Monday, March 11, 2013

Science and the Doctrine of Creation


I often find myself bewildered by the debate in American churches over the theory of evolution and the veracity of the biblical account of creation.  Even a cursory examination of the first two chapters of Genesis reveals two distinct stories, each with its own sequential order.  If you truly are a literalist, you cannot maintain that they are both "true" in any factual, historical sense, quite apart from any argument involving the discoveries and theories of science.

In the first account, 1:1—2:4, the very first thing God creates is light, followed in order by the "firmament" to separate the primordial waters; the gathering of the waters below the firmament into oceans, revealing dry land; vegetation; the "lights" of the sky, sun, moon, and stars; birds and marine life; the land animals; and finally, humankind, whom he creates in his own image as male and female.  There is no implication here that male takes precedence over female, but each is complementary to the other, two halves to a whole.  Both are needed to reflect fully the glory of God.  The account then concludes with the blessing of the seventh day, the Sabbath, the day on which God rested, long seen by Jewish and Christian commentators alike as the crowning glory of creation.   

The second account, 2:5-25, has a very different order.  The story takes up after God has created the heavens and the earth, but before any plant or other variety of life has appeared.  A stream rises up from the ground, creating mud, from which God forms man, a male human, and breaths life into him, the very first creature to have life.  He then plants a garden for him, to provide both enjoyment and nourishment.  Next, he creates out of the ground all the animals, not for food for the man, but to provide him companionship, since it is not good for him to be alone.  This effort fails miserably, however, so God causes a sleep to fall upon the man and takes from him a rib, out of which he creates a woman.  When he presents the woman to him, the man becomes very excited and declares, "This at last is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh!"  The creation portion of the story ends with the declaration the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.  There is no mention of a Sabbath.

If we were to chart the sequence of each account, it would look like this:

Order
Genesis 1:1—2:4
Genesis 2:5-25
1.
light
earth and heavens
2.
firmament
human male
3.
oceans and land
vegetation
4.
vegetation
animals
5.
sun, moon, and stars
human female
6.
birds and marine life

7.
land animals

8.
humankind

9.
Sabbath



There are other differences, too.  The first account is rhythmic, poetic in structure, like a litany.  The second is written as a more conventional narrative.  The first account calls God Elohim, while the second uses the sacred name YHWH.  In the first account, God creates solely through his word, while the second is much more anthropomorphic, picturing God forming creatures out of dust of the earth, breathing life into man, planting a garden.  They are clearly distinct accounts from separate sources. 

All of this raises certain questions in the mind of the believer, whether Jewish or Christian:  If we are to understand Scripture as word from God, in what sense are these stories true?   Why do we have two creation stories, rather than one?  And how are we to understand God at work in the processes relating to our origins that science describes, including evolution?

The stories in Genesis are mythic in the best sense of word.  They are symbolic stories pointing to  deeper truths than what they literally convey.  We have two distinct stories because each reveals a different set of these truths.  The preoccupation of the first is the creative power of God's word and the goodness of what it creates, while the second is more an introduction to the story of the fragmentation of human relationships that follows in Genesis 3.  We are meant to understand from the first that the world we experience is the creation of God, that it is good, that humanity is the pinnacle of his work on earth, and that the Sabbath rest has a holy purpose.  We also are made to understand that humanity reflects the glory of God in a unique way and that male and female are both required to reveal that glory in its fullness.  The second account focuses on man, on God's desire to provide for him, including the excitement of the erotic companionship of woman.  Its "conclusion," which of course is not conclusion at all, but a set up for the crisis created by the disobedience to come, is a presentation of human innocence and intimacy as a gift from God. It gives us a glimpse of what the relationship between man and woman was intended to be. 

The unknown editor of Genesis who, centuries ago, set these stories together in the text seems to have had no difficulty with the fact that the details of these stories do not "line up."  The ancients, whether we are talking about the rabbis of the Mishnah or the early fathers of the Church, understood Scripture to reveal truth on many different levels.  They did not suffer the preoccupation with factual truth, whether empirical or historical, that so haunts the modern mind.  Ironically, the modern fundamentalist is as much a product of Descartes and the Enlightenment as the scientific materialist.  For both, it seems, the only truth that really matters is factual truth. 

Evolution is best understood theologically as the mechanism through which God has created--and continues to create-- the breathtaking variety of life, in all its fullness and beauty.  Creation is not static, but dynamic and ongoing, "evolving," if you will.  It has a history, a direction, moving ever forward into greater levels of complexity.  Salvation history, the biblical vision of the working out of God's purposes in time, with all things reaching fulfillment in the "fullness" of time, intertwines with the narrative arc of creation, the natural history of the cosmos, each shaped by the same divine energy.  

Though it may be disconcerting to some, there is no inherent contradiction between the scientific theory of evolution and the theological doctrine of creation.  Indeed, they are beautifully, even elegantly complementary.  But it does take a work of imagination to see how they connect, a willingness to step outside the confining box of Cartesian thinking and embrace the power of symbol and myth.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Spiritual But Not Religious?

