God-comprehending unfolding

I don’t know anything about God. Further I will say with some strong degree fo certainty that no one knows anything about God either.

There are theories, propositions, intuitions about God. There are suggestions, concerns, queries and questions about God. There are sketches, rondeaux, intimations of God.

All those things seem to me interesting exercises in imagination, in engaging the totality of who I am with something which is more than I can possibly be.

This is not a trivial thing, but it is not knowledge.

1280px-FlammarionKnowing God is like knowing the Sun. I can know about the Sun, and in fact I know a lot about it. Scientifically I know about size, shape, weight, temperature, etc. Artistically and poetically I know a lot as well. Starting with the Flammagorion and going through lots of Van Gogh’s paintings and Munch’s The Scream.

 

 

Or in poetry with Larkin’s closing stanza in “High Windows”:

Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.

Or e. e. cummings':

i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any—lifted from the no
of all nothing—human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

Yes I know a lot about the sun. But the sun, the sun itself, exploding within the chalice of its own gravity well…not so much.

Jesus knew God because Jesus knew himself. Can I use some sort of Euclidean spiritual geometry and say that Jesus knows God. I know Jesus. Thus I know God? Or am I, truly, hyperbolic held to non-Euclidean principles and positively defective triangles?

This matters because if I think Reality is FLAT, then I can hold on to the Fifth Postulate (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parallel_postulate). But if it is not…

While I want to get God right, I find that if I am honest the best I can do is to get the experience of Godliness right. This is different.

But how do I know this experience or that experience is godly or not without some sort of premise which will allow me to discern godly influences from non-godly ones? Does this not require that I search for some position on the Source?

e. e. cummings suggests a solution and that is to become like the “sun comprehending glass” – what does that mean? The glass comprehends the sun because the glass lets the light shine through. That in me which blinds me to God is the same thing that complains its inability to know God.

So the work is to unfold into god-comprehension. This probably requires work. But it is negative work: it is a work of removal, a work against work, a work against results, against goals, against purpose even. It is about becoming as sun-comprehending as the glass.

So that would be the “why”. The next question is where can this work be done? How is it to be done? And what, precisely, is to be done? To these questions there are no satisfactory answers, especially to the “what” question. As I suggested above the god-comprehending work unfolds in non-Euclidean space, and the 5Ws are very much players in traditional Euclidean space.

Posted in Thoughts

Watch that door

I like to think of myself as a rational individual. In fact, “cold as a snake” was a constant refrain by the non-Trekkie members of my family who would, had they been smarter and prettier, have called me Spock (obviously much to my delight – so maybe they were onto something…but I digress).

I have found solace in trying to think through things more times than feeling my way through them. And while I have frequently thought wrong about things, both the number and severity of the mistakes were much smaller than when feeling through them.

If there is a heart, mine is logical.

But…as you grow older you get to go deeper into some things. One of which is the nature of thinking itself, my own thinking in particular. An unexamined assumption is that “I” (that atom, least divisible part of me) is both rational and attempting to maximize my well-being.

Two powerful influences disrupt, distort and destroy such a beautiful idea: cognitive biases and social influences (peer pressure and family history). They twist reason into prejudice and rationalization, and they bend my goals for my well-being into a set of learned behaviors which are labelled The Good Life.

These are not two things which are either easy to identify or to correct. Of the two cognitive biases are by far the simplest to do something about. A few hours spent at Clearer Thinking will give anyone enough tools to begin the work.

Social influences are much more difficult. I imagine that spending considerable time alone would help weaken those effects. But what kind of solution is that?

Turns out that the Ancient Faith has a plethora of practical advice and exercises to help you deal with the less-than-rational parts of yourself.

To begin with there is the need to train your attention to begin to notice all these “external” voice – I was going to say artificial, and that might be closer to the truth. For example, there is My Mother’s Voice , and I am quick to cry that it is not “my” voice but rather her. But is it really? In reality she is not standing behind me whispering (or shouting) what I should do….it is an internalized set of instructions. Yes, there probably was a time (or many times) when she did tell me just what I am hearing in my head now. But it is all in me.

