Thursday, June 16, 2016

Part 2: True religion is a profound uneasiness about our highest social values (Niebuhr)

There are some important implications about a profound religion that starts with the “divinity within” the human.

For starters, the notion of the divine light within is extremely difficult for many to swallow, given the centuries of brain-washing, initiated by the disciple Paul, about man’s ignominious “falling short of the glory of God” and prayers like “I am not worth so much as to gather the crumbs from under Thy table”. Augustine, too, bears considerable responsibility for starting from his own shame, evil and sin, and then writing about it in tomes considered by the church to be full of the wisdom of God. The hair-shirt of a kind of religious morality, premised on an inherent evil of human nature, is both self-sabotaging; it also generates rational for all attempts to explain, to monitor, to control and of course, to punish human behaviour. Matthew Fox’s Original Blessing attempted several years ago to attribute a very different interpretation on the “Fall” in the Garden of Eden, an interpretation that, if it had been available and acknowledged and accepted centuries ago, would have generated millions of people who did not have to cower in caves of shame, guilt, embarrassment and even death at the voices and the hands of their persecutors, not to mention their prosecutors.

Starting from a positive perspective is not only psychologically more generative of healthy relationships,(including especially one’s relationship to God) but is also a start on moving from what psychology today would call “an external locus of control” to an “internal locus of control” by which one takes responsibility for one’s actions, decisions, attitudes and relationships. The outside influences, thereby, while not ignored or denied, play a less dominant role in an individual’s life. There is a greater likelihood of a human developing a healthy “awe” (the translation of the original word in scripture, “fear”) of God, the Deity, if one starts from an enhanced reputation of the biblical notion of “imago dei”, humans being created in the image of God. (With considerable acknowledgement of debt to Rousseau!) The notion also enhances the potential for a different “kind” of decision-making, from one of avoidance of punishment, embarrassment and castigation, to one premised on one’s better angels, one’s highest purpose and potential, one’s best deployment of one’s gifts. Development of the “internal locus of control” as a more creative, responsible and caring path to child development, however, does not negate the need for parents’ warnings of specific dangers, like hot stoves, speeding cars on streets, or unbalanced bicycles for neophyte riders. However, helping others to start from a perspective that others seek and will to ‘the good’ and not to ‘the evil’, while to today’s audiences seems naïve in the extreme and a radical proposal, and then to deepen that perspective through experiences that are grounded on such a premise as one passes through middle age and into one’s dotage, would not only serve the individuals themselves in a significantly positive manner; it would also generate multiple benefits for the culture.

Another aspect of enhancing both respect for and nurture for the ‘imago dei’ notion of the divinity within, is that one’s primary responsibility in serving God is to accept and sustain responsibility for one’s own mental, physical, spiritual health, before attempting to “care” for others. Of course, in the time narrative of our lives, these two dynamics play out congruently, and opportunities to ‘care’ for a loved one will present themselves without regard for one’s spiritual health. However, there are some important questions of discernment when contemplating caring for others. I am reminded of the Friday afternoon homily of a Bishop, to a private boys’ school, in the school chapel. With everyone anxious to leave for the weekend, and no one really interested in listening to another old man in robes drone on, he mounted the pulpit and uttered these words: “Mind your own business!”

And then he sat down to the utter surprise and amazement of everyone.

