Sunday, May 29, 2011

Atheists, Agnostics, Dogmatists And "The Unknown God"

When St. Paul brought the gospel to Athens,
he found a wonderful point of contact.
All around the city were altars to Zeus, Athena, Hermes,
Aphrodite, Ares and the rest of the gods.
But in one Athenian temple, Paul found something mysterious
-- yet somehow familiar to him as a Jew.
He saw an altar dedicated to “the unknown God.”
So when Paul was given a chance to explain his new religion,
he told the Athenians he worshiped the unknown God.

In my line of work, people sometimes ask me,
“So how do you know there is a God?”
And I always think silently, “How do any of us know anything?”

Bear with me, I have to review just two minutes of philosophy.
The father of modern philosophy, Immanuel Kant,
divided reality into two categories.

One category was everything we know
or, at least in principle, might someday know.
The other category was the mystery, all the things
that we do not know and will never know.
As a matter of logic, we can never know
what unobserved butterflies are up to.
As Indian philosopher J. Krishnamurti put it,
“The eye cannot see itself.”

Kant demonstrated 300 years ago that
there is relatively little we can actually know.
What we can know is limited to our own subjective experience,
but the realm of the unknown and the unknowable
is infinite.

20th Century physicist Werner Heisenberg discovered
that Kant was right even in physics.
Some things just can’t be known.

Around that time, philosopher Martin Heidegger showed
how the things we know create a kind of box
that we can never think completely outside of.
He and Ludwig Wittgenstein also observed
that we think in language
and the very structure of language
limits what we are capable of thinking.
In short, the mystery is vastly larger than the little piece of reality
we can see, hear, touch, and measure.

What does that have to do with God? Short answer: everything.
Roman Catholic Theologian Karl Rahner said,
“(human) knowledge is only a small island in a sea
that has not been travelled. . . .
The question is:
Which do (w)e love more,
the small island of (our) so-called knowledge
or the sea of infinite mystery?”
Religion is our attitude to that sea.

Protestant Theologian Gordon Kaufman says
that God begins where our capacity for knowledge ends.
The knowable world rests on a foundation of mystery.
It comes from mystery.
This is what Paul means when he says,
“In God we live and move and have our being.”

Whether the universe had a beginning or not
is something we didn’t know until very recently
but it was always something that could in principle be proven.
Now it has been and we know that the Big Bang Theory is right.
That’s how the universe began.

But what was there before the universe?
What happened five minutes before the Big Bang?
Who lit the fuse?
That is beyond the reach of human knowledge.

We can get hints of what the mystery is like
from the things we can know and experience.
The Anglican poet T. S. Eliot called our religion
“hints and guesses.”
There is some reason to believe the mystery
is creative and generous, kind and merciful.

We may be wrong.
But spiritual masters through the ages and around the world
have believed those good things
even though they cannot prove them.
Those who gaze in awe at the mystery, those who love it,
call the mystery “God.”

Agnostics are a little different.
Intellectually, they are absolutely right.
God is not a thing you can prove or disprove.
They are intellectually right.

But emotionally, they are like a man
who cannot let himself fall in love with a woman
because he can never be absolutely certain
what is in her heart.
Agnostics cannot love the mystery
because they don’t know enough about it.

Atheists are another matter still.
I like atheists. They are good for us.
The good thing about atheists is they smash our idols.
They take our too small ideas about God
and show that they don’t make sense.

So atheists do us believers a good service
by setting us free of idolatry.
But most atheists are intellectually arrogant and small minded.
You can see it in the mean spirited style of their writing.

Atheists deny the existence of God
because they can’t find his footprint like that of a Sasquatch
or get a picture of him at the Oscars.
They deny God because God is not on their little island of knowledge.
God is the sea on which the island floats.
God does not dwell inside the box of things we know.
God is the air outside the box extending infinitely into space.
The problem with atheists is they worship the box.

Paul, as a good Jew, knew that God is mystery.
That’s why the God of Israel had no name and no image.
You could not say he is this or that.
You could not carve a statue of God.