When engaged in casual conversation with someone I have just met, I am often asked what I do for a living.  I'm sure you are, too. When I say I am an Episcopal priest, however, I usually get one of two responses: either a sudden, distant look, followed by an awkward pause in the conversation, then a "That's interesting," and a quick change of subject... or a vaguely guilt-tinged confession, "I don't go to church," followed by the justification, "I am spiritual but not religious."

While I hear it used with ever greater frequency, I have never really known what to make of the phrase.  People seem to be saying that they are sensitive souls, aware of a transcendent reality beyond the realm of matter that shapes and directs their lives, but that they do not find an adequate or helpful expression of that awareness in religion.  If, however, you accept the premise--as I do--that we are all spiritual beings, then everyone possesses a "spirituality" of sorts.  Your spirituality is simply your disposition toward spiritual reality, even if you deny it or fail to perceive it.   You therefore cannot distinguish yourself by describing yourself as "spiritual."  What will distinguish you is your practice of spirituality, what you do to express and integrate your spirituality into daily life.  And that, of course, is precisely where religion comes in.  The word religion is derived, appropriately enough, from a Latin verb meaning "to bind together."  Religion is that which binds together the experiences of our lives in a grand vision of the whole, including our connections to the reality that lies beyond, and offers us the means by which to enter more fully into that reality.

I know that, to many, "religious" implies rigid conformity to an arbitrary set of rules, intolerance of those who live differently, and immersion in hidebound institutions that stifle creativity and label nonconformists as heretics.  These stereotypes are rooted in a certain degree of truth.  Some religious people do obsess over rules, some are intolerant, even to a murderous degree, and religious institutions can be stifling.  Like all human practice, be it business, government, or family life, religion is messy.  Human beings are deeply flawed.  We lack vision, we lack clarity.  Our motives are mixed and often confused.  We screw up.  Few would suggest, however, that we abandon our businesses because business often is blighted by greed and corruption.  Few would argue that we should give up on democracy because it is inefficient, tainted by nasty rhetoric, and suffers from all the shortcomings of a beauty pageant or popularity contest.  And despite all the snide remarks we make about marriage and family, and all the wounds we suffer through our families, we nonetheless always return to them, hoping for comfort, healing, and love.  And yet, religion--perhaps because it allows us a higher degree of choice regarding our participation, or because it purports to embrace the highest good--we feel free to reject out of hand when it doesn't meet the standards we set for it.  To be sure, we can go about our daily lives religion-free if we so choose.  It is much harder to go about one's life shunning all business, avoiding all governance, or untethered by family ties.  I would argue, however, that religion, despite all its flaws, is as vital and necessary to us as economic activity, governance, and family life, and that in our practice of it, we need to demonstrate the same kind of forbearance we show to these other human endeavors, simply because it is a human endeavor, however divine its inspiration may be. 

Religion is important in that it gives us a framework, a skeleton, that lends shape and structure to our spirituality.  This is necessary in the same way a curriculum or teaching plan is necessary for our academic and intellectual development.  This is not to say that we cannot make spiritual discoveries on our own, any more than to say that learning cannot go on outside a structured classroom.  But religion does present a discipline, a path of exploration, that allows for a greater possibility of discovery and encourages regular growth and development.  It is worth noting that every figure the world has deemed a great spiritual leader--Francis of Assisi, Mother Theresa, the Dalai Lama, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Jr., Abraham Heschel, Rumi, Gandhi--has been firmly rooted in one of the great religions of the world.  Though there have been great spiritual figures who have stood outside the circle of religion--Albert Camus comes to mind--they are very few and far between.  And even Camus was constantly in dialogue with Christianity, attempting to embrace its values while rejecting its dogma.  Indeed, toward the end of his life, some scholars believe he was on the verge of embracing the faith he had for so long kept at arm's length.  Most of the spiritual greats were quite open to the insights of other religious traditions and they came to remarkably similar understandings of how human beings should treat one another and the non-human world that surrounds us.  Compassion, kindness, honesty, integrity, simplicity, courage, and faith characterize the spiritual practice of all the greats.  And yet, each would argue that it was precisely their practice of their particular religion as a daily discipline that enlivened and deepened their capacity for all of these glorious virtues.  Again, this is not to say that virtue cannot be present in those who do not practice a religion, or that there are not religious people who are decidedly unvirtuous, but only that religion provides a disciplined, coherent, and demonstrably successful  means for cultivating virtue on a very deep level.

Far too many who say they are spiritual but not religious seem to be dabblers, people who have superficially explored a variety of spiritual traditions, but have never fully engaged any of them.  I am reminded of an experience of the Methodist minister and writer Tex Sample, who was told by a woman at a party he attended that she used to be a Methodist, but not anymore.  Now, she said, she was "into" Native American spirituality.  The pastor challenged her by saying he didn't really understand what she meant when she said she was "into" Native American spirituality.  Which Native American spirituality?   Mohawk?  Navajo?  Lakota?