His poignant recommendation to those boys is one needing utterance in so many situations in which the “Good Samaritan” parable is about to be applied by well-intentioned religious persons, intent on caring for another in distress. Too often, the needs of the caregiver to be needed exceed the immediate needs of the target of their good intentions. This is not to say that acts of compassionate caring are not needed and valued; it is, however, to point to the rather perplexing notion from a lecture by one John Kloppenberg, at Saint Michael’s College, that the Christ figure in that parable is the Jew taken for dead in the ditch, not the Samaritan who provides him with rescue and hospitality. In our head-long effort to demonstrate our compassion, and thereby to earn a good name for ourselves, we are quick to run to the Samaritan role, thinking and likely even believing that we are emulating, if not responding to the Jesus model of care-giving. And while the Jews and the Samaritans hated each other, and the story does attempt to bring them together in a level of empathy, there was very little inconvenience to the Samaritan’s act of charity, worthy at some level though it is. So many acts of charity and compassion are, however, so superficial, so duty-originated and duty-executed, so worthy of the resume, so eagerly recounted, and so often based more on the needs of the care-giver than on the need of the object of that care. It is in examining, more patiently and also more deeply, our own situation, emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually, to determine our motives, our agenda, and our projected outcomes of our kindnesses, that we are more likely to discern motives worthy of us, and of the person we seek to “help”. Perhaps, how we approach the potential encounter, seeking out the feelings of the other as to whether or not they wish care, what kind of care would be most appropriate, when that care would be best offered, and by whom, would help us to determine the most “sacred” way for the encounter to take place. And that means that we have to become conscious of our intent, our need, our motives and our appropriateness for making the gesture. And that process is one we have already practised, if we are learning to mine our unconscious, long before the encounter presents itself.

In an “extrinsically” driven, even formulated world, the “fix-it” notion is attached like a globule of gorilla glue to each of our minds, our hearts, our spirits and our world views. Fixing it, whatever it is, in the spiritual realm, may be a notion incompatible with not only our individual capacity, but also the capacity of medical science, or of many of the other disciplines even including reconciliation, mediation, and all of the known strategies and tactics of clinical and pastoral care.  And not only are some problems neither avoidable nor fixable, God is not “the fixer” of our lives, nor the fixer of all our problems. And the “extrinsically-driven” notion of the universe imposes such a metaphysic on all of our faith communities, leading to the highly problematic cry from many who become tragically ill: “Why is God doing this to me, given that I have lived a good life for X decades?” Being embedded in an objectively-premised relationship with God, one considers God the primary cause of all of the bad things that happen, and sometimes even utters thanks when a baby is born healthy, or a sick person is healed after surgery. Another brief story, from the memory bank:

While witnessing a hernia surgery operation, as part of training, I heard these words from the surgeon as he was stitching the flesh: “My surgery professor always reminded us that we could put the sutures in, but we could not and did not heal the patient!”

So we can see the inner-directed life enhances the potential and the opportunity for enlightened self-discipline, enhanced expression of compassion without the need to fix, and there is also the added, but often overlooked notion that our lives are not driven to, nor expecting rewards in the usual definition of that concept. We are not all the time striving for those trophies, medals, crests, and expressions of praise that have become an integral part of our transactional culture. Used as motivation, used as conditioning, in the classical Pavlovian sense, rendering the recipient little more than a trained seal, (or dog, in the case of Pavlov) we might witness a far more vigorous and sustained and authentic extension of our natural tendency to “relate” to others in a far more authentic, and far less transactional manner. If we already relate to God in a transactional manner, attempting to pave our own path to a “happy eternity” rather than the opposite (a theory that has been so debunked, both as to the geography and even the very existence of both heaven and hell), why would we not also consider it both appropriate and ethically, morally and spiritually to engage in a bargaining process with others, thereby rending both ourselves and others as little more than agents of our needs.

It was Kant who reminded us never to be the agents of another’s agenda. It was Benedict, the founder of the Benedictine Order (not Benedict XVI) who reminded us never to do the work that is properly belonging to another. We cannot do another’s work, especially spiritually. And the idea of building a community in which a level and degree of holiness, dignity, respect and especially agape love, demands that we each consider ourselves created in the image of God as Scott Peck wrote in his introduction to A Different  Drum. The Prior, exhausted and despairing about the level of morale and enrolment in the Priory went to the visit the Rabbi. He too was despondent about the state of his synagogue with its low attendance and low morale. “Remember the Messiah is among you!” were the words of support from the Rabbi. Upon the return of the Prior to the Priory, everyone asked him, “What did the Rabbi tell you?”

“Remember the Messiah is among you!” were the only words he spoke.

And of course, as time went on, and the abbots continued to ask, “Is it him?” or “Is it you?”….the tone and the atmosphere, especially the relationships among the men were transformed, the enrolment rose and the prior became a place of peace, contentment, joy and spiritual fulfilment.

Why would such a microcosmic story not have legitimate “macro” applications?


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