In the Jerusalem Temple, the Ark of the Covenant
served as God’s throne.
But the throne was empty.
A conquering general once marched into the Holy of Holies
and came out contemptuously announcing
there was nothing there.
Other nations who had a pantheon of little gods
called the Jews atheists because they had
no god with a name and a statue.
What the other nations didn’t get was that Jews were worshiping
“the unknown God.”

The greatest Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas
and the greatest Protestant theologian Martin Luther
both called God the “deus absconditus” – the hidden God –
because God does not fit inside the human mind.
The human mind fits inside God.

That’s why any religion that claims to have all the answers
is to be avoided at all costs.
Such religions are mind killers and soul shrinkers.
True religion stands in awe at the shore of oceanic mystery.
We don’t have all the answers.
We have very few answers.
But we have a warehouse full of marvelous questions.

Our doctrines are not platitudes to satisfy the simple mind.
They are puzzles and enigmas
– a God who is three and one;
a savior who is fully human and fully divine;
a God powerful enough to create the universe
but vulnerable enough to hang on a cross.
Whatever we say about God is not to define God, to pin God down,
but to make us shake our heads
and know that we do not know.

What is the point of a religion that stands in awe
rather than certainty?
The point is that it leads us outside our selves,
outside the walls of what we think we know,
beyond the prison of our pride
into something larger, vastly larger, than all the ideologies,
all the self-help guides to fixing our own lives,
all the programs and platforms humankind can imagine.
It leads us into wonder, inexhaustible wonder.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Looking Inward For The Shepherd

The fourth Sunday of Easter is Good Shepherd Sunday.
I am honestly surprised Good Shepherd Sunday
has survived the waves of liturgical reform
that have abolished countless metaphors
in which someone might lead someone else.
We recoil against any image that might suggest
we should obey anything other than our own whims.

I have spent two decades defending this day
from indignant Episcopalians who insist they are not sheep
and will not tolerate being treated as such.
Something in a human being rebels against the suggestion
we might need a shepherd.
But then something in a sheep also rebels against the suggestion
they might need a shepherd.

Like human beings, sheep are a thoughtless and errant species
inclined to wander willy nilly and get themselves in trouble.
We are certainly more articulate and smell better,
but we do share with sheep a tendency to go astray
and a certainty that we do not need a shepherd.
We have that much, at least, in common.

As modern Americans, we don’t like the notion
of someone telling us what to do – even if it’s Jesus.
Our American psalm, the feci viam meam, which will probably
Be in our next prayer book.
It’s by Frank Sinatra.
In English it’s, “I did it my way.”

So I wonder if there is anything in the lessons for Good Shepherd Sunday
that we might be willing to hear.
I hope so, because often our society reminds me of a lot of lost sheep
ambling about the desert going bah bah bah to the tune of
“I did it my way.”

When we read a Scripture lesson,
it’s important to put it in the context of the whole Bible,
and especially in the context of the whole book
where the text is found.
For example, the Good Shepherd lesson
is in the Gospel According to John.

In John, Jesus says he is the Good Shepherd
who knows his sheep, cares for them, calls them by name.
But where is he doing that from?
Is he sitting on a cloud watching us and saying “turn left,
no a little to right”?
Or has he delegated this job to ecclesiastical authorities
like priests and bishops?

No in John Jesus prays that he may dwell inside us.
That’s part of the meaning of Holy Communion.
We take Jesus into ourselves.

St. Paul says in Philippians,
“Have the same mind in you that was in Christ Jesus.”
So if we are looking for the Good Shepherd,
where are we to look?

After the Ascension, the disciples were staring at the sky,
looking for Jesus,
but the angels said, “You’re looking the wrong way.”
People have been looking at preachers, gurus, and so called saints
for generations hoping to see Jesus.
I can’t tell you how many times somebody has said of their priest,
“I just can’t see Jesus in him.”

That’s because they’re looking the wrong direction.
They are looking outward -- when to find Jesus,
we have to look inward;
to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd
we have to listen inward.

You see we are not each like an individual sheep.
We are each like a whole heard of sheep.
Inside each of us, there isn’t one will, one personality.
There’s a whole herd in there.

