We all walk ancientrails. Welcome to the journey.

Reconstruct. Remember.

Beltane                                                                    Sumi-e Moon

UNESCO and European Union undertake to reconstruct the cultural heritage of Timbuktu

UNESCO and European Union undertake to reconstruct the cultural heritage of Timbuktu

Had an insight the other day about Beth Evergreen. The reason I like it there, feel comfortable there, is that I’m a reconstructionist at heart. Not a Jew, but a reconstructionist.

If I’d known about the concept when I started my reimagining project, I’d have called it reconstructing faith. Now, I do and I think of it that way. Reimagining and reenchanting are still part of this journey for me, but reconstructionist thought captures me in a particular way.

reconstruct scrollHere’s the key idea, from Mordecai Kaplan: the past gets a vote, but not a veto. That is, when considering tradition, in Kaplan’s case of course Jewish tradition, the tradition itself informs the present, but we are not required to obey it. Instead we can change it, or negate it, or choose to accept, for now, its lesson.

This is a powerful idea, especially when considering religious thought, which too often wants us to turn our backs on the present, get out a prayer rug, put our butt in the air toward the future and stretch out our hands in submission to the past.

LiveWhich brings me to another realization I had this week. Just like environmental action is not about saving the planet, the planet will be fine, it’s about saving humanity’s spot on the planet; the idea of living in the moment is not about living in the moment, it’s about remembering we can do no other thing than live in the moment.

In other words, this moment is all we have and all we will ever have. There is no way to be in the past or in the future, not even for a bit. We only live in the present. Living in the moment is not a choice, it’s a necessity by the laws of physics. What is important is realizing that, remembering it. Which goes back, come to think of it, to sharpening doubt.

ichigo-ichie_6The past is gone, the future is not yet. Always. We can be sure, confident, only of this instance, for the next may not come. To be aware of the moment is to be aware of both the tenuousness of life, and its vitality, which also occurs only in the moment. To know this, really know it in our bones, means we must have faith that the next moment will arrive, because it is not given. Not only is it not given, it will, someday, not arrive for us. That’s where faith comes in, living in spite of that knowledge, living as if the next moment is on its way.

 

Beginner’s Mind

Beltane                                                                               Sumi-e Moon

20180315_080258Odd things. First, a small group of folks at Beth Evergreen, mostly qabbalah students like myself, report seeing me as an artist. A visual artist. This is based on my last two presentations, the first being Hebrew letters with quotes relating to their deeper meanings and the second, last Wednesday, that used the sumi-e zen practice of enso creation. Now I’m far from a visual artist, I have two very good ones in my immediate family, Jeremiah Miller and Jon Olson, but to be seen even modestly in their company is a real treat.

repair2Second. Damned mower wouldn’t start. As I said earlier. Put in fresh gas. No joy. Hmmm. You Tube. You Tube, that Chinese patron saint of the do it yourselfer. Looked up mower won’t start. Found a video of a guy. One with a small wrench who showed how to take apart the carburetor, poke wire into various holes and then, voila, vrrooom. Didn’t look too hard.

Took the mower out, put it on the deck so I could reach the carburetor easily, found a wrench, took off the cap, got out my wire, poked the holes in the thingy four or five times and put the cap back on. Oh, I forgot. I did the video one better. He said you had to drain the tank or gas would flow out. I’d just changed the gas and don’t like siphoning. Yuck. Gas not taste good. Thought of surgical clamps. Got a vise grip, tightened it down on the fuel line and Bob’s your uncle, no drip!

fix itBest of all, when I yanked the starter cord after closing the carburetor back up, the mower started. To those of you with a mechanical gene this no doubt sounds trivial, probably very trivial, but to me. Wow. I fixed it myself.

I mention both of these because they relate to each other. I like to challenge myself, see if I can do something I previously thought I couldn’t do. Exercise was one such challenge, now over 30 years ago. Still at it. So was Latin. No good at language. So? I’ll give it a try anyhow. Then in my recent melancholic phase I realized I needed more touch, more tactile experience in my day. That led to the sumi-e work and prompted me to see the non-starting lawn mower as an opportunity.

beginners mindI’m not an athlete, not a Latin scholar, not a very good visual artist and definitely not much of a mechanic, but I have an amateur’s capacity. Trying these things makes my heart sing, keeps life vital. I suppose, going back to yesterday’s post, you could say I have faith in myself. Not faith that I can do anything I try, that’s just silly, but faith that if I try I can learn something new, maybe introduce something important to my life.

