values are equally good, or appropriate at a given moment, or that genuine evil does not exist. Rather that we have so many loyalties it is almost impossible to honor one without risking harm to another.

Jesus is crucified on a cross made of the tragedy of conflicting interests, the clash of moral concerns each of the key players considers important for survival and well-being.

Caiaphas and his supporters want to save the Jewish pilgrims at Passover from insurrection and the ensuing Roman crack-down. Pilate is devoted, to maintaining the Pax Romana which is widely seen as bringing an era of peace to the war-torn Mediterranean (though his methods are so harsh even Rome will condemn him).The disciples want to follow Jesus, but he has now led them down a path so full of peril they are forced to consider their own lives and well-being as family men with other obligations.

And at the center of all this, the provocateur Jesus will not back down from his assertive demand for personal and national change, reorienting Israel toward the values of prophetic justice, righteousness, and compassion. As a result he is “betrayed into the hands of sinners” — those moral men upholding their particular moral concerns, albeit willing to sacrifice their moral integrity to uphold them.

Tragedy and God

We will err if we see Jesus’ willingness to enter into the growing darkness of this tragic clash apart from the whole sweep of biblical narrative—for the Scriptures might well be titled “The Tale of the Tragedies of God.” Jesus reflects and embodies, in human form, what the Divine Love has experienced again and again.

In the biblical Saga, God has been “crucified” in just such clashes again and again. The creator is betrayed by the man and the woman in the Garden, seduced by a mysterious lying snake who promises great good to humans. The highly favored Noah, the new Adam and second father of the human race, proves a disappointing role model and parent. The clan of Abraham which the divine Wisdom chooses as its pilot project in healthy community-formation proves a truly difficult bunch of learners (as do the Jesus people much later in the story — and the church's history is hardly any different).

The first king of Israel God chooses messes up almost immediately and then tries to kill his successor-designate. The beloved David, a virtual bosom-buddy, succumbs to lust, murder, favoritism and a lassitude that sets the divinely chosen Royal House off in the wrong direction. The chosen nation refuses to heed the prophets sent to avert their destruction.

More than the “tragedies of God” one might well call the Scriptures the “failures of God” — just as Jesus, God’s latest outreach to save humanity from its own ignorance, resistance and downright folly, has walked right into apparent failure.

Tragedy redeemed

Now in a Greek tragedy, just as soon as Jesus breathes his last, the deus ex machina would descend and read everyone the riot act: “You did this wrong, that was your fatal flaw, this is the way you messed up, and you, over there, you overreached destructively. Got that? Too bad about all the dead people.”

But biblical tragedy always turns out differently. After all, the Greek gods and goddess are deeply involved in bringing the tragedy about themselves. They represent precisely the conflicting values we have been considering: family, state, prophecy, religion. And at his best, the deus ex machina merely tells you what went wrong, and how it comes out of your hubris, or ignorance or malice or whatever. The God perceived by biblical people can radiate that penetrating, revealing, fault-exposing light, too; but this God does a great deal more. Tragedy is not reversed, but redeemed.

As the shepherd of Israel, “He” sets out yet once again to rescue and gather the lost sheep. As holy Wisdom, “she” not only exposes flaws, but instructs, heals, inspires and assists in rehabilitation and growth in virtue. More than that, this God, faced with repeated failure, begins more and more to take on the very suffering caused by humanity’s misdeeds—feckless and malicious alike. As Isaiah comes to see, “In all their afflictions, God was afflicted, and the angel of his presence saved them: in this love and pity he redeemed them, and he bore them and carried them...” (Isaiah 63:9)

Jesus as a "Man of God's own heart"

Viewed only as tragedy, Jesus goes down to defeat. But Jesus is “more than a prophet,” as he himself says. The heart and soul of his humanity “cleaves” to God so completely that he has awakened to himself “in God” and welcomed God to live “in him.” As such, he becomes the human vessel (or as the “ascension” mystics of his day called it, the “chariot”) of the divine Love, the Word or Wisdom or Expression of God in the world. Though the man in front of them is clearly human, people who welcome him easily feel themselves to be in the presence and atmosphere of God.

