Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Tao, The Truth, And The Life

From the early days of the Christianity,
there was a great division.
On one hand, there was a sacrifice religion.
Those folks got Good Friday right off.
Jesus was the sacrifice for us.
That’s all you really needed to know.

Yes, that kind of Christianity got Good Friday,
but they didn’t have a clue what to do
with Jesus’ teachings and the story of his life.
They didn’t know what Jesus’ teachings meant
so they just put them out of mind
and got back to what they understood,
brutal bloody sacrifice.
Tertullian was the big name for Christianity
that took pride in not thinking over much.

But there was another brand of Christianity also from the start.
Justin Martyr, St. Cyprian of Carthage,
Origen of Alexandria and St. Ireneaus of Lyons
saw the whole life, death, and resurrection of Jesus
as meaning something.
To them, Jesus wasn’t just the sacrificial lamb.
He was also the spiritual master who knew
the Father and the way to the Father.
They followed Jesus, who said,
“To you it has been given to know the secrets of the Kingdom
. . . . Blessed are your eyes for they see and your ears for they hear.”

Jesus for them was the way shower, the guide to God.
That kind of Christianity flourished in the British Isles.
It was the religion of St. Columba of Iona,
St. Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, and St. Bridgette of Kildare.
They knew that before our religion was called “Christianity,”
it was called “The Way.”

Of course they called it the Way in Greek and Aramaic.
If they had been Chinese, they would have called it the Tao,
since that is how you say “the Way” in Chinese.
That may be why in the 8th Century and earlier,
Chinese Christians had such an easy time
sharing their faith with Taoists and Buddhists.
They were all looking for the way of life.

Those ancient Chinese Christians believed
that Jesus taught the way
and he showed the way by his own life.
Taoists and Buddhists respected that belief,
and they listened.

I grew up with Tertullian’s religion.
I didn’t get brutalized by it.
I didn’t mind the guilt.
Being a neurotic, I rather enjoyed it in a sick masochistic way.
But I did get bored.
More than boring me,
Tertullian’s religion left me hungry for something.
I needed some wisdom to live by.

Knowing Jesus died for me was true but it wasn’t enough.
It didn’t tell me how to cope with life’s ups and downs,
didn’t tell me what to do in the face of aggression,
didn’t help me manage the pride and shame,
the craving and aversion, the fear and loathing
that tugged me to and fro each day.

Christianity seemed to offer no guidance for life
except rules against
a few culturally unacceptable vices
and a vague admonition to behave respectably.
Theologian, Stanley Hauerwas,
speaking of his own Methodist Church,
said that he once thought Methodists had no theology.
But, Stanley said, after years of teaching at Duke Divinity School,
he had learned they believe that “God is nice
and we should be nice too.”
It isn’t just Methodists. That was what I saw as Christianity too.

So I went shopping in the psycho-spiritual marketplace.
At Big Sur, I primal screamed.
In Denver, I strained my sacroiliac
while liberating my kundalini.
In Boston, I watched my breath
until I saw pretty cool light shows, drug-free.

But there was still something missing.
There is a truth in Jesus that I needed.
No one had said it, but I sensed it.
The truth is there in his life and between the lines of his words.
He told stories that surprised us
and broke open our assumptions and fixed concepts.
His stories still open the heart and the mind.

So I came back.
At one point when Jesus’ followers had had enough
and were abandoning him,
he said to Peter, “Are you leaving too?”
Peter said, “Master, where can I go? You have the words of life?”
So Peter stayed with Jesus and I came back.

When I came back, I discovered the Jesus who said,
“To you it has been given to know the secrets of the Kingdom
. . . . Blessed are your eyes for they see and your ears for they hear.”
I discovered the Jesus who was steeped in Jewish Wisdom teachings
which were already old in his day.

At the same time Socrates was holding forth in Greece,
Jewish sages were writing Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Sirach,
and the Wisdom of Solomon.
According to these ancient masters,
there is a knowledge that enables us to live well
– just as there are beliefs that make us live badly.
There are practices of living that open our hearts and minds
to better understanding just as there are habits of living
that make us callous and spiritually obtuse.

Biblical Scholars like Deirdre Good and Elizabeth Schussler-Fiorenza
have shown us that Jesus’ teachings and his counterintuitive life
are rooted in those wisdom teachings
that were already 500 years old when he was born.

Many of these writings are open ended.
They are jumping off places for thought and imagination.
Take our lesson from Proverbs.
“Wisdom has built her house.
She has hewn her seven pillars.”

What are the seven pillars of wisdom?
One scholar draws on the Epistle of James to say
the pillars of wisdom are seven virtues:
purity, serenity, gentleness, discretion,
reasonableness, humility and sincerity.
Others might equate the 7 pillars with the cardinal virtues
of faith, hope, love, prudence, temperance, justice, and fortitude.
Others say they are insight into seven categories of reality:
the source of the universe, the nature of God, the way of salvation,
the planes of existence, the destiny of human beings,
and the destiny of the universe.

I don’t know what the seven pillars of wisdom are.
But any of these interpretations could make our lives deeper
and more holy.

The Christianity in which I have lived these 30 years,
is as rich, deep, and complex as any world religion
or philosophy.
It is not so much a set of neat answers
as challenging questions to ponder
and practices to master.
It takes connecting the head with the heart,
prayer with action, and worship with daily life.
It takes study, prayer, action, and believing.

But what’s the point of it all?
It’s higher ground.
I love that line in our song,
“My heart has no desire to stay
Where doubts arise and fears dismay.”
Christ bids us to come up higher by knowing his truth,
to rise above the petty squabbles of worldly life
and know his peace.

Paul prayed in Colossians
“that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will
in all spiritual wisdom and understanding.”
– and in Ephesians, “that you may . . . comprehend . . .
the breadth and length and height and depth,
and know the love of Christ . . . . “

There is much to know in this faith of ours.
There is no test. There is no competition.
There is no pride in knowing or shame in not knowing.
But there is joy in learning. There is peace and consolation.
There is wonder and delight.

As Paul wanted the Ephesians and Colossians
to be consoled, strengthened, and empowered
by deep wisdom, spiritual knowledge,
I want that for all of us.
Moses assured us,
“this is not too hard for us.”
Wisdom is God’s gift for all who will receive it.