The woman looked baffled.

Well, okay, did she study with a particular shaman?

"Oh, nothing like that," she said, dismissively.

"Well, then," said Sample, "I just don't know what you mean when you say you are 'into' Native American spirituality."

"Oh," she said, "I saw Dancing with Wolves, read a book about it, and thought it was very nice."

While it might be argued this woman once identified with the particular religious tradition of Methodist Christianity, she clearly never fully engaged it, but merely dabbled in it, as she dabbled in Native American religion later.  No deeply held convictions, no ongoing discipline or practice, just a flirtation of the moment, flitting from one tradition to another, avoiding any binding commitment.

Binding commitments, of course, are risky.  They force you to struggle, when things don't go quite as planned.  You are forced to confront the ways you messed up.  It is true with marriage, with business contracts, with citizenship... and with a deep religious commitment.  It enforces a discipline.  Sometimes people who assert they are spiritual but not religious do so to avoid that discipline and the judgment that comes with it.  Perhaps the most notorious instance was when Barbara Walters confronted Monica Lewinsky, in her interview, regarding the former intern's affair with Pres. Clinton.  Lewinsky had claimed to be a spiritual person.  Pres. Clinton had said that he had sinned in having the affair.  Did Lewinsky believe she had sinned?  Lewinsky, visibly uncomfortable, squirmed in her seat and then said, "I'm spiritual but not religious," as if that dispensed with the issue and exonerated her behavior.

Spiritual but not religious?  This says nothing to me.  Everyone is spiritual.  We are spirit wedded to flesh, to matter.  What I would much rather know is that you have a discipline to your professed spirituality, that you work to live it on a daily basis, struggling to grow into the ideal it envisions.  I want to know how your spiritual impulses are bound together into a cohesive practice.  In other words, I would much rather hear that you were spiritual and religious.


Thursday, October 18, 2012

More in Heaven and Earth Than Is Dreamt of...

I am a religious man and a reasonable man.  For some, this a problematic statement.  They would insist there is no such animal, that it is a non-sequitur to say someone is both reasonable and religious.

Admittedly, many of the people who assert such things have a child's notion of religion.  I am reminded of a story told me by an older priest, who many years ago attended a debate at Union Theological Seminary in New York between the German theologian Paul Tillich and a logical positivist philosopher from Columbia University. The debate centered on the reasonableness of religion.  The philosopher had the first crack and immediately launched into a dismissive swipe at the biblical account of creation, stating it was patently absurd to think, in this age of science, that God created the world in seven days or that the first woman was shaped from a rib of the first man.  When it came time for Tillich's rebuttal, he stood up and said, "You'll get no argument from me.  I thought this was going to be a debate."  He then proceeded to describe the symbolic semiotics of religion, leaving the philosopher so flummoxed and embarrassed, he could not continue.  The smug sense of superiority, coupled with an oddly literalistic and ignorant misunderstanding of religion, that characterized the positivist philosopher's attitude is reproduced again and again in the many atheists who imagine themselves to be enlightened, but who show a startling lack of knowledge or curiosity about theology, biblical scholarship, the relationship between psychology and religions, or the philosophy of religion.

At the same time, many secular skeptics have a difficult time dealing with phenomena that do not seem to be explicable in scientific terms: miraculous healings, the appearance of angels, demonic possession, etc.  The typical response is, "Well, there has to be a natural explanation.  Either this is a fraud or we simply don't understand the science well enough at this point."  The notion that there could be a supernatural explanation is dismissed out of hand.  In the grip of a naive realism, they refuse to consider the possibility of a transcendent reality existing outside the box of nature, i.e., that which is governed by physical laws.  That said, I must confess that many religious persons are also reluctant to embrace supernaturalism.  This is particularly true of people who subscribe to more liberal forms of religion.  As a graduate of both Harvard and Union Theological Seminary of New York, stalwart bastions of liberal religion, I once counted myself among them... but not any more.

I first gained an inkling that there might be some invisible realm of reality that every once in a great while crashes into our own when I read a reprint of an article written by a professor of religion at Smith College back in 1963.  The professor, Ralph Harlow, was a product of the same modernist, "enlightened" form of religion that had shaped my early understanding.  Prior to a walk in a park he took with his wife, he would have explained angels as symbolic conveyors of God's word in Scripture: in essence, a literary device.  On that day in 1963, he and his wife both heard voices behind them on the park pathway and kept looking back to see if someone was following behind, but could see no one.  The voices grew louder and stranger, so that Harlow became convinced that a large gaggle of foreign students must have entered the park, but still they could see no one behind them.  Then, suddenly, the voices were above their heads.  They looked up and, to their astonishment, saw a flight of winged creatures in colorful, flowing robes, chattering with one another in an unintelligible tongue.  Stunned, unable to take in what he had just seen, Harlow reached for a park bench and abruptly sat down.  His wife slowly settled down next to him.  He looked at her and before the words, "Did you see what I see?" were out of his mouth, he knew the answer.  It was in her eyes.  All she had to do was nod.  Harlow's account of his experience in Guideposts magazine was the first plausible telling of an encounter with angels I had ever read, but it was not to be the last.  I have since become convinced: angels are real.  Some of the current crop of public atheists have expressed dismay that despite our ever-accelerating advances in science, so many, even among the well educated, still cling to such "superstitions."  Perhaps it is because enough people have had inexplicable encounters like that of Prof. Harlow and his wife to render the secular skeptic's version of reality too limiting to fit "the data."

