Sunday, September 27, 2009

Spiritual exercises v. spiritual rest

There is renewed interest in spiritual exercises these days. There is interest in prayer and fasting, meditation and lectio divina. All of these have their precedents in Scripture by precept and by example. But the most neglected of all spiritual pursuits seems to be spiritual rest. Life is compared to a battle, or a race, or a journey. One of the most needful things is simply rest.

Some people worry that rest equates to laziness. But sometimes that suspicion of rest is a mask for an unwillingness to rest, to let down our guard. The comments I hear sometimes make me wonder: do people feel guilty for enjoying a moment of quiet rest? Are we so surrounded by hyper-achievers who are constantly overscheduled that we consider it not only normal but right? Do we think of rest as a sign of weakness, or lack of ambition, or lack of dedication?

My favorite part of Psalm 23 is where the Good Shepherd makes the sheep lie down in green pastures by still waters, and in doing this he restores their souls. So I think that if we want to restore our souls, then the spiritual "exercise" most needful is to rest.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Speaking of my blind spots ...

I really have even less excuse than other people. I have sat in a church pew alone on a holiday and watched people file by at the end of a service, heading to full homes and cheerful holiday dinners, while nobody so much as said "Hi" in my direction to the single mom whose kids were away. I would roll my eyes at myself and my seeming semi-pariah status in church. I know what that's like. I wondered (a little self-righteously, no doubt) if they were blind.

I remember when another church member had her husband go overseas on business for a year, and how the church rallied behind her as she tried to raise her children alone for a year. There were sign-up lists for helping her with home repairs and yardwork, sign-up lists for sending supporting emails and phone calls. I thought it was something of a slap in the face to those of us who are alone 24/7/365 but there isn't a similar effort. I vented to on-line friends of the situation -- and was that ever an eye-opener. One person who has never met me told me, very confidently, that the reason nobody was interested in helping me was that I must be the kind of person who never helped others when they were in need. I disagreed, but didn't want to blow my own horn so offered no details. As she continued to insist that I must be a very unhelpful person to draw such cold responses from people, I finally (and against my better judgment) listed various ways in which I helped people in my family, neighborhood, church, and wider community. She did instantly change her approach; she told me that the reason nobody was interested in helping me was that I must be the kind of person who seemed like I never needed help. The one thing I learned from that experience was: if someone doesn't want to help, not only will they not help, but they will also manage to blame the person they're not helping for that decision. Again I wondered (a little self-righteously, no doubt) if they were blind.

So I really do have less excuse than other people. I realized the other day that my old neighbor across the street hardly comes out anymore, and the semi-shut-in next door likewise. And I even found myself powering up the excuse-generator in my mind. The woman next door is far from pleasant; her husband the semi-shut-in is, from medication, partially insane. The old neighbor across the street has never been known to have a conversation without criticizing me and my children and my child rearing skills. And I have to face it: I've been wilfully blind. Am I so lame that I can't walk next door? My neighbor next door is.

Praying to shut down the excuse factory, and stop being blind and lame.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The log in my eye ... a lightbulb moment

I was (very evilly) pondering a piece of theological writing that really set me off. The author had set himself up as The Rational Voice telling two other sides exactly what they were doing wrong, and was just painfully oblivious to his own prejudices. He has several times commented on how much other peoples' Jesus happens to agree with them, and how they never seem to notice. Which always sends my irony-meter through the roof (remember, this is my evil musings here, I get to more edifying stuff soon) -- sends my irony-meter through the roof because he is so clearly oblivious to the fact that his Jesus just happens to agree with him in every way. My snarky-comment generator even considered dubbing his collected writings "Mr. So-and-So's Spec Removal Service" (or Mote removal service, for the KJV fans).

Of course self-delusion only lasts so long. And it finally crossed my mind: the log in my eye is myself. My pride, my ego, my vanity, my desire to be the one who is worth noticing and worth recognizing.

