Just say "No!" to oversimplification!

Thursday, December 18, 2014

What Does the Bible Mean? I

I have God, and know that I do.

This is not because of who I am, but because of Who God is. Some people live on mountains, some in deep shadowed valleys, some are too rich and some too poor -- and thus one can tell us apart.

As a later rabbi put it: "When Caesar stamps his image on 1000 coins, they all come out alike. When God puts His image on 1000 people, they all come out different." But God does well by every person, even if not always visibly so in any one life in this world.

So why do I need the Bible?

To answer that... I'll need to talk about my life; because that is what's brought me to the perspective I have.

Nothing in my life has been an accident; and the Bible is here. Abraham didn't need it or have it; but I have it. Nothing in it is an accident either, and I need to come to terms with it; just as sometimes I need to come to terms with difficult people. Sometimes I need to come to terms with being a difficult person!

I read some good chunks of it in my childhood; some of it served to enlighten me and some just scared me for no good reason I know, except that it helped me understand why some people find it so repellent.

So did listening to my atheist father, and reading Mark Twain's rants against the absurdities of American Protestantism in his day.

So I was an atheist -- but kept looking over my shoulder for the One I didn't think could be there, but wished could be there -- and talking to Him defiantly in the name of all He truly stands for...

 It isn't easy for me to explain how I came to recognize God taking a hand in my life, because that recognition was a gradual process.

My first love played a crucial role: a deep and thoughtful woman who struggled for words to explain to me what the word "God" meant, but whom I couldn't dismiss with any of the stereotypes I'd associated with religious people until then. Not only was I in love with her, but I saw she was aware of something real I hadn't known.

A certain patterning of events became gradually apparent to me. A "Skeptic" would have said these were merely coincidental, nothing that couldn't easily be explained, and at first I used to think about the odds of each such incident.

But this [early 60's] was a time of powerful spiritual awakenings, when people were starting to talk openly about the spiritual realm and to use drugs that could heighten one's awareness, sometimes to a shattering extent. [In the years to come I lost several good people to heroin and methamphetamines, which were quite unrelated to the kind of spiritual exploration I'm talking about. But there was as much indiscriminate approval of drug experimentation as there was indiscriminate disapproval in the respectable population.]

Until this time I'd been an incomplete human being. I could want love intensely; I could feel love intensely... and I was too emotionally injured to maintain love for anyone whatsoever.

I was idealistic and well-intentioned; I might have given my life for some good cause with a snap of my fingers... but I could not have put in a year at any boring job -- and my mind had a mind of its own. Anyone who'd known about high-functioning ADD cases [see http://www.scatteredminds.com/about.htm ] could have diagnosed me all too easily.

So I suffered, and had a wonderful time, and met some very good and holy people over the years. Somewhere in that time I met the doctrine that God is our teacher, and learned to look for such teaching in everything that happened, learned to 'feel' my way to where I was 'supposed to' go next, to which book I could take from a shelf and find my next lesson in. There were many friends who would feed each other without question, lend enough to tide each other over, welcome each other in need, to sleep on the floor for awhile. People who'd say "It will all work out" because we knew it was true.

One day when my college town was empty after summer; when the sky was red from wildfires; and the National Guard had been shooting kids in Ohio -- When it was looking like the world might end at any moment... I took it into my head to visit my parents, to make my peace with them and hope there might be some small constructive thing I could still do while the world went all to hell.

My mother, unduly alarmed by the slight sore throat I was feeling, took me immediately to her doctor. "Mononucleosis," he said. For the next month or so, ages would go by during the time I'd glance at a clock, fall into oblivion, open my eyes again to find the time unchanged. The two-block walk to a neighborhood bookstore required a rest along the way.

I got a letter from a woman who'd been taken off to jail in Utah for a  tiny pot transaction she'd done as a favor... "Some of us," she said, "are doomed to live alone all of our lives." I wrote her back -- the beginning of a long, doomed marriage. A good woman whom I liked very much -- but we were entirely unsuited for each other. Meanwhile, however, I went back to school nearby.