The second impetus to reconsider my perspective was my encounter with the work of Dr. Larry Dossey, a physician who has spent much of his career examining the relationship between healing and prayer.  Dossey, when he was a resident at a large Dallas hospital back in the 1980s, had been dismissive of prayer as anything more than a source of emotional comfort.  A scientific rationalist, he considered as ludicrous the idea that prayer could heal, or that God would heal through prayer... until, that is, he witnessed it firsthand.  A patient of his who had "terminal" cancer in both lungs was completely, inexplicably healed, after his friends and fellow believers had prayed for him.  There had been no therapy, no radiation or chemo.  The physicians had told the man to make his final arrangements.  There was no explanation for it that made sense within the bounds of science.  Dossey began to wonder about the relationship between prayer and healing and the more he studied, the more evident it became to him that the two were profoundly and often dramatically linked.  Dossey's testimony was later reinforced for me through the work of another skeptic who witnessed the healing power of prayer, the Pittsburgh journalist Emily Gardiner Neal.  Their work had a profound effect on my own tepid view of prayer, which I saw largely as a way of remaining present to God and one another, but in no sense a pathway to physical healing.  I have since become convicted of its power, but did not witness it personally until 2007.  A lay woman in our church, a very active and influential member, had battled throat cancer in the early 90s and had been healed through the usual methods, but the cancer had suddenly come roaring back and her doctors were not optimistic about her future.  When a prayer team from Faith Alive, a renewal ministry in the Episcopal Church, arrived at our church, she asked them to pray over her in the hope of healing.  I joined in that prayer, but tempered my expectations because I had known many who had prayed and not received the physical healing they had pleaded for.  But two weeks later, my parishioner burst into my office, so excited she could hardly contain herself.  The cancer had vanished and her physicians were completely baffled.

I am admittedly astonished at the capacity of human intelligence to understand the physical realities of God's universe.  It staggers the mind to think we can see to very edge of the universe and calculate the very moment when it all began.  Science is undeniably powerful, revealing wonders our devout ancestors never dreamed of.   But it no longer surprises me to think that there may be limits to what science can reveal, that there are phenomena that transcend the cosmic reality of matter and energy, that spirit may be more than thought, more than consciousness.  Ironically, paradoxically, it is the very immensity of the universe science has revealed that confirms it for me.  If God is capable of creating a cosmos of this magnitude, surely he has infused it with wonders that are beyond human ken.  Angels and miracles?  Why not?  To my rationalist friends, I would quote Hamlet to his skeptical friend: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Seduction and Resistance

When they were teens, my sons often protested when I limited--or tried to limit--their exposure to violent or overtly sexual movies and video games.  Setting aside the futility of the exercise, given that they were growing up in a culture that flooded their minds and hearts with a tsunami of violent or lustful images each and every day, I contend even now that I was right to do so.  It strikes me as inconsistent, if not willfully blind, to maintain that the sight of beautiful art, the sounds of musical masterpieces, or the words of great literature can be transformative, and not grant the same kind of power to base images and ugly words. 

Both image and word elicit response, regardless of their content.  Sometimes our response is ephemeral.  We react, then forget.  They wash over us and drain away, leaving no apparent mark.  But at other times, they remain, stuck in mind's eye or the heart's echo chamber, haunting or enchanting us for days, weeks, years, even a lifetime.  They captivate us, for better or for worse, and we can find it difficult, if not impossible, to free ourselves.  And once they hook us, they begin to shape our behavior, our interactions with the world around us.  This is why companies spend billions of dollars each year on advertising.  Their leaders know well the power of sound and image to suggest and gently direct our behavior, even against our better judgment.  The power of suggestion is enormous; it is the essence of seduction.  Totalitarian states have known this unpalatable truth for centuries.  Hitler, Stalin, and Mao ruthlessly exploited it for their own purposes, placing entire nations under their spell.