Who knows, maybe someday I will be a visual artist. Nah. Probably not. But, you never know.

 

 

Remember the Shark

Beltane                                                                           Sumi-e Moon

  • I know how well you have succeeded in making your earthly life so rich and varied, that you no longer stand in need of an eternity. Having made a universe for yourselves, you are above the need of thinking of the universe that made you.
  • On every subject, however small and unimportant, you would most willingly be taught by those who have devoted to it their lives and their powers. … How then does it come about that, in matters of religion alone, you hold every thing the more dubious when it comes from those who are experts?
    • Friedrich Schleiermacher, On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers, 1799

AbrahamSacrificesIsaacIcon_smFaith. The middah of the month for Beth Evergreen. Emunah. Last night at MVP, the mussar vaad practice group, we talked about emunah. Rabbi Jamie and Marilyn said that in the early days of mussar classes at Beth Evergreen, some time ago, the middah that caused the most consternation was this one.

I can see why. Faith is a word often used, but little understood. Faith is also a word often abused both by religion’s adherents and by religion’s cultured despisers. (Friedrich Schleiermacher) Faith is a sine qua non inside any mega-church in America. Either you have faith or you don’t. Black and white. It was true for me as a clergyman in the Presbyterian church. When I could no longer claim with authenticity that I had faith in God (whatever conception of God I was using at the time), I could no longer serve in that role.

Religion’s cultured despisers, a term coined by Friedrich Schleiermacher in 1799 in his book of the same name, often use faith as a straw concept with which to flog the irrational religious. Faith makes people blind. Faith makes people malleable to cult leaders. Faith makes people believe in a magical world. Faith blots out a person’s capacity to see the world as it is.

universe has your backOne of us in the group last night said, “The universe is for me.” I have other friends who believe the universe is a place of abundance, or, as author Gabrielle Bernstein titled her book, “The Universe has my back.” I don’t buy it. This abundant universe will kill you. It will kill you. This is not a matter of faith, but of oft repeated experience. The universe offers up all we need to live, then takes it all away.

I don’t believe the universe gives a damn. The problem for me is placing a value judgment on the actions of this vast context into which, thank you Heidegger, we were thrown. I don’t believe the universe is out to get me; nor do I believe it has my back. I’m a part of that universe and I can choose to live into my part, follow the tao as it manifests in my life, or I can resist it and struggle, but in either case the universe will keep on evolving and changing. Maybe what I’m saying here is that I’m not willing to shift the religious notion of God’s agency to the universe, no matter how construed.

If the universe is, as I believe it is, neutral to us and our lives, or, said another way, if we are no more privileged than any other part of the world, the cosmos, then what can faith mean? What is there in which to have faith?

nightdiving_titleTurns out quite a lot. Another of us last night told a story of night diving. A favorite activity of hers. She said she turns off her diving light and floats in the night dark ocean. While she’s in the dark, she imagines a shark behind her. The shark may kill her in the next moment, but until that moment she is keenly alive. This is, for me, a perfect metaphor for faith. Each day the shark is behind us. A car accident. A heart attack. A lightening bolt. A terminal diagnosis. Yet each day we float in the dark, suspended between this moment in which we live and the next one in which we are dead. And we rejoice in that moment. There is faith.

SharkThis is the existentialist abyss of which Nietzsche famously said, “If you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back at you.” Living on in spite of its direct glare, that’s faith. This sort of faith requires no confidence in the good or ill will of the universe, it requires what Paul Tillich called the courage to be. I would challenge that formulation a bit by altering it to the courage to become, but the point is the same.

Here’s the interesting twist. Doubt and faith are partners. As a quote Rabbi Jamie offered last night says, they live in the same apartment building. Here’s the big learning I got last night. Doubt is the true sine qua non for faith. And to the extent that we have doubt, I would identify doubt with awareness of the shark, we have faith. There is, and this is the aha for me, a frisson between doubt and faith that makes life vital.

sacred tensionSo. My practice for this month involves, in Rabbi Jamie’s phrase, sharpening my doubt. I will remember the shark as often as I can. I will recognize the contingent nature of every action I take, of every aspect of my life. And live into those contingencies, act as if the shark will let me be right now. As if the uncertainty of driving, of interacting with others, of our dog’s lives will not manifest right now. That’s faith. Action in the face of contingency. Action in the face of uncertainty. Action in the face of doubt.