And, as the followers of Jesus reflect on this experience, they decide that in Jesus the Divine is able to experience what being human feels like: all the lurking fear, lust, pride, malice, all the loneliness of being cut off from the profound participation mystique of pre-human, paradisical life. God enters into the depths of the human “dark night” as well as knowing, from the inside of flesh, its capacities for good.

And so, when Jesus walks into the dark night of abandonment — by friend, follower, nation, world, and even abandonment by a felt sense of the presence of God — the Cosmic Mind that weaves the worlds is “afflicted in his affliction,” synergistically with the human soul of the Man Jesus. God in Jesus, and Jesus in God understand the tragedy in the context of compassion for human vulnerability, ignorance, fear and the viciousness that comes from all three. Jesus utters words that build on Isaiah’s insight into the relentlessness of the divine Love: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And though he does not say it, the God Jesus reveals may even be heard saying, “I forgive, even when they know what they do.”

Forgiveness as the door to redemption

This forgiveness is not some namby-pamby willingness to put up with evil. Rather, it is a firm dedication not to give up on the Humanity Project—to stay in relationship. In human life, there is no recovery from tragedy but a forgiveness that can open the door to repentance, reconciliation, change in relationships, and reparation if necessary. Amazing, according to the Story, the forgiveness radiates out through time as Jesus is pictured entering into Hades itself, into the furthest pole of alienation from light, life, and God, to wrap the imprisoned souls in the light of compassion and love and open a way for them to come out. Even ancient tragedies like the ignorance of humankind before the Flood can be transfigured, new doors to the future opened.

In human life, tragedy happens again and again. Whistle-blowers get blackballed (I knew one who even went to jail as an accessory to the corporate crime he discovered and exposed). Children and spouses are betrayed by a parent who sacrifices them for the career meant to support the family. Religious hierarchies bury crimes secretly lest their moral credibility be publicly lessened. Adulterers do not own up to their infidelity lest it shake the trust of spouse and damage the marriage. Politicians betray some supporters to represent others. All too often, such actions eventually lead to crisis, perhaps disaster.

Still, as Archbishop Tutu says, “Without forgiveness, there is no future.” Tragedy set into the unconquerable Love of God is not obliterated, but transfigured and set in a larger atmosphere of possibility.

Whatever else the resurrection of Jesus means (and it means more than this), it is a sign of the persistence of an unconquerable Love—a love that will not let us go, even in the darkest night. A love that can lead us in that darkness, through that darkness, perhaps even beyond that darkness if we are open to it. And, if all else fails, companion us in the darkness until we fall through it into the radiant and eternal Light around and beyond it, the Light which the darkness cannot overcome.

Easter Monday:

New weekly series of blogs on the Resurrection:

#1: Carrying the darkness of Hades still in his eyes......

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Dilemma or staged drama — is Pilate’s hesitancy real?

Jesus stands before Pilate, and in the confrontation between them, two worlds collide. The Man from Nazareth embodies the prophetic critique of the corruptions of power, and the Roman procurator represents the most highly organized form of worldly power the world has thus far seen. In this clash of competing interests, Jesus will be scourged, flagellated, and executed in Rome’s cruelest fashion.

And yet, in the Passion narrative, the figure of Pilate is most easily read as curiously passive and weak. It would seem, and has seemed to readers through the ages, that Pilate is hounded into crucifying Jesus by the insistence of the high priest and his supporters. Surrounding this scene is an even more curiously fickle crowd, most often identified (or misidentified, as we shall see) with the same folks who hailed Jesus’ entrance to the City with “hosannahs.”

Gospel distortion of Pilate?

The problem with this picture is that we know from rather firm historical records that Pilate was so excessively cruel that the Emperor recalled him from his position for making matters worse—in particular crucifying too many people. His “iron fist” policy in the face of Jewish troublemakers was counter-productive, much as the British policy of tough crackdown on the colonial protesters in Boston in 1775 backfired badly.

In the face of the contradiction between the New Testament narrative and the Roman records, many modern biblical critics decline to give any credit to the Passion’s portrait of Pilate. They see the story as it comes to us as an obvious attempt to shift the blame for Jesus death to “the Jews” by a second generation Jesus movement in order to protest their own blamelessness with regard to sedition or disloyalty to a government scrutinizing them after the catastrophic Jewish rebellion of 66-73 C.E., Romans like Pilate, Caligula, and Nero had provoked.