When, in the early 1980s, the serial drama, The Holocaust, was shown on West German television, an enormous upswelling of anger and bewilderment erupted from young Germans born after the Second World War.  They confronted the older generations, demanding to know how it could have happened in Germany, the nation of Bach, Beethoven, and Goethe.  Often just as bewildered, tormented by guilt and regret, many older Germans protested that the younger generations, having grown up in a democratic, pacifistic culture born out of the defeat of Nazism, had no understanding of how brilliantly Hitler had manipulated the emotions of a frustrated, deeply wounded nation, or how easy it was to be seduced, to dismiss the brutalities of the SS and SA as regrettable but infrequent expressions of excess enthusiasm or as the propaganda of Germany's enemies.  Hitler was mesmerizing, a master of symbol, word, and image.  Only the strongest minds, those most deeply committed to a greater good--the Dietrich Bonhoeffers, Sofie Scholls, and Willi Brandts--could resist.  To many of the younger Germans, this sounded like an excuse, as it did to many outside Germany.  But having seen Leni Riefenstahl's notoriously brilliant propaganda film, The Triumph of the Will, I could not help but be sympathetic.  In spite of myself, in spite of every truth I knew about Nazi Germany, she had my heart racing, entranced by the spectacle of the Nuremberg rallies, thrilling to Hitler's plane as it landed in the Berlin airport, anticipating the adulation of the crowds awaiting their leader's emergence onto the runway.  If I could be so affected, what must the Germans of the 1930s have experienced?

Of course, the very success of The Holocaust in awakening the anger of young Germans is itself illustrative of the power of image and word, especially when they are married together in a single medium.  It brought to life a horrific past in a way the dry academic history texts of West German classrooms never could, forced a public conversation long overdue, and became a powerful force for good.  Image and word can be made to serve many different masters, many different purposes.  Our capacity for discernment in assessing their end is crucial.  The questions we need to confront are, Who is the master of the images and words we are experiencing?  What is he telling us?  Why?  What is his agenda?   What response does he want us to have?  And what should our response be?  In short, we need to assess critically what we are experiencing, to set it at the mercy of reason, examining it in the light of values we know to be true.  I believe wholeheartedly this is why, despite being inundated by some of the worst dreck of the American entertainment and advertising media, my sons have grown up to be thoughtful young men.  They have learned, at least in some fashion, to make these assessments.

And yet, I cannot help but fear for them and for the culture at large, precisely because so much of what washes by us is, in fact, unexamined.  So great is the tsunami that we are unable much of the time to maintain a critical distance.  And this is a peril.  If, as Christian philosopher Dallas Willard insists, our character is determined by the company our mind keeps, how do we make sure we keep the right company?  How do we resist the temptations blandished before us?  How can we remain impervious to the pornographers who want to excite our lust, the demagoguing politicians who wish to enflame our resentments, the corporate pitchmen who seek to amplify our greed?  Clearly, it would be of benefit to us to restrict our exposure in some measure, so as to allow some breathing room, and to focus instead on those words and images that feed our souls.  As St. Paul put it to the Philippian church, "...whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things."  These are the things that strengthen both our critique and our resolve to resist.  Both Paul and Jesus understood how deeply our inner thought life impacts our actions.  In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warned his disciples to turn away from anger and lust within because he knew these were the passions that fed both murder and adultery.

Admittedly, such a  prescription does not sit well in the American psyche, conditioned as we are to understand freedom as the highest good.  As public atheist Christopher Hitchens once protested in a debate with Dinesh D'Souza, it smacks of mind control.  But Paul understood the problem well.  He, after all, was the great proclaimer of "the freedom of the Gospel" and rebelled against the deadening hand of the Law: "For freedom Christ has set us free." (Galatians 5:1)  Yet, as he pointed out to the Corinthian church, just because we are free to do something does not mean that we should.  All things may be "lawful" for us, but they may not be beneficial.  In fact, says Paul, some things are bound to become our masters if we are not careful.  (I Corinthians 6:12 f.)  The key is discipline, a submission to the Way of Jesus that is as much about habits of the heart and mind as it is about what we do and say.  The end is perfect freedom, the kind of freedom that comes from knowing what is good and right and true, and desiring it alone.  This is the promise to Jeremiah that a day will come when the Law of God will be written on the hearts of Israel.  It will no longer be necessary to instruct and correct, for all will know what to do and how to do it.  (Jeremiah 31:31 f.)  The good will become instinctive, as reflexive as a boxer's counter-punch.

If we can tune our minds so as to be able to do complex calculations or understand multiple languages, or compose exquisite poetry or music; if we can train our bodies to run and jump and respond with agility, speed, and grace; then surely we can train our souls, our hearts, to desire above all else what is good and true and do them.  If we do not, if we refuse in the name of freedom or passion, we will in the end become slaves to the seducers of the world--not just the pitchmen and pornographers, but the tyrants, despots, and demagogues as well.  And when it happens, we won't even notice, we won't even care, because it will be exactly what we lust and yearn for, exactly what we "want"... at least in the moment.  Misery will undoubtedly follow... but by then, it will  be too late.