Feeling loved (and with any reputation for brilliance shredded) it became easy to finish a math degree at a State College with one semester's work added to the credits from my occasional good quarters at UC Berkeley. Feeling loved (for an ADD person especially) was key.

But I was aiming for the local nursing program, and that was hard to enter. I think the prevailing horror at our war against Vietnam, the feeling that our own nation was starting to disintegrate in blood, was driving many to want to learn how to heal and repair, however we could. There was a waiting list; and classes to take in preparation, and time to take classes in Religious Studies.

I'd gone back to reading the Bible while I was still in the turmoil of 1970 Isla Vista, where a feeling of apocalyptic imminence seemed to have possessed the local zeitgeist...

Until then, I'd found my religious nourishment everywhere but in Christianity. I'd continued to be fascinated with anything promising I could find about Jesus, whatever he'd actually been doing and preaching -- but back then there wasn't much worthwhile available. The popular 'Christian' books were repellent. But I'd found a copy of Lamsa's New Testament and started searching for any way I could read this stuff that didn't simply reek of condemnation and sheeply self-congratulation.

Back home, I started reading the Bible from the top... and devoting each Sabbath to rest, recreation and religious reading. After the degree, I had time for classes on 'New Testament', 'Old Testament', and 'African Religions' [very interesting, that one!] In the NT class, where I'd given the [Episcopalian] prof an [unassigned] account of my experiences and my efforts to interpret the doctrine of 'Atonement' in some way that didn't make God look like a mad bastard... I was surprized to learn that he considered me 'orthodox'!

Whenever  circumstances forced me to choose between adherence to my then-wife, and observance of my Sabbaths, I did what she felt "had to be done" -- and felt guilty, disloyal to God, fearful of Divine Blame... Marrying her in the first place, had resulted from reading a passage on the proper way to treat female slaves: If she's been with you a year, marry her or let her go. Even after it [later] became clear that she was fundamentally conventional, and angrily contemptuous of my best qualities, I was resigned to an affectionate but estranged life-sentence together. And almost ten years later I was roused from my dutiful slumbers by her announcement: "You know, Forrest, we've really got nothing in common...!" We went to marital counselling from Kaiser, where I came to see that we could negotiate a better way of living together... but that it would be pointless.

So much for my initial way of reading the Bible. I couldn't just go on loving a "wife" in a dutiful spirit -- and clearly God had just freed me, granted me a new life to mess up in a new way.

I'd never entirely forgotten God; but there'd been long times when the so-called real world felt all too much like the reality I'd been consigned to, when the occasional flashes of SynchroniciDaddy-at-work were only oases in a long desert wandering. Now the planets were returning to a new ten-year realignment, in the recurring dance of Jupiter's enthusiasm vs Saturn's long endurance. It was 1980; and Jupiter was returning to power on the very degree of my birth. Whatever that meant -- I could feel it breaking loose in my life, in the chaos of new-found loves & rejections, in my sudden blooming into poetry.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Is God Knowable? --

II. What is there to know?

One defining characteristic, for most people and religions, would be 'Creator of the Universe.'

Exceptions? For some Gnostics, this particular physical construction we dwell in was evil -- at best a mistake, a lapse akin to playing with mud pies, something only an inferior deity could have perpetrated. That necessitated a 'Real God' in a higher, more spiritual reality:  either God seen as the creator of lessor spirits, or as the one from whom they just emanated -- at the least their ultimate superior in power and character.

A common flavor in many religions paints this world as a place of suffering or futility, which we do best to escape from, no matter its origin. I've got to agree with the Jewish tradition that God made it and called it 'good', that God could at least say that about the original product.

There isn't much point trying to argue that with anyone who's finding this a bad place, aside from the obvious fact that most people, most of the time, don't actually kill themselves. People find some beauty (we're told) even in utterly ghastly situations. We want to know how it comes out, we want all we can get of this life -- or we realize on some level that we don't have the actual power 'to be or not to be'. We're in this thing called Life and had better deal with it.