It certainly seems that there is a growing desire to appear reasonably “safe” to Roman authorities in the development of the gospel tradition—and therefore to highlight the role of Caiaphas and his supporters. This was no doubt a burning necessity for a group worshipping a Man convicted of sedition, and carting around the sacred scriptures of a people who rebelled against the Empire just as the Romans were beginning to notice the Christian movement. But does that mean the character of Pilate in the Story is wholly fictionalized? Or is there a way of reading the text that can reconcile Pilate’s public show of reluctance in the Gospels with his notoriously harsh rulership tactics?

Pilate the cruel cynic?

Consider this reading that makes sense of the text, at least to me: what if the portrait of the vacillating, uncertain Pilate is based in a cynical, perhaps even sadistic tactic by the Roman governor? Pilate’s in-your-face tactics have already aroused protests to Rome—his bringing the pagan god-laden standards of the legion into the holy City, his erecting the image of the Roman eagle on an entrance to the Temple itself, and his swift and vindictive punishment for people accused of resisting Roman overlordship.

What if he has told Caiaphas that it is on the Jewish leadership to keep things in hand this Passover. After all, he keeps the high priest’s vestments for the fall Day of Atonement under lock and key in the fortress Antonia, overlooking the Temple—the vestments for the crucial New Year’s “Days of Awe” that annually allow Israel to shed the burden of the past year’s sins.

What if he has decided that he’s not going to be the “bad guy” this time and risk calling Rome’s attention to him after the recent protests? So, when the high priest, responding to Pilate’s demand that he “handle it” comes to turn this disturber of the peace over to Roman authority for sedition, Pilate plays “prove it to me,” and feigns perplexity before witnesses. What if his making the high priest plead for Jesus’ execution is a callous act of humiliation of the Jewish leader, every false statement of reluctance twisting the knife further? Then, finally, he “gives in” with a missive to Rome already in mind if needed which will say, “The local authorities convinced me this religious teacher was really dangerous. I didn’t offend them this time.”

As novel as this reading of the text may be, it reconciles the cruel Pilate we know from history and the vacillating milquetoast of the narrative. He would not be the first person with all the power concentrated in his hands to make somebody else be the fall guy for his own actions—which brings us back to Jesus and Pilate facing each other, each representing a very different approach to power.

Conflicting approaches to power

For Pilate and Rome, power is imperium—power over. For Jesus and his Way, power is power with, power for, and power to be shared, even given away. Jesus gives people power—charismatic power to disciples whom he trains in the ways of healing prayer and exorcism and personal power to people he delivers from disempowering demons and disease. For him, leadership is all about serving the needs of people so that they can become more powerful in service to God’s desires.

One has to careful here not to fall into the trap of “good Jesus/ bad Romans.” Pilate represents a particularly vicious exercise of Roman power, so much so he loses his job. Rome is not the stereotypical tyrannical villain of Hollywood epics, and the Romans certainly don’t see themselves that way. Rome has ended hundreds of years of warfare in the Mediterranean basin, cleared the sea lanes of pirates so goods can be shipped safely, built a remarkable system of international highways that facilitate travel and commerce—all part of the fabled “Pax Romana” that the majority of Mediterranean peoples found a welcome relief.

Moreover, the shift from direct Senate governance of the provinces to the growing Imperial bureaucracy and more highly organized military had ended some of the more egregious corruption of the past century, when Senators went out to be governors and plundered the provinces. While Rome will not tolerate rebellion, it has brought many blessings to the world. Rome will even allow the Jews a special dispensation not to participate in the rituals of reverence to the “genius” or “divinity” of the City and Emperor so long as they pray for the Emperor in the Temple. Jesus seems, and the early Christians surely did, give some room to “render to Caesar what is Caesar’s” — pay your taxes, obey the law, even “honor the Emperor,” as St. Paul puts it.