We are one person at work with one set of thoughts, feelings, attitudes.
At home we turn into somebody else.
Out with our friends, we actually think, feel, and act differently.
And those different parts of ourselves don’t always get along.
Sometimes the ambitious worker takes over and we ignore our family.
Sometimes we get so ensnared in our family duties
we don’t allow ourselves space to have any friends.

Sometimes some of us get taken over by a part that likes to feel sorry for itself.
Sometimes, a righteous judgmental part of us takes over
and goes after either other people or parts of ourselves.
There’s a whole herd of personalities in there,
each of them capable of wandering off on one fool path or another.

That happens to me every single day of my life.
But there’s somebody else in there too.
There’s a part we might call “the Good Shepherd.”

That’s the part that just stands back and watches over
the whole flock, caring for them,
knowing each one by name,
calling them back together.
Another metaphor might be to say that we have a spiritual gyroscope
that keeps us right side up and headed the right direction.

We have a lot of parts of ourselves that get agitated
over one thing or another.
There are parts of us that are inclined to go off on a tear.
And that’s ok.
Those parts of us are not bad.
Without them, we’d be pretty boring and our lives would be pretty bland.

But they will wander right off a cliff
if we don’t check in with another part
– the Christ within us, the Good Shepherd.
When we find the Christ we receive in the sacrament,
he is always serene, objective, wise, curious,
sometimes amused, and always compassionate.
He understands all the wild and crazy parts of us.
He doesn’t judge them or condemn them,
even when they judge and condemn each other.

He just calls them by name and nudges them back on the path.
He makes sure they all get fed and watered,
and he keeps them away from the predators.
That’s why it’s so important to listen,
so important to stop and pay attention
from time to time to the serene center of our souls.
It’s so important to feel what we feel, think what we think,
but then step back and check in with the Good Shepherd
before we act.
Can you see how different this is from the Proverb of the 1970’s?
Remember that one: “Go with your gut.”
Don’t do that.
Your gut is one of the sheep.
That’s where we keep our fear and loathing,
our regressive impulses, our unmitigated selfishness.

Don’t go with your gut.
Listen to the Shepherd.
Be still and look at your situation through the eyes of wisdom,
the eyes of mercy, the eyes of Christ.

That isn’t being docile.
It isn’t being timid.
It isn’t being indecisive.
It’s wisdom.
It’s spiritual balance.

If you are looking for Jesus, look inside yourself.
John says that’s where you’ll find him.
And he’ll speak softly, not harsh words of judgment,
but calm words of guidance,
“leading us beside the still waters,
restoring our souls.”

Dejection & Imagination: The Way Forward

Our Gospel story begins in dejection.
Clopas and his friend had seen sorrow all their days.
They lived in a poor country where life was short and hard.
They had once been a great empire,
but the empire feuded -- then split,
and in its weakened state, it had been conquered.
10 of Israel’s 12 tribes had been deported and scattered,
forever lost.

The remaining two had been overrun by Assyrians,
then Babylonians, then Persians,
then Greeks, and finally Rome.
They were a defeated and oppressed people,
living under foreign rule which respected
neither their culture nor their God.

Then Jesus gave them hope.
They had hoped Jesus would drive out Rome,
restore the kingdom as in the days of David,
that he would feed the hungry, heal the sick, establish justice.
Hope ran high.
Then came Good Friday.
The bloody humiliation of their hero
showed how wrong they had been,
how foolish they had been to have hoped
that things could be different.

The world is as it is.
They were as they were.
Hopes dashed and discarded.
Greif gave way to dejection-- dejection to despair.

Some of us know how they felt.
We may or may not live in a conquered nation.
That depends on the perspective of our family heritage.
But we know that life is not what it ought to be.
We have experienced what Coleridge called
“the tears in the nature of things.”

So many of us have at one time or another
found some form of deliverance.
It may have been a relationship with another person
who we thought could make everything ok
like in the love songs.
Or it may have been that we became parents
and thought we could make it ok for our children
even if it hadn’t been so great for us,
and they would become the people we should have been.