I want to sharpen doubt because I want to taste what it feels like to live into doubt, to choose life over death, to have the courage to become. If I only use the automatic responses, make money, achieve fame, watch television, play with my phone, immerse myself in the needs of another, or several others, then I blunt the bravery, the courage it takes to live. I do not want a life that’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage. I do not want a life that is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. (Macbeth, Act 5, scene 5)

I want a life that flourishes not in spite of the uncertainties, the contingencies that are all to real, but because of them.

 

Surfing. Now. Always.

Beltane                                                                           Sumi-e Moon

surfOK. Been down in the theological weeds for a couple of days here. One of the reasons I love Beth Evergreen. Regular chances to go deep, swim in the ocean of this fast, temporary experience. Life. Bits and pieces of a new way of looking at faith continue to float up from the sea vents of the soul, still nurturing life after all these billions of years.

In spite of my hyperlogical bent I don’t seem to have the systemic thinking gene, at least not for an extended enough time to produce something coherent. I’m more like a net trawling the trenches, picking up this thought, that idea, odd chunks of history, tradition, transformative moments.

Gonna ride the wave today, pulsing along, crest held high.

Yesterday Ted of All Trades came. He installed some track lighting where our old fan used to be, moved the fan over the dining room table and installed two fans in the loft, for a total of three. It gets hot up here and an air conditioner adequate for the room size won’t fit in the window. Lost two rows of track lighting, gained air circulation.

fwlogoStarting a hunt for a new vehicle. One of us might be gone, say on a red flag day like today, when a fire rushes through leaving the home front without a vehicle to carry the dogs and our small emergency file box. We’ve done well, very well, with only one vehicle, renting when needed, but we’re in a more vulnerable situation here. Buy one, keep the old one. Not cheap though. Probably a Toyota SUV. Something hybrid. Another Rav4 or a Highlander, maybe.

Also, checking out trips to Israel. We’d like to go, maybe next year. Kate for her Jewish identity and me to see a land I’ve studied so much from afar.

 

On Time

Beltane                                                                      Sumi-e Moon

out-out-brief-candle“Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.”  Macbeth, Act 5, scene 5

 

And, then, time. Last qabbalah class on time yesterday evening. Next week presentations. I have to come up with something and I got nothin’. Might go with an hourglass. It’s a nice physical symbol since in it time seems to run out, then be restored with an easy flip. Hourglasses, on their sides, are also shaped like the infinity image. So, there’s measured time, yet measured time that can be reversed, and eternal time, running on past the end of earthly time. Might go with Shakespeare.

time-managementWe’ve been pulling at the strands of various ideas about time, from measured time to eternal time to shabbat moments and the radical obvious, time is only ever the present. The past and the future have no reality, no agency, save in the present.

Rabbi Jamie asked an interesting question last night. Why do any of this? What’s the point? He leans toward the practical, unwilling to dwell only in the abstract. Learning has to count. As readers of this blog know by now, I’m more on the dwelling in the abstract end of the pool, so I appreciate his pulling me back into this life with questions like this.

Look insideThe answer he gave to his own question, with which I agree, was this. I’m not quoting. We do it to hold our notion of self more lightly, to give the ego a rest from its orientation to survival, to making it in the world. At the soul level, the most basic level of our human existence, we all connect. Think the collective unconscious, the divine spark, in the image of the sacred. In effect qabbalah posits an Oversoul, or better, an under or inner soul, the quality of which is the same for all humans.

I mentioned the irony that we spend our time developing a firm sense of self, striving for authenticity and compassion, only, at the end of life to give it up. Yes, we all agreed, that’s a good reason for holding the self lightly. We have to let it go. The soul, if there is such a thing, and I’m not ready to say there isn’t, that links us all to all, does not need the self.

The image, from Rabbi Rami Shapiro, that makes this clearest for me was that of waves on the ocean. Our life is a wave on the ocean. It rises out of the ocean, exists and moves on its own, and at its end, sinks back into the ocean. Never was it anything other than ocean.

A Revelation. Say what?