So I need to spend sometime developing the capacity to catch myself doing things which are learned behavior. In Biblical parlance I have to be nepsate, gregoresate (1 Peter 5:8-9, “sober and watchful”). All. The. Time.

As a secondary step try choosing some non-important task to repeat all day. A really good one is to promise yourself you will be aware every time you cross a doorway. Surely a simple task! Hah! You will be shocked how much you wonder around completely unaware, focused only on your own thoughts and your own little world.

Again, not sober and not watchful. I know the Peter passage is about spiritual warfare, but honestly, if I cannot even pay attention to obvious things like doorways, what hopes do I have of dealing with diaphanous things?

Over time this attitude of awareness and sobriety becomes second nature, or it has for me. Not that I am perfectly aware at all times! It is more like being able to switch from peripheral to tunnel vision.

The sobriety part comes from not acting like a drunkard – really! I tend to stumble into (emotional) situations completely unprepared. Before I know it I am getting angry, upset, and making everyone around me miserable. Had I been sober, and not intoxicated with my own daydreams and fantasies, I would have been able to engage the situation soberly and with sufficient watchfulness to not hurt anyone, not get defensive, etc etc.

Simple, baby steps, but much to work on.

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Politically Engineered Scarcity

How much are my fears based on a perception of scarcity? If I see that something is limited does it automagically arouse feelings of greed, lust, gluttony? Is this a trained behavior? Most likely.

Since we are small the lesson is repeated ad infinitum: things run out, get ‘em while you can!

I can see it very clearly. In fact I see scarcity everywhere. It takes a lot of imagination, patience and training to learn to un-see scarcity.

The first step in an analysis of my perception of scarcity is to realize how it is politically engineered. By political I mean not only the standard idea of politics and legislation (those are important as well) but a broader concept of politics as something that involves a group of people talking with each other. Basically politics happens whenever two or three are gathered together!

If in the group there is one Kingdom person, their language will be so at odds with the others as to make them sound downright crazy!

Scarcity is bad Kingdom theology. Full stop. It is difficult to see how Kingdom life can be reconciled with lack or want.

But there is a difference between artificial scarcity and true lack. I don’t know any wooly-eyed Kingdom freak who denies that deserts lack water. I also do not know anyone crazy enough to believe we will eradicate poverty – apart from those uber-rich in Hollywood – what does that tell you? We will always have the poor, says Jesus. This is true scarcity.

I read that to mean, we will always have work to do. We will always have to be vigilant and listen carefully to those around us, to spot the weeds of injustice and cut them out. It is like gardening – there is never going to be a time when we have arrived.

But the good news is that we are quite a lot further along. Life is better. People are less tolerant of injustice and oppression. No we still do not have good mechanisms to deal with those things, but the sheer fact that we notice them at all is a monumental step forward.

Talking of monuments, Pinker has written a gargantuan book called “The Angels of our Better Natures” (clocking in on 1000+ pages) with lots and lots of obscure data showing that things are not only better than they were, they keep getting better.

But somehow no one wants to believe that.

Lent is a perfect time to begin the task of uninstalling the programs of scarcity which cloud our vision. Think of it as a good time to focus on whittling away that log in your eye. Why should we do that? because there are people out there, with true eye problems, specs that really hurt them, and the compassionate heart should do everything possible to help alleviate their pain.

But it is hard to help with a big old log sticking out a mile in front of your face, banging into everyone.

Posted in Thoughts

God and Mammon

Jesus has a few things to say about serving multiple masters, most especially he singles out wealth.

“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be loyal to the one and have contempt for the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” (Matt. 6:24)

“Wealth” is the correct translation of mammon, of course. But how do we serve wealth?

First let’s think about service. We live in a predominantly service economy – we all serve one another in expectations of payment. We talk about soldiers serving their country. In our minds, especially in the US, “service” means “paid work”.