What was it C.S. Lewis said? The real trick for the powers of evil is not putting things in peoples' heads, it's keeping the obvious things out.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Through a glass darkly: the problem of precision in theology

Do you remember your last science class? One of my favorite insights of science was the concept of "significant digits". For example, if you have a digital thermometer, and it tells you that the temperature outside is 82.1 degrees F and it seems to be rising 1 degree per hour, you can't necessarily project a temperature of 85.301247 at a certain future point in time. Why not? Because our measurements aren't that accurate. Sure, our calculators are that accurate; the formulas we're testing are (possibly) that accurate. But our measurements aren't. You started out with precision to 1/10th of a degree. By the time you run past your original level of precision, any further precision is unwarranted and probably misleading. It's a figment of your calculator's imagination. It's not a matter of whether your calculation is right; it's that you can't get out more precision than you had when you started.

Some of my difficulty with theological hair-splitting stems from the same reasoning. If we trust Christ, there are things we do know with certainty -- for example, we can know he will raise us up at the last day, because we have that plain and straight from a trusted source. It's much like knowing that it's 82.1 degrees outside, if we trust the thermometer.

My objection comes with things we are not directly taught. We have a curiosity that generally serves us well. We take what we are given and we start calculating. We get further than we ever would have if we had not started. So we calculate. And we keep calculating. Is God rightly understood as omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent? Well, that may be so, but that leaves out his love. How about one essence in three persons? I haven't heard a better explanation, but that's not quite the same thing as conclusive. Is Christ two natures in one person (Chalcedonian) or one new nature in one person (Coptic)? Are we really sure we have enough information directly about that to tell the difference?

I am willing to trust Christ to know God. But when we begin calculating things where we have no direct way to know, we should realize our limitations.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Why feminism is a mystery to me

This post was drafted while I was doing 50+ hour weeks at work for several consecutive months. I held back from posting it then because I wanted to re-read it when I wasn't so hot-headed. It still seems worth posting, so here goes.
I know there is a sense in which I am a beneficiary of feminism -- at least in the sense that I am in the professional world and nobody thinks anything unusual about that. If that was the whole of feminism, I would be an enthusiastic admirer of their legacy. But feminism seems to come with a lot of baggage, and much of it is a mystery to me; here I hope to briefly sketch out some of the most puzzling things to me. The trigger for writing this is really the final paragraph: my job is good, but my dissatisfaction with my schedule is running high. And while I'm on the subject, I thought I'd clear out a few other things I wanted to voice.

1. I love my children
Are there any other Harry Potter fans here? Whenever I watch the fourth film (Goblet of Fire) and see Amos Diggory's reaction as he realizes that his son Cedric is dead, it brings me to tears. The film is clear in every portrayal of Amos that he loves being a father. He loves his son, and is very proud of him. Being a father is the greatest joy of his life, a bright point of enthusiasm in his own existence. Most parents are like that to some recognizable extent. I think it is part of humanity to delight in our children. I would be tempted to say that feminists are ambivalent about children; but the ones I've known are nothing of the sort. Ambivalence would be a huge improvement. Possibly because feminism has framed itself so much in terms of advocating legalized abortion, the practical emphasis has been on children as a burden or a hardship: as unwanted. Until the feminism of the streets catches up with the reality that most men and women love their children, that brand of feminism will remain a stranger to me.

2. Sociology and psychology
In school, I took a number of courses in both psychology and sociology. In both areas of study, there was a general recognition that people often define themselves and others in terms of roles and relationships. The feminists I have met are actively hostile to the idea that we might be seen in terms of relationships; they consider it a sign of something like bondage and oppression to be defined as a wife or mother. There doesn't seem to be an objection to being defined by professional relationships, or by personal relationships of other types. But the family relationships of wife and mother are viewed with some measure of suspicion, and a woman defining herself in those terms risks being viewed as in collaboration with the oppressors. The idea that those personal relationships might be supportive or fulfilling rather than oppressive is not given serious consideration. There is not a full recognition of the basic human reality that we do not live in isolation -- that being defined by our roles and relationships is not necessarily a bad thing, and that a woman might be proud to define herself as a mother.