Beltane                                                                                       Sumi-e Moon

AbrahamSacrificesIsaacIcon_smBeen thinking about revelation. In a way I’m not sure is new, but I don’t recall seeing it anywhere. So, we have all these sacred scriptures. What makes them sacred? The claim is their autographic nature, written in some mysterious way by the hand of a god or gods. I’m going to bracket the claim of divine authorship and ask not about the content of the tales, at least not the content usually involved in exegesis and hermeneutics, but about the way revelation shows up in them.

I came to this idea at a mussar class last week when we were discussing Abraham (Avram) as an example of emunah, or grace/faith. Emerson came to mind, his words about having a revelation to us and not the dry bones of theirs. We were discussing Abraham as a model of emunah. What we’re trying to do, I said, is learn from Abraham’s story why he trusted God. We’re trying to learn through the veil of thousands of years and through the words written about Avram. Words, for most of us, in translation. Words we know passed through many different redactors. We want to know how Avram experienced revelation otherwise why would we find the stories sacred?

Abraham_Serving_the_Three_Angels Rembrandt_

Abraham_Serving_the_Three_Angels Rembrandt_

God appears to Abram. God comes to him in a vision. God speaks to him. God comes to Abram in sleep, in darkness and dread: “As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram; and lo, a dread and great darkness fell upon him. 13 Then the Lord said to Abram…”  Gen. 15:12-13a, RSV Abram asks God how he will know that what he says is true.

It came to me then that the fundamental question of Biblical, Vedic, or Koranic texts is an epistemological one, not first a metaphysical one or a hermeneutical one. That is, how does revelation show up? How do we know it when we see it? How might we realize Emerson’s plea for a revelation to us, not the dry bones of theirs? What is the nature of revelation? How can we experience it now, not rely on an ancient game of telephone?

Well, one way might be to use the sacred texts not as either mythology or divine communication through their content, but as clues to the nature of revelation itself. How, in other words, did the sacred texts represent the experience of revelation? What was it like? How did it become confirmed as revelation? At least to those reported to have experienced it directly?

Please note that I’m not making an assumption here about the source of revelation or its truth claims as evidence of divine communication. I’m asking the question, what has revelation looked like? How has the experience of revelation been identified? What are its marks? Can we seek it? Might we find it if we did?

Abraham's Counsel to Sarai (watercolor c. 1896–1902 by James Tissot)

Abraham’s Counsel to Sarai (watercolor c. 1896–1902 by James Tissot)

Going back to Abram. Let’s use him not as an example of faith or of covenant or of divine nation-building, but as an example of one who experiences direct revelation. What is it like? How does he know (the epistemological question) that he has experienced revelation? The writers of the story, or the editors of the oral tradition when it was written down, or the embellishers and editors of the story as it passed both through oral transmission and different textual editions, use particular verbs: Avram heard, saw (a vision, an appearance), dreamed, felt (darkness and dread), was delivered (defeat of enemies).

Following Avram’s story we might say that revelation comes through language, through emotions, through dreams, through particular actions to him. Not very distinctive in its medium, then, at least not distinctive from usual human experience. So what is it about a communication or an interpretation of an action that identifies it as special, different, sacred?

rev.4-blankMy first suspicion is that it is much like the nativity story, and perhaps the crucifixion and resurrection narratives, too, ex post facto events created to explain the origins and influence of remarkable individuals. Who would receive communications from beyond this reality? Individuals who’ve already been established as significant, powerful, influential. Like that guy Abraham, warlord, father of many children, father of our nation. How did he get where he is? He heard the still small voice. He understood things others of us missed. He was in touch with, what? Something many of us ignored, perhaps.

But, let’s say for the sake of this investigation that it’s not only this reading backwards into an important person’s life, well after the fact; but, that revelation is just that. Revelatory. Forget of what for now. Why are some dreams revelatory? Why are some appearances revelatory? Why are some inner voices revelatory?

Full title: The Agony in the Garden Artist: Andrea Mantegna Date made: about 1458-60 Source: http://www.nationalgalleryimages.co.uk/ Contact: picture.library@nationalgallery.co.uk Copyright © The National Gallery, London

Full title: The Agony in the Garden
Artist: Andrea Mantegna
Date made: about 1458-60
Source: http://www.nationalgalleryimages.co.uk/
Contact: picture.library@nationalgallery.co.uk
Copyright © The National Gallery, London

I’m not sure we can penetrate this. We have the after story. After the garden. After the promise to Avram. After Sarah’s miraculous births. After the Garden of Gethsemane. After the journey by night to the Temple Mount. After the birth of Krishna. Yet how can we know the inner experience of personages from thousands of years in the past? We barely understand our own inner experience. And if we can’t answer the epistemological question, how did Avram know what he claimed to know about God, then we can’t decide the value of his claims. Aside from their value as myth and legend.

