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.