From a spiritual perspective service is never to be done for remuneration. In fact, a spiritual teacher that charges for their “services” is one step away from charlatanism. They certainly are falling for the spiritually dangerous error of corruption, by effectively taking bribes.

Yes, I am well aware we got mouths to feed etc. But someone who serves for a salary is not a servant in the deeper sense of the word. This does not mean that there are no professions which are noble and great and involve serving people for a salary.

The point here is to read these teachings of our Lord with an eye for spiritual development. It would be much better if there was a separate term for “service” – one in a simple material plane, where there is a transaction, and one in the level of spiritual teaching where the only currency is love.

Unpacking Jesus’ words a little more, they can mean something like this: if you start expecting people to pay you to perform certain actions, then you will be focused on how much you can get paid. You will begin to look around to see who pays more. The further you go down this road the more likely you are to focus on yourself and not on others. You will expect to see your worth as synonymous with payment.

Spiritually this is dangerous because the love offering component of service is lost.

What to do if your job is in offering spiritual service – a counselor for example, or a priest?

That is tricky, but I would recommend that a person spend sometime in their mind and in their hearts separating the paid part from the love offering part of their activities. A priest, for example, could see their salary as tied to their good and wise management of the church resources, being a good steward (which in fact it is), but to understand deeply that their preaching, for example, or their visiting people in the hospital, is a love offering – something they do for free, and which they would continue to do for free even if they were accountants, let’s say.

There is a second part to this equation, and that is the giving of gifts. Many women supported Jesus’ ministry. This means they gave money, food, etc. These contributions allowed the fishermen, for example, to leave their jobs and continue to have money to buy food. Gift-giving is a time-honored way of responding in kind to spiritual work given.

The only problem arises when there is an expectation from both sides. One side expects to be paid for a great sermon, while the other side expects a great sermon, or (much more common) private access to the spiritual leader for a price, a donation of a certain amount.

This is moving the whole thing from a prodigal interaction based on the abundance of love to one of limited resources being traded for mutual profit.

It is important as well to realize that wealth is just an example. Any activity which is not a freewilled love offering stops being profitable (hah!) for our spiritual lives.

There is a reason why in the Lord’s Prayer we are instructed to “forgive our debts as we forgive our debtors”…even if you use “trespasses” or “sins” instead of debts, the point being here that we need to be very careful to not pass up opportunities for doing good. More importantly, not holding other people for ransom (emotionally, spiritually, if not monetarily) is work that everyone needs to do daily.

Should we expect payment for doing good? Should I get closer to the good by donating larger sums? Doing good is a freewill love offering to another and to God.

Posted in Thoughts

The Deeper Way

I am trying to put some thoughts in order and trying to unpack what a Jesus-shaped spiritual life could/should look like.

Obviously as the title suggests “deeper” means more work! Sorry but there is no bucking that. It means that more is asked of me on all levels. It means pushing past discomfort. It means that if I am shy and introverted I have to step up and speak before crowds, while if I am self-assured and extroverted I will be asked to go into my closet and do things seen only by God.

There is deep reasons for this, but most importantly is that we must work really hard to become like Christ.

Important here to keep in mind: it is a choice. It is a daily choice. People who have been married for a while know this. You can choose this.

To choose something it is better to have a goal in mind. In this case the goal is similarity with Christ. Buddhists are always going on and on about being Buddha-like. In the church we do not talk much about being Christ-like. Why not? Are there not ways to do this?

You will know if you arrived if you are comfortable with saying: “So, whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, you should do it all for God’s glory. Don’t offend either Jews or Greeks, or God’s church. This is the same thing that I do. I please everyone in everything I do. I don’t look out for my own advantage, but I look out for many people so that they can be saved. Follow my example, just like I follow Christ’s.” (1 Cor. 11)

This deeper way calls all persons into a continual personal transformation by grace in every area of life. It rewrites experiences and it renews relationships. This way calls on disciples to live out the deepest meaning of “respecting the integrity of every human being.” Perhaps even the integrity of all creatures – human or not.