Perhaps then Emerson’s quest for a religion of revelation to us rather than the dry bones of theirs is fruitless. Perhaps. I would say and will stop here for now, that the only way we can understand the nature of revelation is to search for its marks in our own lives. We will not find answers in ancient texts because the layers, the barriers to knowing the mind of another becomes insurmountable in them. What has been revealed to you? What was its source? How do you know?

 

How I Got Here

Beltane                                                                           Sumi-e Moon

(for Tara)

Rev. John Ackerman, my spiritual advisor in the mid-1980s, now dead, said to me during a session with him, “Charlie, I think you’re a druid.” This was while I was still an Associate Executive for the Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area, responsible for urban mission and congregational development. That made me pause.

I had just started a Doctor of Ministry Program that I had organized and brought to the Twin Cities, one taught by professors from McCormick Seminary of Hyde Park, Chicago. The full program was largely unremarkable; but when it came time, three years later, to write my doctoral thesis, one documenting the decline of Presbyterian membership over the century, I sat down one day and came up a week or so later with 40,000 words of my first novel, Even the Gods Must Die. That surprised me.

Raising Joseph, born in Calcutta, was also challenging my theology. I was always suspicious of monotheism, if there are more than one one God, doesn’t that negate the whole idea, but with Joseph my suspicion had an existential bite. If Joseph had been raised in the rural village of Bengal from which he came, he would likely have been Hindu. And outside the pale of salvation. I loved him and would have loved him as a Hindu, too. If Christianity would not have allowed someone I loved into eternal peace, then Christianity was wrong.

All this was problematic for continuing to work as a clergyman. In Christianity, unlike Judaism, belief in God is a job requirement. Otherwise we’re in Grand Inquisitor territory. Kate (not fate) intervened. I was already on my way out of the Christian ministry, but I couldn’t figure out what to do next. I was 41, mid-career, and leaving the only long term job I’d ever had, while being responsible for raising Joseph, seemed impossible.

Kate allowed me, in a move that was typically generous of her, to resign from the Presbytery and take up writing. Those novels had me pretty excited. I left the Presbytery on good terms. I’d moved away from Christianity, but I didn’t bear the church any animus. I had, I guess you could say, fallen out of love, but I remained friends with my ex-faith.

Later, when I had trouble selling my writing, I regressed and transferred my credentials to the Unitarian-Universalist Association, thinking I could pick up work familiar to me in a context friendly to my changing, evolving theology. In 1996, in Phoenix, I became a fellowshipped clergy in the UUA. I say regressed because I was done with church leadership, but wasn’t ready to admit it. I preached on occasion for a small UU congregation, Groveland, sometimes frequently, and I enjoyed that opportunity to write about my religious thinking.

When we moved to Colorado in 2014, I delivered a final sermon at Groveland, in my mind ending my ministerial career at last. That was 44 years after I entered seminary.

Influenced by the feminist reimagining movement in Christianity from the 1980’s, I decided to reimagine the idea of faith itself, a project I’ve worked on in spurts for 15 years. At first I thought I would create a new theology, something I called for a while, Ge-ology. My idea was to find a way to express in a coherent system the kind of sentiment underlying Thomas Berry’s Great Work.

Berry was a Passionist monk, a deep ecologist and author of a little book called, The Great Work. In it he proposes that the great work of our time and, in specific, the great work of our Western civilization, as creating a sustainable human presence on this planet. It’s important to note that this is not about saving the planet. The planet will be fine. The question was, and is, can we humans devise a way of living here that does not destroy our species.

What, I wondered, would faith look like if we could focus it on that which sustains us. What sustains us? The sun. The sun and plants. The sun, plants, and the soil. The sun, plants and the atmosphere they supply with oxygen. All these and the animals which nourish us, but are themselves also nourished by the plants. Yes, we humans have a rich inner life, one that allows us to imagine gods and heavens, but as animals, we can only have that rich inner life if we live. And living requires these complex interrelationships we call the web of life.