Friday, February 3, 2012

When Your Children Do Not Share Your Faith

This past Christmas, my two 20-something sons were "home", but not in one of the houses where they had grown up.  It was our new place in Lancaster, where Ann and I have lived for the past year and a half.  Though they both knew the place and seemed perfectly comfortable in it, I was keenly aware that it represented a kind of break for the two of them, and for us as well.  Gone were the rooms they had made their personal bunkers, retreats that each reflected their unique personalities, filled with books and posters and gadgets.  Instead, they bunked in a guest room and a study.  While there were a few tokens of their past lying about the house--Michael's cub scout badge display, a medal of achievement for his work in a national competition; Alex's college diploma and graduation cap--it was clear to anyone who might come by that they were, indeed, guests and that they lived their lives elsewhere, apart.

While I know full well that Ann and I both went through the same break with our parents at the same age, I found it more painful than I expected, not only because it represents the loss of treasured time and a particular way of relating, as it does for all parents, but also because I was keenly aware of how different their worldviews had become from my own.  This, too, is on some level, inevitable, but I found it particularly acute because I am an Episcopal priest, someone who has spent his life devoted to the Christian vision of the world, but neither of my sons consider themselves believers.  They have respect for Christianity, to be sure, but they have yet to find faith.  Though Alex remained active in our church youth group in his teens, neither he nor his brother took communion after the age of 14 or so.

There is a certain irony here, because I, too, diverged radically from my parents' worldview, as they did from that of their parents.  Growing up, I darkened the door of a church but twice, once for a Lessons and Carols service at age 8 and once in Germany with my dad at age 6.  Sunday morning at our house was for bacon and eggs, the Sunday Boston Globe, and the New York Times.  Church was not even an afterthought.  My dad was raised Roman Catholic and served as an altar boy, but developed an antipathy for the Church after watching his priest bring down a breviary on his brother's head for failing to learn his catechism correctly.  He went on to become a full-blown skeptic in college.  My mother grew up in a family of Scandinavian pietists who worshiped in a Congregationalist church.  Though she taught Sunday school in her teens, she had a myriad of questions her parents told her she should not ask.  Eventually, she grew defiant and rebellious, rejecting Christianity for an angry atheism.  While my dad has continued to show interest in philosophical questions touching upon religion, mom has absolutely no interest in discussing the subject and little other than contempt for religious thinkers.

But I, of course, had my own life, which took a different course.  At the age of 14, I had a revelation of sorts on a Cape Cod beach, watching the sun set with my dog.  I was suddenly enveloped in a sure and certain sense that God existed, and that he loved me and had created all the beauty I was seeing for me and for all the rest of us to enjoy from the inside out, in a way that he couldn't.  Suddenly I found myself haunted by religious questions, longing to know what truth lay behind the Christmas carols I had always loved.  I remained a seeker until my senior year in high school, when an invitation to a prayer meeting changed my life.  I kept going to that prayer meeting, in the hope I would discover something.  One night I left the meeting to ask God to reveal the truth to me and felt as if the spirit of Jesus had followed me home to confront me.  The tearful confession of faith I made that night would one day, after a long, meandering trek, lead me to the door of an Episcopal church in New York City, where I was confirmed... and which would eventually sponsor me for ordination to the priesthood.

For me, Christianity is a beautiful vision.  It helps me make sense of suffering.  It gives me a sense of belonging: I do not feel alone in the universe, but cared for by its very author.  It fills everything with mystery, longing, and hope.  It gives me courage to move beyond my fears and anxieties, to grow and to risk.  As St. Augustine once said, I believe in it "as I believe in the rising sun; not because I see it, but [because] by it I can see all else." It pains me to think my sons (not to mention my parents) do not share it.  I find myself asking how I failed, wondering aloud why I could not find the words or live the life that would reveal to them this marvelous truth.  It is true that, aside from reading them occasional Bible stories, singing them to sleep with "Amazing Grace" or "Be Thou My Vision," and saying grace at meals, I did not take a very proactive approach to their Christian formation.  They attended church, they went to Sunday school, to be sure, but it seems to have had little effect, beyond giving them a rudimentary knowledge of Christian doctrine.  The joy, the vision, was not contagious.  I could not pass it on.  And for that, I am inclined to blame myself.

But neither my parents nor theirs before them were able to "pass on" their vision either.  Perhaps it is not something you can teach; perhaps it must be experienced.  While we baptize our children, it remains to them to adopt the baptismal covenant as their own and make a mature affirmation of faith.  It is something they must discover for themselves.  They too have their own lives, their own journeys.  It is not for us to say whom they will meet upon the road.

It is a mystery to me why God corners some of us, falling upon us suddenly and unexpectedly, to claim us for his own, while seemingly not others... and why one vision of who and what he is, and not another, takes hold of our hearts.  While we can learn church doctrine the way we learn history or English grammar, the knowledge of God is different.  It is gleaned through inference and extrapolation.  We take our experience, which is often difficult to describe, and shape it with the accumulated wisdom of those who have experienced it before.  We look for revelation and apply it to our encounter, trying to give it a more definitive form and substance, so as to make sense of it.  If I had grown up in Iran or Thailand, and had somehow experienced in tone and emotion exactly what I had experienced on the Cape Cod beach or in my room after the prayer meeting, I suspect I would have become a Muslim or a Buddhist instead, simply because the understanding of God whirling around me would have been Muslim or Buddhist.  This is not to say that the reality of God is subjective, only that our experience of him (her? it?) is.  But for all that, John Donne and Rumi seem to speak an eerily similar language.  The observations and expressions of the great mystics of the major faith traditions possess a striking similarity, a mutual resonance that tells me what they have experienced is that same ineffable Something we call God.