But, while Rome is keeping the peace, Jesus is clear that their power system is not meant by God to be center stage in human affairs. Power-over may be necessary as a outer safeguard of social order, but the God Jesus serves wants center stage to be a place where power is shared by people who lead other people. (This doesn’t imply pure democracy, of course, which never seems to have found traction in the early Christian movement, but it does mean “servant leadership,” one that empowers people to grow to full stature.)

Neither Pilate, nor Caiaphas, for that matter, is interested in Jesus’ Way—nor have most leaders been. As a recent president said, with a grin and a chuckle, “It would be a lot easier if I were dictator.” What Jesus stands for, even if Pilate had any interest in understanding it, would be, quite exactly, revolutionary. And so the charge against Jesus—that of a dangerous “revolutionary”—was, on the one hand, a cruel libel, but on the other ironically accurate.


God’s dark night of the soul

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Why does each disciple wonder if he might be the Betrayer?

Part 4 of Caiphas' Dilemma, a set of Holy Week reflections how the tragic dimension of the Passion narrative sheds light on the tragedy inherent in the conflict of human interests and passions.

One can hardly blame Jesus’ disciples for being confused—and more than confused. Jesus has led them a merry chase from the euphoria of his promise-laden beginning, through more than one hint that a vivid restoration of God’s intimacy with Israel is at hand into a time of perplexity and a slowly creeping dread.

As far back as the beginning of the pilgrimage journey to Jerusalem, he has muttered shocking and unbearable things about betrayal, even his death. The disciples have been headed for triumph, but Jesus seems lost in forebodings of defeat. When asked a question about possible status and rank for the disciples in the coming kingdom, his response was both enigmatic and ominous. So, we are told, even as they set out for Jerusalem “they were amazed, and as they followed, they were afraid.” (Mark 10:32)

We may well imagine that some of them hoped he might snap out of it and return to the ecstatic hopes of the Galilean days. For one bright moment the mood seemed lighter as he entered Jerusalem in a not-so-subtle proclamation of kingship by riding on “a colt, the foal of an ass” in a seemingly self-conscious reference to an ancient prophecy. The symbolic of attacking the money changers, coupled with “not allowing anyone to carry anything” (Mark 11:16) through the outer courtyard (which took a coordinated effort of many people, surely) went off without a hitch, short and sweet enough not even to risk arrest. Point made. Profaning the temple judged.

And the crowds! He has been teaching to a growing audience in the Temple courtyard each day, challenging the powers that be with his usual message of God’s love for every level of society and the necessity of returning to the core values of social justice and personal righteousness the ancient prophets first proclaimed.

Yet in the face of all this, the Man they follow has only become more morose. They are more than confused. They are, increasingly, lost in a maze (“amazed) and afraid. They have “left everything behind” — that is, left their wives and children in the care of extended families, left gainful employment, left the safety zone of ordinary life — and now he talks of some mysterious defeat that will somehow turn out all right.

Frayed Loyalty?

As he presides at what will be their final supper together, they are revealed as full of uncertainty as to how they feel about their Master. He “messes with their heads” yet again, as we might say, by the promise that they will be “the judges of Israel” in days to come. Then this curve ball: “One of you will betray me.”

Note carefully what happens next. They don’t cry out “What rascal would do this to you?” Quite the contrary, every single one of them wonders if he himself will be the betrayer: “Lord, is it I?” To me, this speaks of profound ambivalence, self-doubt, and even deeply harbored hesitancy about Jesus himself. Who is this Man who has led them to invest their lives and futures to a misson which he sees as doomed to catastrophe?

“Lord, is it I?” is a give-away sign of just how close to the edge these followers are. And Jesus forces them even further toward the edge by saying that they will all forsake him when push comes to shove later in the night. His apparently changed trajectory and their barely sustainable investment in what they thought was his cause collide.

One response to a crisis of faith such as this is, of course, denial. Peter speaks up quickly on behalf of burying the anxiety, amazement, ambivalence and doubt: “Everybody else may forsake you, but I will not.” Perhaps everyone else at the meal nodded vigorous agreement. Bearing the reality of one’s own mixed emotions, conflicting desires, and dark, dangerous thoughts is a hard skill to master.