However you decide that one, the world is the first, most pressing evidence we get as to what God is like. That isn't so much the abstract things we know about science and history and the current condition of the world -- but what we experience of living. Not so bad, not so good... but then we find, if we're lucky, that Something less obvious is at work in all that, is seeking to get our attention.

Some of us are more lucky in that sense; this isn't fair! And so it isn't, on that level. This follows from the inferred, observed fact that God isn't easy to get to know!

Some people insist that God isn't in fact knowable, that any divinity we can know must be some lesser being. That's a convenient view: gives us a lovely conception to contemplate while kicking any immanent version of God safely upstairs. It may even be true; but it's moot. All that we can know is the One who's striving to be known. And that One is elusive by Hsr very nature, and by our very nature, and that tricky relation between us.

There's this physiological  thing called 'the blind spot.' Every human eye has one; there are techniques you can use to 'see' that it's there (although of course you never see anything there; that's why it's called a blind spot.)

Of the two most logical ways to design an eyeball, our eyes grow in one form while a squid's eyes grow in the other. You can have 'retina inside, nerves outside,' -- or you could potentially have, like a squid, 'retina outside, nerves inside.' Our human version is a design flaw... but it does provide a useful metaphor. In the very place where we have the most retinal neurons, where all these little fibers are coming together to plug into our brains, there is no room for the light-sensitive rods & cones. That's our blind spot, right in the structural center of what we see by.

God is hard to see because God is what we 'am' by.

Elijah found that God was not in the fire he saw, nor in the strong wind, nor in the earthquake, but in a quiet 'voice' inside. That's the best place to 'look'.

Where is this "inside"? In our heads, in our hearts -- our tummies? If you must have a physical location, there seem to be many possible starting points -- but if you consider the real place to be in the very 'looking' you're looking with, you get a hint of what makes for that 'elusive' quality!

Is this another 'convenient' view? -- Does it place 'God' safely inside where He can't get out to make trouble? Some people think so, find it so -- but if you keep on meditating, that pesky 'inside-vs-outside' distinction gets problematical.

Does this view make us God? Won't it tempt us to run around loose imposing our Divine Whim on everything & everyone? Well, consider what the word 'you' means. There certainly are a great many things going on in your head -- and your heart and various other places -- that may not entirely represent your best self, what you truly (eventually, if it isn't so very much trouble) want to do. All of it is you. All of it is a manifestation of God's ongoing life living you. Everything you did as a baby wasn't charming, nor is everything you've been doing since; but the process is life; and it grows in wisdom and in stature. (With some setbacks, sure. But what you 'are' is eternal.)

So God is striving to be known, and need not be in a rush about it. What about us? How urgent is our need? That sounds like the subject of another post.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Is God Knowable?

I. Do we want to know?

Do we want to know God? Agnostics seem most comfortable being sure they can't know. Atheists are simply sure that there's nothing/no-one there to know. "God", from those viewpoints, looks very much like a person's Imaginary Friend. And that isn't really what anybody wants.

People want God to be real and 'not a monster'. But so long as people don't know God, their Imaginary Friends can be both unreal and monstrous. When we say we know God, we're claiming that our Friend is real... and that claim can easily disturb people. "Will he take his kid up the hill for sacrifice? Will 'God' tell him to slaughter the neighbors?" There could be political complications.

We don't want God to be a monster, yet when we consider the news-world it's all about events that only a monster or a human being could find entertaining. This isn't just an artifact of the media's focus on bizarre and frightening situations; these events are usually real, no matter how distorted. There are bizarre and frightening situations the media won't even consider for public display.

So, one critical element of our traditional idea of God is downright scary: That God created the world and determines what happens here. First off, we can't easily trust an entity we don't know to do that! Furthermore, look at the sort of show God puts on; consider that we aren't just 'audience' but could readily find ourselves unhappily onstage.