I hope and pray that one day my sons will experience that Something themselves.  Perhaps they have already and have not known what to name him, despite all my efforts to give them a vocabulary by which to do so.  Be that as it may, I know it is not something I can give them.  They must encounter it themselves.  Perhaps one day, once they have, the words that I have spoken about it, the efforts I have made to live into it, will begin to make sense to them.

I can only hope.  It would be such a sad thing, to live without the vision it brings.



    

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Beware Your Own Myth

When I was in my late 20s and early 30s, I taught math and coached track at a boarding school for "motivationally challenged" boys.  I was an intense and quiet person then, opinionated, and forceful in the expression of those opinions when asked, but not very talkative.  Generally, my students considered me a soft touch.  When asked which teacher they would want to have to face were they ever in deep trouble, the answer was usually, "Mr. Currier."  The faculty, on the other hand, apparently thought of me as aloof, even arrogant, though I was completely ignorant of this until some years later, when a former faculty member shared this with my wife.  My colleague had no reason to slam me or be less than honest.  We had had a good, collegial relationship, so I trusted her observations.  My wife confirmed that some of her own friends had had the same impression.

Hearing all this left me stunned and bewildered, because it wasn't how I conceived myself, nor was it how those closest to me viewed me.  I had assumed that, in the adult world, my self-conception was what others would perceive about me, but that was not, in fact, the case.

I have come to realize since then that living from the inside out, as we all do, limits our vision and warps our self-understanding.  This is not to say that those who stand outside our mind's eye are any more accurate than we are in developing a full picture of who we are.  Far from it.  Looking from the outside in has its own limitations, many of them quite constraining (stereotyping, projection, etc.).  Nonetheless, a perceptive friend or colleague is often much more aware of how we interact with the world and the impact we make on those around us than we ourselves are. Some of us listen thoughtfully to their observations and revise our self-understanding in light of the assessment of those we trust.  Many more of us, I suspect, persist in our delusions about who and what we are.

Over time our self-perceptions, however inaccurate, build themselves into a history that tells the story of our pilgrimage through life.  The older I get, the more history I accumulate, the more aware I become of how prone we are to "editing" those histories.  We are convinced, usually, that our memories ensure a reasonable facsimile of the truth of our stories, whatever the limits of our perception.  But memory is a very slippery thing.

Most of us understand our memories to be something like a digital recorder that has the bad habit of dropping files, leaving gaps in the data.  Nonetheless, we usually assume that what our memories retain is basically accurate.  Contemporary memory studies, however, have shown that it is a much trickier and less reliable tool in recording the past than we think.  We often unconsciously edit what we remember, bleeping out what might cast us in an unfavorable light or what causes us the deepest pain.  Sometimes we fill in the blank spots with material that never existed.  Our minds work to construct a coherent narrative that makes sense, even if it does not correspond to what actually happened.   The discovery of false memory syndrome and documentary films such as "Thin Blue Line", which, along with the use of DNA testing, have called into question the reliability of eyewitness testimony, have given us reason to doubt the veracity of any history we construct.  Indeed, anyone who has ever sat down at a family reunion to swap stories has had a hint of how prone we are to self-delusion when a sibling or a parent interrupts our story to say, "Hey wait!  That wasn't how it happened.  Here's what I remember!"

The limits of our self-perception and the unreliability of our memories have convinced me that our self-constructed histories, the stories we tell ourselves about who and what we are, are not "the truth" about us in any objective or empirical sense.

This is a disturbing notion. It compels one to ask, "Who am I then?  If not who my memory and my sense of self tell me I am, then who?"  It casts doubt on all our perceptions, not just our self-perception.  If I cannot perceive the real me, how can I hope to perceive the real in anything?  Perhaps everything I experience is nothing more than illusion, an elaborately constructed myth that lends coherence and meaning, but nonetheless bears little correspondence to the world as it truly is.

I believe that God has created me as a unique and precious expression of his own "image."  In my capacity to love and to create, I reflect that image in my own peculiar way.  But my awareness of what this way truly is is skewed and darkened.  When St. Paul wrote that now we see in a mirror "dimly" (I Cor. 13:12, NRSV)-- or, more literally, "in a riddle" (en ainigmati) --I suspect this is what he had in mind.  He was aware that his own perceptions, as profound as they were, still lacked a fullness and maturity, that in some way they still represented "childish things."  He longed to know both himself and the world as God knew them and to be known by others as God knew him.  He recognized the provisional quality, the incompleteness, of his vision.  And yet he was so entranced by the riddle, so captivated by intimations of its solution, that he could not abandon the pursuit of a fuller, truer vision of "the Real", which he saw in Christ, the fullest embodiment of God's image ever to grace the cosmos.