We may have found our hope in a new psychology
or diet or exercise plan.
There are as many paths to redemption
as there are slot machines in the Las Vegas Valley.
But, compared to the paths of redemption, the slots are more reliable.
We may even have tried the Christian faith,
but if we tried to practice Christianity on our own,
we found out pretty quickly, it doesn’t work.
Christianity is a team sport. It is a family meal.
So to place our faith in Jesus, we had to place our faith in a church.
And maybe we found one
where the worship felt holy, the sermon was uplifting,
and the people were friendly.
We thought, “I am home now. This, at last, is a safe place.”

But before long,
we discovered that even the best of churches,
especially the best of churches,
have the same problem.
They are infested with people,
and human frailty does not disappear
at the narthex door.

Our church may have done something
unjust, insensitive, or morally wrong.
Maybe the priest said something or did something
that a priest should never say or do.
The people may have resorted to power politics
or character assassination.
The church we thought was the Body of Christ,
the demonstration model for the Kingdom of God,
turned out to human, all too human.

Each of us has our own version of this story.
Each of us has found our path to redemption
and has seen it come to an apparent dead end.
So we know what dejection is like.

That is how it was for Clopas and his friend,
as they walked home to Emmaus.
It was on that road they met Jesus,
but they didn’t recognize him.
He did not appear in the form they remembered.
He wasn’t the same old Jesus as before.
But really it was that they no longer looked
at him through the eyes of hope.
They looked at Jesus through a cataract of despair.
So they didn’t know him.

When we have been so deeply disappointed
it’s hard, it’s very hard, to open our hearts again.
That’s part of why it took them all day
and into the night to recognize their Savior.

But let’s give them due credit.
Even in their despondent mood,
they were willing to walk the road with a stranger.
Despite their disappointment,
they were still willing to open their minds
and to study the Scripture.

Many of us are so sure we already know what the Bible says
about this or that –
so sure we know the Bible’s basic themes.
But the more I study the Holy Scriptures, the deeper I go,
the more wild and wonderful and surprising that book becomes.
If we assume we know what the Bible says,
if we stop with a simple literal reading,
it will close our minds.

The simple literal meaning of the texts
Jesus was teaching Clopas and his friend that day
did not point to a crucified messiah.
It took a bold new way of reading the Bible
to open these men’s hearts.
That’s what Jesus gave them,
and to their credit, they listened.

And to their credit,
they welcomed the stranger into their home.
How often we come to a church or any path of redemption,
wanting to be healed and consoled ourselves.
But the healing and consolation don’t happen
until we drop that agenda for self,
and serve or welcome someone else.

They broke bread together.
It was the first Eucharist.
They hadn’t expected it to be a Eucharist.
But there it was.
The blessing, the breaking, the giving of bread
after hearing the good news from Scripture –
they joined in this simply – with no expectation –
just open minds.
In that moment, they recognized the Lord.

Then Clopas and his friend got it right again.
Even though it was night, they hurried back to Jerusalem
to share the good news with the other disciples.
But Jesus had been meeting with them too.

Stop. How did that happen?
Jesus was now appearing to people in different places
at the same time.
Wonders just keep multiplying
when we share good news with each other.

So what can we learn from our story?
Maybe a lot of things.
The first lesson may be about dejection.
It happens.
It is a common part of the spiritual life.
It may even be a necessary part of the spiritual life.
Spiritual masters like St. Ignatius Loyola
and St. John of the Cross thought so.

And we may also learn a virtue from this story.
The virtue is that, when we are feeling dejected,
keeping our hearts and minds open to grace
can lead to a deeper redemption
than we had hoped for to begin with.

That’s especially true if we can open our hearts and minds
to grace in a new and unfamiliar form,
grace from the lips of a stranger,
grace showing us the Bible means something
quite different from what we had thought.

The word “open” did not first appear in the Church
a few decades ago.
It is one of the most frequently used verbs
in the Gospels for what Jesus does.
He opens eyes, opens ears, opens graves.

May Jesus open our spirits to each other this day
and to his own gracious person from this time forth
that we may know more fully his saving grace.