We have this abstraction called "Good" -- and also we've got this world that doesn't fit into that. But is it a good show? "Yeah!" That answer tells us something a little strange about our own nature, doesn't it? I remember in high school, going to see a movie of 'Romeo and Juliet'. I knew this was all very cultural, yet here I was on my way to watch a young couple fall in love -- and then have awful things happen to them. Wasn't there something downright sicko about that? If the Romans could have done it in the arena with real people, certainly! Yet isn't it wonderful, to be a young fool in love?

The point is, we wanted a 'Realistic' world; and we needed the sort of world which would produce us, the people we are as we are. Then we kvetch that such a world isn't 'Good'. Of course we do! It's as pointless to blame us for doing that as it is to blame God for making a world that suits us.

So God is no more monstrous than we are, even better, by my experience! But is God 'real'? -- Are we permitted 'to believe in' God? [See next post!]

Monday, May 5, 2014

The Good News and the Bad News

The jokes probably go back to ancient times... because life is like that; because we're like that.

Back then, whenever the Authorities told you something was Good News, that was really bad news: "There's a new kleptocrat in charge of keeping you people down!" The only thing good about it was: "We aren't fighting over who's in charge!"

We need to hear both aspects to really get either of them. Who's going to believe good news if they aren't hearing the bad? Who can face the horror of the bad news if they don't see it's part of a situation we can live with?

There are some awful difficulties: Most people these days, if you start talking about God, say: "Oh no! Someone else wants to tell me where I mustn't put what!" Or "Somebody else wants to tell me there's something more I should be doing!" That is, they think 'God' means 'Guilt' and they don't need guilt; they've got all the guilt they can handle and half of it about stuff that doesn't matter!

Hope is even harder to bear, for anyone with eyes and ears and mind keeping score. The Earth is terminal; our country has gone corrupt and blind crazy -- and even if we're just talking about our own bodies, the warranty is subject to expiration without notice.

People can accept that bad news about our bodies... because "The good news is that there's no Bad God to send me to Hell when I drop dead!" Hey, hey, look at that fine print! The bad news is, you're supposed to die! I know, it's a trade-off; but that's a lousy deal.

Some people take the deal because it's the only one they can believe. "So I'll be lying in my last hospital bed, full of wires and tubing with all the gauges reading 'empty' -- and your guy will just zip by on a white cloud and take me to choir practice? That's your opinion; and we Postmoderns are too sophisticated to imagine that anyone's opinion is really about anything, except of course ours."

I can't say about "most people". Maybe most people know "We aren't supposed to believe in anything anymore" but do it anyway?  Inconsistency is better than being consistently wrong, but still -- At some point we want to reach agreement between mind, heart, and how-things-are.

How do I know there really is actual 'Good News', that you can know it and walk on it and trust it not to drop you in a hole?

I really do know this... and hope to explain (later) how you can know it as well. But for now, just entertain the notion that the Life who's living you has something it's working to teach you. Open the eyes, mind, heart; look for a bit of 'Maybe' waving at you between the cracks...

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Proclaiming the Gospel

[A friend tells me this chapter is an example of what it's saying:
that ideas really only ripen when a reader is ready to think them himself.

Still, the only excuse for saying things badly is that I couldn't do better; and there's something else to write today. Bear with me, or just skip this one, okay?]

This title brings up several questions:

"Should we be proclaiming the Gospel?"

"How should we try to do that, if we should?"

"What is that, anyway?"

While it seems most logical to begin with basic concepts and then stack them up -- That doesn't work.

People think they already know what the basic theological concepts are (or should be) -- and what the available basic words mean -- what they ought to mean -- or meant to their grandmother or their teacher or whoever else seems to Have Worked It All Out (for now).

If you come out with some new concept that you really really wish a familiar word would mean -- then you simply make yourself unintelligible. The Transcendentalists often wrote that way; there are experts who tell me they were saying some highly worthwhile things -- but for me, for the amount of time it would take me to decode them, I'd rather think of something myself.

And while I do appreciate people believing I know something worth figuring out -- instead of assuming I must have meant the first thing people automatically think of when anyone drives the conversation over some familiar subject -- I don't find many people reading me that way, so I don't expect it.