This deeper way can recognized by a regular practice of prayer, reading scripture, worship, servanthood, mission and simplicity. Disciples will not only be those who do these things, but also who do it in community with other disciples.

This deeper way is consciously, exclusively and intentionally Jesus-centered. Jesus is the center and the boundaries. It is a spirituality that takes the study of Jesus seriously, but not dogmatically.

Practices

1) recognize you are plural – not a single, solid block.
2) recognize that you have limited energy, limited power. But that you have much more energy than you are used to spend. People who start exercising are frequently surprised that even though at the beginning they had less energy (body tired, had to cut some sleep to work out in the morning etc) they soon find themselves with more energy than before. it is not that they have “more” energy – it is that they have unlocked more of the energy they always had but were not using!
3) recognize that you are living by auto-pilot, and do very very few things intentionally. The usual term for this in spiritual books is “sleep”. Some of you wish you could get some more of this sleep people keep talking about (I am looking at you mothers in the crowd) but, this is spiritual sleep here.
4) recognize that the automatic responses (non-intentional actions) are mostly fearful reactions to inaccurately assessed experience: fear of the past coming to light (shame, depression), fear of the future happening (anxiety), fear of lack (not enough, food, money, fame, sex, coffee), fear of pain and suffering (aging, disease), fear of death.
5) recognize that the reactions from fear are always demanding payment – you are making the whole world owe you.
6) recognize that each one of these fears were at one point a legitimate response to a specific situation, an accurate response to reality. A baby cries when it is hungry. that is a good response. But an adult being angry because dinner is late by half an hour is childish.
7) recognize that at any time some suffering is necessary, but most of it is not. When exercising, some muscle pain (suffering) is good, but injuries are not! Same thing with thoughts, with feelings. Some discomfort at learning a new language is worth the effort. Some discomfort at letting go of an old grudge is also good. Being in an abusive relationship is not!
8) recognize that no two situations in life are the same. Life is turbulent which makes living a creative act. It requires all our energies to respond creatively and navigate the white waters. Sometimes you his a good patch with low turbulence, but pretty soon you are back in the rapids. Most people will want to remain going around in circles in the quiet parts, but this is not possible in life.
9) recognize that you cannot use old responses to new events. Upgrade to Windows 8 and had to re-install my programs, get patches. Some programs just flat will not work with the new system. Same with life – but we get a new system to operate in every minute!
10) recognize that you can stop a program, and quit it, even if halfway through, by refusing to give it any attention and maintaining inner silence. If you refuse to “talk” with the miscreant reaction it will die down. Best way to teach dogs is to praise good behavior – the same with children, spouses, mothers-in-law!
11) recognize that you can choose a better way – by dropping all unnecessary suffering you free up the energy required to grow.

How to go about it

1) Every morning set your intention to live your day patterned by the Lord’s Prayer.
2) Read over the Sermon on the Mount every single day. Memorize it if you can.
3) Pray always for God’s will to be done and for the Holy Spirit to enlighten and guide you. No matter what.
4) Every night review your day. Look for moments of automatism and re-write them.
5) Try to be conscious during the day (awake!) by recalling that every event is your “daily bread”.

Posted in Thoughts

Hamartia

In classical literature, and by classical I mean Greek not Jane Austen, there is a clear link between sympathy, pity, fear and the catharsis, or resolution, of those fears. The fact that this heart-tugging works is undeniable.

For Aristotle and other Greek thinkers, the mechanism how it works was mapped out (even if the “why” question is not suitably explained): first the audience must be made to sympathize with a character. Then, as the story develops, they start to fear what is about to happen through omniscience (i.e. being show what is going on behind the scenes and that the main character does not know). Finally it all comes crashing down around the hero and the audience can experience some liberation from their feelings of compassion and fear (catharsis, a term which Aristotle from medicine and which means “refining”) – that is, the viewer of tragedy can sharpen, refine, their own moral sense by living vicariously through the difficulties of the character. The Greeks saw the arts as having a didactic component in the teaching of morals and virtues. Heck they even saw that in sport as well. Keep this in mind.