3. One of my personal heroes
I have often heard the story about how oppressive things were until roughly the 1960's, at which point things began to improve slowly if not steadily because of the much-opposed efforts of the feminist political movement. Before then -- and certainly in centuries past -- the history of women was a history of people consigned to a sub-human status. That being the case, I can't quite figure out how Elizabeth I would have risen to the throne of England. Queen Victoria either. There are other women who were sole monarchs of powerful countries at various points in history. Have I noticed that the women monarchs tended to arise when those countries were completely out of males of a certain bloodline? Well, of course. I do not dispute that there was a marked preference for male rulers, and that it was institutional. But the idea that women were seen as sub-human, that submission to women -- or women in leadership -- was seen as unequivocally wrong, simply does not stand up to the notable exceptions to male monarchies. If women were seen that negatively, they could have found someone besides Elizabeth I to lead England. The prevailing theory is compatible with the more common occurrence of a male monarch, but that theory of sub-human status is so absolutist in its claims that it cannot explain how any exceptions were possible. We have to seek an explanation that accounts for all of the facts. If any man was always seen as better than any woman regardless of anything else, then Elizabeth I could never have ascended the throne. As it is, I suspect that this particular feminist interpretation of history paints an unrealistically bleak and harsh -- and possibly politically self-serving -- picture of the motivations of our ancestors and the realities of the past. To put it simply, that picture of the past doesn't pass the sniff test.

4. My job is not the point of my life
I enjoy my job most days. But I still think early feminism had an unrealistically rosy picture of the work world. It was where men found their fulfillment and their recognition, achieved their goals, earned their respect. Women wanted all that too. The idea that even the best jobs could be frustrating or unrewarding did not figure into the computation. And some jobs are simply jobs -- their goal is to keep bread on the table. Very few jobs, even among professional jobs, are important enough to be the goal of someone's life. The feminist overemphasis on work and professional status is almost necessary in that system, given the ambivalence or antagonism towards family life. But this stance overlooks what men have long known: nobody gets to their death bed and wishes they had spent more time at work. Some feminists even have a Marxist streak in which they recognize it is possible for an employer to be an oppressor. This might be useful to remember when calculating whether work is really a panacea in the search for recognition and freedom from oppression.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Heresy or orthodoxy? A question about the laws in the Torah

Every now and then I post thoughts on things that may be considered heretical by some. As there's hardly a belief that isn't considered heretical by someone or other, I don't find myself too troubled by that, and content myself with trying to figure out whether the idea is actually sound. So the thing I have found myself wondering lately is this: We know that the Old Testament portrays the laws of the Torah as being given some of them directly by the hand of God engraved on stone tablets (10 of them like that) and the rest (does that leave 603?) were not written in stone. So is it orthodoxy or heresy to think that one batch of laws was meant to be more lasting and important than the others?

One the one hand, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength" and "Love your neighbor as yourself" are actually among the other 603 commandments, not among the 10 ... then again, the 10 Commandments are free of things that many people question why they're in the Bible at all, such as dietary laws, clothing codes, and other things that seem fairly cultural. The ones that made the stone tablets do seem to be closer to human universals. Except for the preface, "I am the LORD your God who brought you out of Egypt." So that's the score as I bat the idea around trying to determine what to make of the fact that some were written on stone and others were not.

As always, all comments are welcome.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Admiring the Tao?

The Tao Te Ching has long been one of my favorite religious texts outside of the Bible.
Mix clay to create a container
In its emptiness, there is the function of a container
Cut open doors and windows to create a room
In its emptiness, there is the function of a room.
(from the Tao Te Ching, chapter 11)
We people tend to divide into factions. When we meet someone of a different background or belief, it is a natural thing to take sides -- that is, to create divisions. It is almost a reflex to imagine every idea as a challenge to our own. A defensive reaction creates opposing sides; were they necessary or good?

In every good and true and right thing, we find common ground among cultures. Every land has had people searching for the best. The image of the clay and the potter that we saw here from the Tao Te Ching is familiar to Christians as well; we remember the Bible's image of the blessed emptiness, the holy weakness, the treasure that God keeps in jars of clay.

Some would hesitate to express unalloyed admiration for certain passages of the Tao Te Ching. Some would insist (or assume, without examining) that witnessing to Christ should involve some kind of fault-finding with someone's current beliefs. I suspect that God has called us to a better way: that witnessing involves love and redemption, making sure that nothing good is ever lost. In making sure that the good is never lost, I mean both the people and their thoughts, their existing loves and philosophies and religions. I do not think it is going too far to express unalloyed admiration for what is good in another religion. In fact, I think it is too little to merely admire a work like the Tao. Certain passages deserve more than admiration; they deserve to be owned and kept and honored as a truth that comes from the Eternal. When certain passages teach the same truths we already know, how can we not recognize a common source? How can we criticize without faulting our own? How can we oppose what is good without making ourselves enemies of the good?