What I long ago noticed about myself: Whenever I'd hear or read something before my mind had the space prepared,  I just didn't understand it.

Sometimes I'd have some Great Thinker assigned for a class; and I'd see it was all bullshit; and since he wasn't around to argue with -- and didn't fight fair, given that the teachers thought he was right so I must be wrong -- it was useless. I couldn't benefit from anyone I didn't already see some genuine merit in.

Sometimes my sense of bullshit was entirely correct. Other times, after life had ripened me various ways -- I'd look at that bullshit and find it saying wonderful, perceptive things. But even when I was right in dismissing someone's Great Thoughts... the fact is,   for some people he'd provided a new way of seeing things.

Maybe he'd led a long line of blind followers into a ditch... but he'd taken them out of whatever hole they'd started from.

I once met a prophet, whom I asked: "What should I do now?" He told me: "Make mistakes and learn from them."
[For awhile after that I thought I could 'learn how not to make that mistake again' -- And wouldn't it be nice if that were so...? That's another story.]

Even our mistakes are part of our development. They're appetizers for the main course. You work on a puzzle a long time; that lets it work on you. Then you may become able to see, and enjoy seeing, how it works.

Certain modern biographers of Jesus used to wax sentimental over all those simple agricultural metaphors he could work into those lovely parables. All from that idyllic peasant background. What they didn't get is that his background was extremely sophisticated; while theirs was sterile. Jesus used agricultural metaphors because the life of the mind and the soul works in a significantly agricultural way. Seed is spread, it lands in good soil or bad, is watered or withers...

and people hear a message when their ears come up high enough to hear it.

It's not a matter of  how hard you sow or reap, but when, and how.

If you know the Gospel is true, you know God can give you the words you need -- to help the particular real live human being in front of you at any given time. And know that every person will ripen when God grows him, which will happen in accord with God's timing. This doesn't mean you should, or shouldn't, expect to say something he'll finally appreciate years later. It means you can ask God to give you the words, for this time, that will best serve God's purposes. God might not, on some occasions, need you to bother a person at all.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Sense in Praising God

In my first years of grade school I would spend afternoons at the babysitter's, reading. Much of what she had available was by Mark Twain -- a little bewildering to me then, but not dull. Then on Sunday mornings I would go to the Methodist church then meeting in a bowling alley a few blocks from home. Occasionally I would find my parents' Bible, gathering dust on a small shelf in the hall, and read from that. 'Revelation' was one frightening book, but the scariest thought for me was an eternity of 'worshiping God' -- whether that meant continually bowing down and throwing crowns at God's feet, a form of calisthenics that sounded very boring -- or the continual harps and choirs expected by Mark Twain's small town church members.

I came to agree with Mark Twain that this concept of God sounded very touchy and egotistical -- and certainly I knew no other. I would find myself arguing inside with God -- whom I certainly couldn't believe in, not after reading much Bertrand Russell... but whose existence couldn't be disproved either. "That had better not be what You are like because I'll have to eternally oppose You and get punished forever. That would be very heroic, but doesn't sound like a pleasant sort of future." By late high school I was going to a Unitarian church because I'd heard  it was okay not to believe in God there, and that did sound like one way I might meet girls... but I also wanted to know, "Is there or isn't there?" And I enjoyed one inconclusive Sunday morning at the San Francisco Friends (Quakers) Meeting -- invited by my best friend, and feeling this might give God a better chance to speak for Himself.

But from early on in college, where I'd started trying illegal herbs and cacti -- and at last, real LSD -- I not only couldn't rule out God's existence -- but over a few years became unable to deny that the world wasn't fitting into any mechanistic pattern, that whatever senseless thing was going on in my life was unmistakably meaningful. A Sufi teaching, that humanity has one divine Teacher, continually working to enlighten us -- was the hypothesis that made the most sense, the belief that increasingly confirmed itself the more I acted on it.