There is one further technical detail that is important before we move on to the news: hamartia. Usually this is translated as the “fatal flaw”, although it is not as strong as that, more like a bad mistake or an error. In other words it is not an innate flaw – that is a Christian idea, not present to the ancient Greeks.

To make a good Greek tragedy the hero must have a moment upon which hinges the whole play. That moment cannot be some form of innate failure because those old Greeks did not go for the anti-hero type, in fact despised them. But it cannot also be completely random bad luck, because that would remove any chance of fear, the slow building of tension which makes for a good play.

To work really well, as in Oedipus, the fatal flaw must be coupled with the hero’s central virtue! Now how about that for a twist? The hero does what in his eyes and in his limited knowledge (this is critical) seems like a good deed, a good idea, and later, as events unfold, turns out to be a really really bad move.

The audience is given information about how bad of a move it is, and watches, like a slow motion car crash…

So that’s the mechanism. We know it works.

I have been watching the NBC Winter Olympics and it is quite revealing. There is a constant attempt to create sympathy in American television – almost all shows, and certainly all reality shows attempt to create a form of tragedy, giving its viewers a little frisson of catharsis. Not much, mind you. Not enough to go change their ways. Just a little thrill.

There is something about Americans who are attracted to tragedy like a moth to light.

Primetime TV is as carefully orchestrated as a Greek play. With advertising placed at suitable dramatic pauses. The viewer’s sympathy is aroused artificially through the not-so-subtle use of cutback footage which highlights the athlete’s likability – usually through some sort of tragedy (there it is again!)

There is this pathological need to create sympathy for the competitor, so that during the event the fear (of failure) can be more deeply expressed. And while I could see this being mildly useful for an event I knew nothing about, we see this stuff even during sports which people are very familiar with, American football or baseball for example.

It seems that Americans find it very difficult to simply observe excellence and enjoy mastery. It needs to be tragic, dramatic!

So we see the pushing of Bode Miller to cry and talk about his recently deceased brother. I shake my head with some disgust, and turn off the TV. Can’t we just watch people doing great feats of athletic ability without turning it into a soap opera? Must we highlight, and if we cannot find it, then fabricate hamartia?

And, of course, because of America’s puritanism, the hamartia is better if it can be shown to be an in-born quality. But let us not talk about virtues. It is quite a feat to get me to care about so-and-so but without feeling that this will refine my own sense of rightness, of virtue. I want my heroes to have an inborn flaw, or at least a parentally imposed one, and I want to see them go up very high and then crash very loudly. This is what happens.

the problem with flaws without virtues is that it makes all of us coarser. The issue with too much sympathy for the anti-hero is that it renders the very concept of virtue unusable.

Solutions? How about highlighting virtues without worrying too much about flaws? How about, you know, actually being a little embarrassed about flaws? How about basing our social lives around the development of virtue?

Of course, the question can be asked “Whose virtue?” And even while this could, and should, be hotly debated, I believe such a debate would allow us to be refined, rather than being made coarser.

Posted in Thoughts

Lover

Eye contact with my lover
Held long unblinking
My breath is breathed in
I am my lovers no other will suffice

I do not blink and hardly breathe
I utter not a word
Just my lover fills me
There is no other, no other

I hold still though heart is trembling
My lips are dry, my palms are clammy
My stomach in knots
I am happy, there is no other

My lover’s arms hold me
My lover’s strength holds me
I tremble like a new-born kitten
I cry – there is no other

My lover upon me loving
I can hold nothing back
There is no though or prayer
Only love upon love

Love over love, no other
Over each other lost in love
No other between
My lover’s lips, my heart on fire

Posted in Thoughts