Jesus presses further, even into this inner cauldron of ambivalence by saying to Peter (and perhaps to the rest) that “Satan has desired to sift you like wheat” — and implies that he himself has given Satan permission to test them. He offers this as a word of hope, because he anticipates that the “sifting” inherent in going through what they are about to experience with his arrest, trial and death will sort them out into stronger advocates for his cause.

Entering into “The Test”

He is “entering into the Test” himself, as he leaves the supper, travels with the disciples to an olive grove outside the City which ancient tradition believed was family property where his own ambivalences break surface in an agony of prayers. Having already decided that God is leading him toward death for mysterious purposes, Jesus falls into a wrestling match with his own passionate resistance: “If it be your will, let this cup pass from me.” Jesus prays, we are told “with loud cries” (Hebrews 5:7) to be delivered from the fate he has helped bring about (see yesterday’s blog post).

But what of Judas? A disciple’s story of this evening tells us that, during the “one of you will betray me” conversation that “the devil entered into Judas Iscariot.” Whatever this means on the existential level, it would seem to involve any ambiguity on Judas’ part resolving itself into an action plan—another prime way of escaping from ambiguity or doubt.

Was Judas disillusioned, thinking Jesus’ social or religious mission had gone astray? Was the alabaster jar with the ointment that might have “better been given to the poor” the last straw? Or did Judas expect that if he forced the issue and brought on Jesus’ arrest the crowds would rise in rebellion—or that the occasional glimpses of a “larger than life” spiritual reality would break forth from Jesus to miraculously paralyze his enemies? Was he an eschatological radical who thought the Man could summon legions of angels for the Final Battle, as the Dead Sea Scroll community believed?

As the story is told, confusion reigns in Judas’ soul, because when he sees that Jesus is, in fact, slated for execution, he repents for having “betrayed innocent blood” and kills himself in shame, sorrow, or self-loathing.

“It was night,” St. John tells us in a highly symbolic sentence as Judas leaves to summon the Temple police and Roman cohort. Night indeed, when the clash of different needs and visions — the disciples’ sincere investment in Jesus’ mission, the high priest's practical need to avert mob violence, the Roman geopolitical interest, and Jesus’ own resilient determination follow this difficult path — begins to weave the crown of thorns he will wear on the morrow.


Dilemma or staged drama—is Pilate’s hesitancy real?

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Has Jesus deliberately brought his death upon himself?

This, the third in a series of Holy Week meditations, explores the Passion narrative through the lens of tragedy, rather than a “good guys vs. bad guys” approach. As the week moves toward its end, the focus will become the ways in which the tragic saga of Scripture illuminates the tragic dimensions of our own world as the inescapable arena of God’s redemptive love.

Caiaphas' Dilemma, Part 3

By the time Jesus enters the holy City for Passover, he seems determined to provoke the crisis he has successfully avoided for his entire public ministry—a crisis that can only, from any wise earthly viewpoint, end in his execution.

Common Christian interpretation through the ages saw in his staging an in-your-face entrance to the City as “the Son of David” and his aggressive challenge to the Temple commerce and leadership the clear and simple unfolding of a plan Jesus has known his whole lifetime: that he was born to die for the salvation of humankind.

While having no wish to deny the redemptive power of Jesus’ living and dying as a “ransom for many,” as he puts it (which will be explored later in the week), I am hardly the only contemporary reader to find this heavily doctrinal, “pre-destined” reading of the events of Holy Week a bit too scripted-in-advance for real life. Can the text yield a different reading?

Yes, Jesus comes to Jerusalem for a final, climactic confrontation with the Temple leadership and their Roman overlords, and declares to them forthrightly, in front of a large assembly of pilgrims, that the right of rulership will be taken away from them. Yes, he brazenly allows the disciples to sing Messianic anthems in public. But did he set out, from his baptism onward, knowing it would come to this?

From joyful Messenger to "Man of Sorrows"

Certainly the Man who was embraced by the warm light and dazzling love of God at his baptism, and returned from his sojourn in the wilderness “in the power of the Spirit” launching a spectacular campaign of preaching, teaching, exorcism and healing is not presented to us as “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” He is a God-intoxicated ecstatic, a “Spirit-man” as Marcus Borg calls him, with a message of great good news. In Galilee, the God of bounteous gifts, of warning and judgment, of infinite mercy and forgiveness, invites all Israel to a wedding feast though the ministry of Jesus.