Over the years I’ve generated bits and pieces of a reimagined faith and added to reimaging, reconstructing and reenchanting. Reenchanting means becoming aware and responsive to the forces and powers that sustain us, but as beings in and of themselves. When the residents of the Big Island refer to the new Kilauea eruptions as the work of Pele, the Hawai’ian goddess of volcanoes, they have been enchanted; and for many, haoles (non-native Hawai’ans, often white people) and native Hawai’ians, reenchanted.

Another example of reenchantment was the visit I had from three mule deer bucks in October of 2014. I had come here for the closing on our purchase of the house on Black Mountain Drive. I went out in the yet unfenced back yard and encountered the three bucks about a hundred feet from the house. They stood there. I stood there. We looked at each other and I felt a distinct connection with them. The connection felt reciprocated. After a while, they left and I went back to the mechanics of taking possession of the house and property.

On reflection I felt I had been visited by the spirit of the mountain, that I had been given permission to live here among the forests and wildlife of the Rocky Mountains. The mule deer were the messengers, the angels, of this new world into which we were moving.

Or, bee-keeping. I kept bees for six years in Minnesota. It was early in the process that I felt a partnership with the bees. The colonies themselves and the surplus honey they produced that Kate and I could harvest was a collaboration. We were working together toward a common end. The closer I got to the bees, the more I understood the mystical nature of the hive, a super-organism created from apparently individual bees engaged in the world as one entity.

The final R of my new 3 R’s, reimagining, reenchanting and reconstructing, I have borrowed from Congregation Beth Evergreen. Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, said, “The past gets a vote, but not a veto.” In the Jewish ambit within which he remained though a convinced non-supernaturalist that meant taking the tradition and reconstructing it for contemporary life.

Reconstructing faith is, in my current understanding, a similar work. The traditional religious faiths get a vote, but not a veto. We can pick up strands from various traditions and rebuild them into a new faith, what I call an ur-faith, one we can all embrace, not as a replacement for our tradition if we don’t want that, but one expressing a new/old faith, one that trusts in the sun, in plants, in photosynthesis, in the sustaining powers of the soil.

Or, without visiting the old religions, we can create this new faith inductively from our lived experience. The miracle of new plants each spring. The wonder of soil complexity and its role in sustaining that miracle. The snow and the rain that bring fresh water to us, to replenish our rivers and aquifer. Consider the tomato on your table or the steak on the grill. They both store the energy of the sun and pass it on to us through the true transubstantiation as food becomes our body. The close, intimate bond between humans and animals that live with us like dogs and cats.

Stand outside at night. Look up. Stars and galaxies and planets. All there. So far away. Yet we are a part of them and they are a part of us. We need no other mystery, no other miracles, no other metaphysics.

Next Year

Beltane                                                                      Sumi-e Moon

Kate and I went in early to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science so we could see the IMAX 3-D show, Jerusalem. This is an astonishing piece of film-making, packing in lots of history, contemporary scenes and with an emotional charge gained by using three young women, a Jew, a Christian, and a Muslim as narrators for much of the film. If it’s near you, I recommend it highly. Here’s the trailer.

Official Trailer – Jerusalem: Filmed for IMAX® and Giant Screen Theaters from JerusalemTheMovie on Vimeo.

Polyagnostic

Beltane                                                                                    Mountain Moon

Rabbi Rami Shapiro spoke to Beth Evergreen parents on how to talk about god to their kids. 20180512_112730You can see on the board four terms and a fifth, panentheism, finishes it. (That’s Rami to the left standing and Rabbi Jamie to his right.) I think the first four are well known, panentheism perhaps not so much so. While pantheism says god is everything and everything is god, (all-god), panentheism says nature is part of god but god is more than that, too, perhaps even beyond time and space. The most well known panentheist, at least when I was in sem, admittedly 45 years or so ago, was Alfred North Whitehead, proponent of process theology.

My brother Mark asked me recently whether I was a theist or a deist. I wrote back, sort of tongue in cheek, polytheist atheist. This morning I thought, polyatheist. I like the contradiction, the tension between these two words. All the words on Rami’s sheet  assume a monotheistic stance in which one believes, does not believe, doubts, makes coincident with nature or inclusive of nature but not limited by it. None of them describe my location in the world of god thought.

BelievePerhaps better, polytheist agnostic. Even that doesn’t carry quite the right emphasis. What was it they said on the x-files? I want to believe? When I graduated from college, yes, it was 1969, 49 years ago, I decided to revisit Christianity. I chose to use Soren Kierkegaard’s leap of faith as a model. After reading his Fear and Trembling, I decided I would live as if the Christian god were real and that the gospel stories were true. That’s how I ended up in seminary in 1971.