Some suspect that this diminishes the truth of God or the uniqueness of Christ. If someone reacts against what I have just said from love of the truth of God, if someone's suspicion and hesitation towards this thought comes from devotion to truth of God's word and the love of God in Christ, I would hope they would hear a little more; I share a love for the truth of God's word and awe for God's love in Christ. I ask you to consider a few possibilities.

What if every culture has a memory of union with God?
What if every faith somewhere expresses this longing?
Should we start proclaiming the love of Christ by disparaging what they know? How can they trust us, if we do not even look to see what memories and longings for God they may already have, what truths they may already know? If we do not care for any beauty and goodness they may already know, how can they believe we are on the side of good?

Some, on the other hand, are satisfied to find the good in the other. I think this is too small a thing. Again, I take the Tao as a starting point: it is at many times beautiful and profound. But it gives no reason for hope in eternal life because it does not know that the Eternal is God, and that God is love. It does not know that Christ has promised to raise us up at the last day, redeeming so that the good He has made in us will not be lost but restored. The Tao may long for knowing the Eternal, but it has not dared to dream that the Eternal One loves us in such a way that He describes eternity to us as a wedding feast. Have they heard that there is rejoicing in heaven when we turn back to God? Have they heard that God loves the poor in such a way that when we feed the hungry, God counts it as service to himself? To keep the word of Christ to ourselves is to forget that it is good news, a blessing and a cause for celebration to those who understand it.

And then there is our Lord, Christ. It is not as if they did not, in a way, know how to recognize the Way when he appeared.
High virtue appears like a valley
Great integrity appears like disgrace
(from the Tao Te Ching, chapter 41)
This is not so different from what Isaiah foretold of the one who had no beauty that we should esteem him, of Christ's disgrace on the cross.

The Tao has a deep love of humility and compassion. There is also a recognition of the paradox between what appears powerful but is truly weak, and what appears weak but is truly powerful, what appears like disgrace but is really the highest integrity. So again, it is not enough to admire the Tao as a beautiful and profound text of another time and place, to put it in a box as if it were culturally isolated and had no connection to the eternal truths known elsewhere around the world. As if it were possible for eternal truths to be isolated from each other! Here, with the Tao, we proclaim Christ back to people in such a way that they can see he does not threaten any good they already knew, does not come to rob or take away the good but to fulfill it. So again, it is not enough to merely admire the Tao. We have to see the eternally true and good in it, and proclaim it again. Have they dreamed that the Eternal Tao would take human flesh and walk this earth?

Some would say that this approach diminishes the Tao more than any other approach possibly could. What is the good, you may ask, of acknowledging the eternal truth and goodness of the Tao, only to make that a subset of the proclamation of Christ? Is this not worse than calling it a culturally-limited text worthy of only patronizing, uncommitted admiration? The answer depends entirely on who is the Christ that is proclaimed. Is he merely a rival culture's culturally-limited sage, for whom the right reaction is a patronizing, uncommitted admiration? Or is he actually the Eternal One that the sages always sought? Is following him mere partisanship, or is it to meet the Truth that is the foundation for all truths? Our answer to that question shows whether we have any business proclaiming him. It will also, I think, change how we look at the glimpses of the eternal that we may find in other faiths.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Word Cloud: Tao Te Ching

One of my long-term projects is on comparative religion. This post is something of a continuation of an old series on the topic. To recap my basic approach, I hope to neither lose anything true and good regardless of where it is found, nor to force a round peg into a square hole by pretending all religions and spiritualities are the same or even fully compatible. My prior posts go into more detail on that.

Word clouds have proved a useful tool for a basic overview of the main emphases of a writing; I've used those here before for snapshots of various books of the Bible. I thought I'd break back into the topic of comparative religion with a word cloud of the Tao Te Ching.

The commentary will come later ... but for the moment, enjoy!

created at