When I returned to college, waiting for practical classes that never became available to me -- I spent a semester taking some intriguing courses in the Religious Studies department. One day the 'Old Testament' professor mentioned a persistent tradition, hinted at in all the major world religions -- that God had created the world by fragmenting himself, by becoming each and every living being.

How could God be 'part here, part there, and all of God in each place' -- yet limited, in each person, to some separate human identity? Obviously true, obviously bewildering!

I did eventually return to the Society of Friends (a long story); and ten years ago my wife Anne and I spent a school year at Pendle Hill, a strange wonderful Quaker institution near Philadelphia. The teacher for our synoptic gospels class was friends with Rabbi Marsha Praeger, of the Jewish Renewal synagogue in town -- and so we were all invited to come see a hint of the worship practices Jesus would have grown up following.

Anne and I entered the room, sat down among a group of people chanting in Hebrew, followed along in the phonetic booklet we were given -- and immediately started weeping. An extremely 'Rationalist' young member of the group was similarly overcome, had to leave to recombobulate emotionally, asked to speak to the Rabbi alone afterwards. I heard later she'd had an intense feeling of Jesus being present. Some visitors must have been moderately affected -- while a few spoke later of looking at their watches, wondering "Are we done yet?" Anne and I, of course, returned every week after that as often as we were able.

Why do they do this every week, come together to share a meal and bless God in ancient yet catchy Jewish tunes? Why does God 'command' this? And why do they think that having 600+ such Commandments is a blessing? Not because God needs it, but because "praising God is good for people."

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Parable of the Shoplifter at the King's Banquet

Once upon a time a shoplifter was visiting his favorite shop, examining a washing machine while speculating whether there might be any inconspicuous way to walk out with it, when in came a King's messenger!

He spoke to the shopkeeper first, "There's going to be this incredible feast tomorrow night; the whole country is invited and that means you're welcome too! Were you planning to come?"

"Look, we can't all be dashing about waving messages; some of us have to work for a living! I can't leave this business; if I took my eye off the place for half a second they'd clean me out! See that guy in the corner by the washing machine? -- Last week he walked out of here with a refrigerator under his coat; could you believe it? That's the kind of people I get in this neigborhood."

Unable to interest the shopkeeper, the messenger wandered back to the man by the washing machine. "What about you? Were you planning anything tomorrow evening?"

"Well, I don't know... I'm kind of busy trying to sell this refrigerator... Do you think the King might want one?"

"You'd have to ask about that, yourself. But I know you'll have a great time! Good food, beautiful women, gold plates and silver knives; you'll love it!"

The next evening, tablecloth tucked under his chin, our shoplifter was standing at the door of the banquet room. The King noticed him at once. "Look after that man; he's shy! I don't think he's been eating well."

"Should I hover, Sire?"

"No, no, don't press. Just do what you can to make him comfortable."

 The food was wonderful; the wine better than anything he'd ever tasted. "I mustn't let any of this go to waste!" he told himself, draining his glass.

The waiter quietly refilled it, noting that certain nearby place settings needed their silverware replenished. When our guest passed out an hour or so later, the waiter spoke to the King about him. "He's a very needy man, Sire!"

"Yes. I don't think you can get anything more into his pockets, but there's still a little room in his left sleeve. And probably you could fit a few more plates under his belt while you're at it."

The shoplifter awoke suddenly, realizing that he'd made the haul of his life! He didn't even remember taking the candlesticks... but if he got caught, at this point, it might be the last haul. Metal clinked as he got to his feet. "Were you going anywhere, sir? We're about to start the dancing."

Dancing? For certain he would clang and bang! With a partner? -- Every square inch of him was packed with cutlery -- "My dog! I've got to get home and feed my dog!"

"Would he like a doggie bag, sir?"

On his way out, at last passing the guard by the exit, he took refuge in a look of honest bewilderment. "Should I send for a wheelbarrow, sir?" asked the guard.

"I wonder what he meant by that," our hero wondered all the way home.

But at last he did reach home, and fell into bed with a crash that roused him into hours of restless turmoil.

And he never did realize he'd received a gift.