It was not a perfect reenchantment of my world. A lot of Christianity, even then, I just ignored. Nothing would have made me predeterminist or even one interested in salvation beyond this life. The God and the Jesus I believed in were guarantors of a just world, a world where evil could be fought successfully and where evil denied our essential oneness as a species, allowing certain people to feel privileged due to race, gender, wealth, nationality, sexual preference. “Let justice roll down waters, righteousness like an everflowing stream.” Micah 5:24 Or, Luke 4:18-19: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
19 to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”

che-liberationMartin Luther King, liberation theology, Jesus as a revolutionary those were my touchstones. Yes, I meditated, prayed, interpreted scripture, very occasionally served the sacraments, but the core of my shift from college non-belief to Christian clergy lay in the political implications of Christianity. This was a thin rationale for a metaphysical commitment. And, it broke apart. By the time I left the Presbyterian ministry in 1991, the scaffolding of bible, god, jesus, prayer had long ago collapsed.

When my then spiritual director, John Ackerman, said, “Charlie, you might be a druid,” I laughed. Then, I thought, hmmm. No, not a druid, but yes one whose religious instincts lead him to the garden, not for a last prayer before crucifixion, but as a participant in the web of life, hands in the soil. This was reinforced when Kate suggested I look for a particular focus for my writing. Since part of leaving the ministry meant novels, I took her suggestion seriously.

Duncan, John; The Riders of the Sidhe; Dundee Art Galleries and Museums Collection (Dundee City Council); http://www.artuk.org/artworks/the-riders-of-the-sidhe-92342

Duncan, John; The Riders of the Sidhe; Dundee Art Galleries and Museums Collection

I have two broad genealogic streams in my dna, Irish and Welsh, and German. Ellis and Correll for the Celtic side, Spitler and Zike for the Germanic. I chose the Celtic side first, exploring the realm of Celtic religion. The Celtic Faery Faith, a book by W.Y. Evans Wentz, who went on to translate and make popular, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, was an early influence. As I got deeper and deeper into crafting novels, always fantasy, always with an ancient religion at their heart, I began to entertain strange thoughts.

pregnantgoddessWhat if Cernunnos, the horned god of nature in Celtic myth, was real? Tailte, a Celtic goddess of the earth, came from a euhemerized Welsh woman. Euhemerus, a Greek mythologist, lived in the late 4th century B.C.E., and proposed that myth was an exaggerated account of the lives and deeds of real people. Thus, euhemerization might suppose that behind Zeus there was a strong, dominant man who ruled imperiously over his people. Or, that a certain Welsh woman, a gardener and farmer, one with a remarkable ability to make things grow and to find useful plants and animals in the wild, might become an Earth goddess. So euhemerization blurs the line between the real and the mythical. Had Cernunnos been a hunter so in touch with his prey that his success seemed super-human?

A more recent and accessible example of another myth-making process is Pele on the Big Island. Perhaps Pele was a strong, fiery Hawai’ian woman of long ago, one drawn to the vulcanism of her homeland. Perhaps she danced with the lava, foretold eruptions, protected people from the ravages of sulphuric gases. She may have come to hold the role of goddess of fire, goddess of the vital forces beneath the Hawai’ian archipelago, through repeated tales of her amazing feats. Or, it might be that ancient Hawai’ians personified the enigmatic and brutal forces of Mauna Kea, Kilauea, and Mauna Loa just as the residents of Leilani Estates have done since the eruptions began last week.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) - The Youth of Bacchus (1884)

William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) – The Youth of Bacchus (1884)

In my own post-Christian world these sorts of gods and goddesses resonate. The notion of one deity behind it all, a wizard or sorceress of creation, seems silly. That certain groups might confuse the god they hold closest with a monotheistic deity makes sense to me; that others might actually agree with them makes no sense to me. There cannot be more than one, one god. Simple logic.

