Monday, April 26, 2010

Fear and God I: Love Equals Punishment

Katherine Mansfield
The more you are motivated by love, the more fearless and free your actions will be.

There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. 
I John 4:18

Growing up, I heard this verse countless times. It was for me a measure of my holiness, although I couldn't say whether that was the interpretation preached or simply how I heard it.  Being a child tortured by fears (of the dark; of being alone, of people; of monsters, snakes, dogs, rodents; death, dying, pain, hell, God; separation, annihilation, extermination; ...), I obviously was not anything like "perfect in love".

Within the evangelical, fundamentalist paradigm of God as Judge of Sin, I had absolutely no understanding of Love.  In my world, God's love was what had condemned me.  If he didn't love me, he wouldn't care enough to punish me for the sin I had been born with. God is love. God is punishment. Punishment is fear. But fear cannot be love. A = B. A = C. C = D. But D does not equal B? Yet another place where science and mathematics are proved wrong by the Bible!

It took a baccalaureate in psychology and sociology before I realized how perverted and schizophrenic that juxtaposition of love and punishment was. (Well, that and leaving the fundagelical world where the inerrant trumps science.) I still struggle twenty-plus years later to separate love from punishment in my own head.

But at least, I finally began to value my own mystical experiences of the Divine over the interpretations of the bible I had grown up with.  When I was able to redefine both God and Love according to my divine experience rather than the bible, suddenly the inverse relationship between Love and Fear was not only understandable in theory but also in practice.  When my experience of spiritual reality and secular description of physical reality were both allowed to trump literal, inerrant biblical interpretation, all things did become possible.

I am now so past fundamentalist literal interpretation of the bible.  I wish I were over it. 

Saturday, April 24, 2010

A New Old Idea

I was listening to Bill Moyers interview Karen Armstrong when she brought up a point that I had forgotten.  She mentioned it in at least one of her books, although I don't remember which one(s).  I've read nearly her entire body of work in which she repeats Big Ideas frequently, so I tend to get them confused.  Her point was one that was peripheral to her theme so it got lost in the bigger ideas and I'd forgotten it until I heard her say it again.

Here's the background: when rabbinical Judaism was developing after the razing of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 AD (effectively decimating the entire source of meaning for all Jews of the era) and Jews were struggling to reframe their identity without Temple sacrifice, the rabbis (a new type of Jewish scholar/teacher who gained prominence during this period) realized that their Scriptures were confusing, contradictory, and impossible to interpret at face value.  They needed a lens through which to interpret Scripture.

The urge to fundamental literalism was overwhelming in the face of the tremendous physical and spiritual upheaval the Jewish people faced.  History shows us time and again that the greater the experience of chaos, the stronger the fundamentalist backlash of legalism, literalism, and control, the greater the desire for security and spiritual predictability.  The Christian New Testament Gospels were also written in the midst of this catastrophic religious overhaul.

The new rabbinical scholars understood, or came to understand, the dead-end that literalist fundamentalism becomes.  The Jewish Scriptures do not present a clear and coherent God--is YHWH omniscient and omnipotent or capricious, tribal, and vicious? What exactly was the nature of the covenant that made Israel the chosen people?  It had been previously cast as Temple-based sacrificial activity.  If that is now impossible since the Romans utterly destroyed the Temple, what now does God expect?  How were the Jews to understand the meaning of their God and their nation?

So, here's Karen Armstrong's point: the rabbis decided that all of scripture must be read through the interpretation that Love trumps everything, that the primary theme of scripture and therefore God is Love.  If any individual bit of scripture seems to contradict that theme--say, that YHWH commands Israel to genocide in their takeover of Canaan--that such passages MUST be interpreted as allegory rather than history and that the allegory MUST be such that shows Love for all (gentiles included)

The implications of that  presumption are rather staggering.  Too bad Christians were so keen on separating themselves from their Jewish roots in the decades after 70 AD that they missed out on that quantum leap of faith.  The canonical gospels are filled with anti-Jewish, anti-others, sentiment.  If you are looking for it the Love is there, of course, but so are a lot of Us-Good/Them-Bad polarizations that when read literally are anything but Love.

I suggest that Christians take a step back from the rabid literalization of Christian Scripture, take a page from the Jewish history that is so very nearly our own (only fundamentalist politics of the day turned the Jesus people from a Jewish minority into a separate Christian religion).  Can we not pay mere lip service to the phrase "God is Love" but place it at the forefront of our faith?  Let us, too, read our (mostly Jewish) scripture through the interpretation of Love.  Any understanding of any passage of the bible that seems to create separation, to polarize communities, to set up hierarchies of righteousness, MUST be reinterpreted so that it promotes Love, of God, by God, to all people, at all times.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Authority of the Word of God I

I am a mystic.  I suspect that I have always been a mystic. Mysticism and fundamentalism are about as diametrically opposed as it is possible for two approaches to the Sacred to be.  Fundamentalism is by definition and by history a rigid adherence to a pre-determined set of legalisms, whereas mysticism is knowledge of the divine by direct experience. I can tell you from long experience that it is categorically impossible to be both mystical and evangelical, even in theory, most certainly in practice.