This “Galilean spring” of Jesus’ ministry, as it is remembered in the gospels, is full of hope, as well as denunciation of the religious and social forces that bar people, especially the common folk, from access to God’s bounty. The “kingdom campaign” grows, and soon Jesus is sending out companies of messengers armed with some of his own shamanistic, charismatic energy, to remote towns and villages, promising that the kingdom may, in fact, arrive in power before these emissaries have returned (Matthew 10). So the story comes down to us. This sounds like a Man who expects some success in his mission.

At midpoint, in the gospels, Jesus is portrayed as doing an about-face, suddenly ruminating about a coming death — not at all his earlier message. Did he, in his God-illumined joy, originally believe that the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” would turn toward him? Certainly his sad, or perhaps bitter, denunciations of the Galilean towns Capernaum and Chorazim (Matthew 11:23-24 and Luke 10:15) speak to a certain level of frustration!)

The gospels are written in hindsight, when the full story is known, so it’s easy enough, (especially if one mistakes Jesus‘ righteous fidelity to the God he serves for total human infallibility) to read back into the narrative something that isn’t actually there until the Transfiguration and Jesus‘ first announcement of his impending Passion (cf. Mark 8). If we refrain from such hindsight, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the growing opposition Jesus faces has forced him to reconsider his strategy, perhaps even the ultimate purposes of his mission. As it comes down to us, he turns to the Scriptures for guidance and finds there a more tragic aspect of being God’s “Servant.”

But whatever the secret of his interior life at this midpoint juncture, the disciples are certainly shocked when he seems to change plans in midstream. On the one had they are told that some of them will sit "on his right and left" in the the new world order, and on the other that the “Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinners, and die, and be raised again.”

(I know there are many scholars who would remove these sayings from the mouth of Jesus, as well as any aim to some sort of Messianic identity, but, for me, such alternate scenarios simply remove the enigma and skandalon in the story as it is told to us, giving us a Jesus who is wise, socially progressive, and massively misunderstood—someone we can live with more easily in our day than a radical visionary whose bright hopes turn dark and tragic as he seeks to follow the inner stirrings of the Spirit’s voice.)

Provoking the Confrontation

And so, as the Story goes, he goes to Jerusalem to bring on the final crisis (much like Robert E. Lee who decides that Gettysburg is the “make or break” moment to win or lose the Civil War, and spends his army extravagantly, only to go down to defeat).

For me, the parable Jesus shoves in the face of the Temple priests speaks to this interpretation powerfully. A landowner has rebellious tenants. He sends messengers to call them to account, but the messengers are killed. So he sends his own Son, reasoning that they will respect him as the direct representative of the Owner—but they kill him also. Jesus is presented here describing the arc of his mission: it begins with the hope that they will “listen to the Son,” but ends in the young man’s slaughter. Yet, somehow, out of this, God’s purposes will be accomplished, for the vineyard will be taken away from the tenants and “given to another.” (See Mark 12:1-12)

This parable has, unfortunately, borne a good deal of anti-Judaic fruit through the centuries, being understood classically as a transfer of “chosenness” from Israel to the Christian church. But such an anti-Judaic slant isn’t in the story itself. Jesus has presented himself as the representative of the kingdom of God—as the messenger and hinted-at embodiment of God’s true overlordship of Israel. Just as Samuel had declared Saul no longer God’s chosen leader, and Jeremiah had warned of the fall of Judean leadership, so Jesus tells the priestly caste their days are numbered—which, in fact, historically they will be. His denunciations of Israelite leadership are no more anti-Jewish than those of the great prophets.

What he has done, however, does seal his own fate, as well as announce theirs. He is wedded to his mission of proclaiming the kingdom, even if this is the result. He will not, perhaps cannot back down. They can see no way to yield to what seem dangerous and unpredictable demands. The clash and conflict of these competing values become the cross on which he is crucified


Why does each of the disciples wonder if he is the Betrayer?