When two groups assert that their god is The One, one of them has to be wrong and in my opinion, both are. Which leaves us where? Well, the assertion of two all-powerful deities makes sense to anyone with a polytheistic bent. Why is Allah any more sensible than Athena? Why is Yahweh any more divine than the triple-goddess Brigit? Why is Brahma more explanatory of cosmic matters than Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu?

polytheismSo, I have become a polyagnostic. I doubt the existence of all the gods and goddesses ever imagined. I do not chose Yahweh to doubt anymore than I choose faeries and Odin to doubt. Yet. I want to believe. I want to see Pele at work in the now 18 fissures breaking through the human hubris of Leilani Estates. I want to find the god and the goddess, Cernunnos and the Maid, frolicking naked in the fields of Beltane. I want to see the Wild Hunt cross the sky. And, yes, I’d like to see Yahweh deliver the tablets or speak from the bush. Hell, I’d even like to watch Allah send Mohammad by horse to the temple mount, through the sky. I could stand in the Mithraeum and be doused by blood or water. It’s not hard to imagine, for me, diving into a holy well and ending up in the Otherworld.

What I’m trying to say here is that my doubt is not tied to the monotheistic faiths, rather it is tied to the polytheistic nature of global religious thought. Polyagnostic. I doubt and embrace all gods and goddesses, all nymphs, daiads, faeries, banshees, rashis, and chupacabras.

odinIf we were to divide polyagnosticism into two camps, one leaning toward belief and one leaning toward polyatheism, I would be in the leaning toward belief group. I suppose that’s what keeps me a friend of all sorts of religious belief systems, all sorts though not all. I believe in the numinous, in the unseen mystery, in the still small voice that comes from the rock, the mountain top, the flowing river, the growing grass, the blooming flower. I believe it’s no accident that these forces have been named sacred, called divine. I think it’s appropriate to anthropomorphize them, to find in the wind Boreas, to find in the magma chamber, Pele, to find on Mt. Sinai, Yahweh. These are sources of wonder for me and ones I cherish.

I just don’t know which ones are more real than the others, or, if they’re all real in some way. I’m not even sure I know what real means or could mean here.

Tennessee Rebbe

Beltane                                                                       Mountain Moon

RamiRabbi Rami Shapiro is here from middle Tennessee. He’s a prolific author, 36 books, and funny. Kate and I heard him at mussar on Thursday. He offered a paradigm from somebody whose name I didn’t catch, but it represents the human as living on five levels simultaneously. If you imagine a spiral spun out at least five whorls, he puts the body at the center, then the heart, the mind, the soul and spirit.

The first two operate below the level of consciousness. He referred mostly to the autonomic functions of the body: breathing, heart beating, all those things the body does on its own, that we couldn’t control even if we decided we wanted to. The heart in this model is two emotions love and fear, both of which arise unbidden and with which we then have to contend at the level of mind.

The mind, the ego, focuses on survival, on navigating the body and the heart through the visible world. The mind, in this paradigm, wears masks (but not in a pejorative sense) as it expresses itself to the world. Soul and spirit are, like body and heart, operating out of the realm of usual consciousness, but they can be accessed. In meditation we can reach soul as we are living it right now.

Rami cbeAs soul we become aware of our direct links to other people, to the world we live in and we understand them as part of us and ourselves as part of them. Shapiro says that such dictums as love thy neighbor as thyself become axiomatic at the soul level. When we know the true face of the other, which we can do at soul level, then we have to treat them with loving kindness. This includes the earth.

Spirit is inaccessible through our actions, but in meditation we can come right up to it. Grace has to pull us over the boundary. Once in the realm of spirit our sense of connection becomes total. We know, without effort, the interconnection and interdependence of all things, from the tiniest fly to the furthest galaxy and beyond.

It’s an interesting paradigm in its insistence that we live on all five of these levels all the time. We are always, then, in the realm of the spirit, accessing universal bonds, and the level of soul where we know the true faces of all around us.

Something about it seems a little hinky to me though and I can’t quite identify it. As a heuristic, I believe it has a great deal of value since I do believe we live on several levels all the time. At a minimum it reminds us of that.

Rami holy rascalsHe refers to himself as a perennialist. Here’s what that means:

“I am a Jewish practitioner of Perennial Wisdom, the fourfold teaching at the mystic heart of the world’s religions:

1. all life is a manifesting of a single Reality called by many names: God, Tao. Mother, Allah, Nature, YHVH, Dharmakaya, Brahman, and Great Spirit among others;

2. human beings have an innate capacity to know the One in, with, and as all life;

3. knowing the One carries a universal ethic of compassion and justice toward all beings; and

4. knowing the one and living this ethic is the highest human calling.”

 

 

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