From the time of my earliest memories I have been highly intuitive, even psychic.  Such things are anathema to evangelical fundamentalism.  My father himself was named after two of the major authors and an editor of The Fundamentals (the set of essays in the early 20th Century that gave the movement its name).  Staunch doctrinal legalism was obviously important to his family and he passed it along the generations.

Prime among the fundamental doctrinal statements is sola scriptura, which declares that the bible is inerrant, infallible, historically literal, the very Word of God and, indeed, the only source by which God may be known. I obviously had knowledge of things beyond my ken.  When that knowledge didn’t corroborate the bible interpretations being preached, where did that leave me? I can tell you exactly: sitting in the back pew with my mother, worried desperately that I was a witch, that I wasn’t really saved, even that I was possessed by Satan.

Not knowing, or acknowledging, that there was any kind of True Christian other than evangelical fundamentalist, I stuffed my mysticism, my intuitive and psychic knowledge, into the deepest darkest closets of my very Being.  Where, of course, it leaked out constantly to disrupt my practice of Christianity!  Oh, how I prayed that God would take away these weird feelings, these visions, the dreams, the knowledge I had of people and of Life Itself.  And how I wished I had been born in Bible Times when it was still possible, permissible, to hear God directly, to be a prophet.  Everything I was seemed much better suited to some other Dispensation than these Almost End Times (or at the very least some other gender).

Religion, mostly evangelical Christianity but really all religions that I studied, always tries to tell me how to know God—what must I do, actions I must take, doctrinal statements I must believe, attitudes and behaviors I must model, in order to be in fellowship with God. The practice of religion is supposed to make possible a connection to the Sacred Other that is Beyond Me.

But the place where I begin my spiritual seeking (my Fundamental, as it were) is to notice that I already have a relationship with Something Beyond Myself that I call God, or The Divine when I want to differentiate from a specific conventional concept of God.  I am a mystic looking to reconcile my experience--what I know that I know that I know--with the intellectual exercise and physical practice of religion.

As a mystic, my ultimate standard of Truth is this experience of the relationship that I already have, rather than a particular canon of scripture or set of doctrinal statements.  My experience of God is so essential and visceral that I can only describe its validity as similar to the validity of knowing that water is wet.  Wetness is not a quality that you can define or explain.  You can learn the chemical formula for water, or the phase changes of the water cycle, you can learn the uses of water; but you cannot learn Wet.  I know God like I know Wet.  

When I read other people's opinions of the nature of spiritual reality--whether that is the bible or other writings--I compare that to what I already know.  When I read other mystics, whether Christian or not, we all sound the same.  Our words are not always the same but there is this quality of knowing the Divine that is so visceral as to be indescribable.  But when I read theologians, they are always trying to define and delimit what my experience should be.  It often feels like going to school for years to learn all about the properties of water and all the stuff water can do before being allowed to walk outside to step into the stream and JUST GET WET.

That's the number one reason that I don't trust the bible to be the Word Of God but rather lots of words about other people's experiences with God--extremely valuable in their own right but not at all the same thing as an ultimate spiritual authority.  If the bible, or any other teacher, doesn't jive with what I already know about Wet, I will search long and hard to reconcile the differences but the final authority for me is, for lack of a fuller description, that still small voice that speaks to me on my very breath.

And that is only the first of many ways in which I am a heretic.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

A Review of the Season

The Chronicles began as a service for the Lenten season, to spend time writing as a means to facilitate contemplation of all my voracious reading.  My appetite for books is huge and often threatens to overwhelm me.  Writing has proven an effective method for slowing down the ingestion enough that much better digestion occurs.  I have felt far more nourished by my reading since I began writing about it than I felt before.

Alright, enough with the digestion metaphor; make the point!  Which is to say that I have succeeded at my goals for this blog so far beyond my expectations that I intend to continue it indefinitely.  The pile of books on, in, under, and around my nightstand hasn’t really gotten any shorter but the turnaround time to the library or used bookstore has gotten a lot longer.  I’m both taking longer to read each book and playing with the material longer before diving headlong into the next book.  No one would have accused me of being a superficial or casual reader before I started writing (well, except when I’d be on a binge of trashy novels) but now I feel I’ve moved well beyond reading to learn and into reading to study.  Reading itself has almost become a meditation.  Writing certainly has.  These are outcomes of blogging that I never expected but for which I am deeply grateful.

I had hoped to rediscover my voice through writing.  For a long time there while I struggled with hypoadrenia I wasn’t able to hold cogent thought in my head long enough to string a sentence together, much less to put paragraphs into sensible essays.  I wondered if I even could anymore.  I am delighted to discover that although I still lack some of the clarity and ability to develop arguments that I used to have, I can once again state my thoughts in a reasonable manner.  I look forward to building my logical left-brain muscles again. I can say with confidence that I am well recovered from the mental state that hypoadrenia left me in and I can move forward into spiritual healing from fundamentalism.  I look eagerly ahead to continued seeking after Truth, knowing that the Divine is always present and ready to be found by all who are willing to look.