Friday, November 18, 2011

In Praise of Inauthenticity

A priest I know once talked at length in a seminarian supervisors' group session about his desire to be "authentic."  Since the 1960s, the word "authentic" has been used frequently in religious circles (and elsewhere) to describe someone whose way of life has integrity, who is genuine and honest.  Authenticity is a lofty goal, but one I know we cannot meet, and so I challenged him on it.

I told a story once related to me by an older priest, who had attended a lecture on the Nicene Creed by an elderly patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church "back in the day," as the "authenticity movement" was just taking root.  When the good bishop had finished his lecture, he fielded questions from his audience.  A seminarian stood up and said he did not think he could say the Creed with any real "authenticity" because it was so full of mythological imagery, including doctrinal statements about the virgin birth of Jesus he could not possibly recognize as true in any objective, empirical sense.  The patriarch stared at him over his glasses in silence for a few moments and then said slowly, "Young man, this creed represents the accumulated wisdom of the Church.  It took nearly three hundred years to formulate and has been reaffirmed by the Church again and again over more than sixteen hundred years of subsequent history.  Who are you to set your understanding above it?  Far greater minds and hearts than yours or mine have wrestled with it and been shaped by it.  As a representative of the Church, it is not for you to set it aside.  You may struggle with it all you like, that is a good thing, but you must not toss it aside in the name of some imagined 'authenticity'.  You are not fully formed in Christ--none of us are--and therefore cannot describe yourself as 'authentic' in any true sense.  Rather, you need to say it every day as a prayer, in the hope that it will shape your mind and your heart, so that one day you will understand it as it is meant to be understood." 

My friend was, I think, a bit upset at me, judging from his expression.  He said that I had misunderstood him, that it wasn't that he did not recognize his present understandings as limited and still "in process", but that he wanted to be transparent, the kind of person who was true to his heart, and not some phony pretending to be someone he was not.  But his attempt at clarification did not turn away my objection.  I wondered aloud how anyone could be fully transparent, given the truth that most of us cannot see very clearly into our own hearts.  I could not help remembering Jeremiah's lament, "The human heart is deceitful above any other thing, desperately sick; who can fathom it?"  (Jeremiah 17:9, REB)  I said I did not know who I was, really, "authentically".  I knew I was in the process of becoming someone, someone whom I prayed would be conformed to the image of Christ, but the fulfillment of that longing only would come with the fullness of time.  As the old patriarch no doubt would have affirmed, it was that person, and not the person I was now, that I should understand to be the authentic Jonathan. 

This did not sit well either.  In hindsight, I think I should have more clearly acknowledged the validity of wanting to be transparent and genuine.  It is something we all long for and a noble aspiration.  And it is our destiny, if we are true to our calling and forge ahead in our pilgrimage, trusting the Lord will lead us in the way.  Paul gives voice to this yearning with great eloquence, most especially in I Corinthians 13: "For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.  Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I am fully known."  We long to have the fig leaves of Adam and Eve stripped away, to know the perfect intimacy of Eden before the Fall.  But the road is long before that joy becomes ours once again.  It demands an arduous trek through a desert land, a confrontation with the sin that has made it impossible to know ourselves or one another fully, and a deep supply of grace.

What's more, pushing to reveal too much of ourselves can backfire, precisely because we are, in the world as it stands, prone to disharmony, unable to enter fully into oneanother's hearts.  Misunderstanding and hard feelings easily undermine a relationship when opinions and perspectives are shared that may be upsetting or off-putting.  Yes, honesty about our own struggles with sin and relationships can help in developing personal connections because it makes clear we know the burden of being human--we can "relate"--but we had best be judicious in what we choose to share and what we don't... and with whom.  Our sense of community is always tenuous and provisional, this side of the Kingdom, and what little we do have is, in part, based on a kind of studied ignorance, a willingness to look away from those things that would divide us and fix our gaze upon those things that unite us.  Too much information can kill a good thing.  I do not want to know too much about the self-doubts and late-night anguish of my president or bishop.  I do not want to know too much about the political biases and animosities of my parishioners.  I do not want to know too much about the sex life and fantasies of my parents or my children.  Let me keep some of my illusions.  I need them.  They lend me a kind of stability, a stability I need to move forward and not fall into despair.  God knows I have enough trouble struggling with my own inner demons, let alone those of others.

So yes, spare me the fully authentic.  Inauthenticity, in judicious, well measured portions, is good for me.  Paradoxically, it is the very thing that gives me the strength and courage to carry on, a peculiar, inverted grace that makes it possible for me to work toward the authentic.  I cannot bare myself and become too naked too soon, or I will perish in the fiercely cold and unforgiving winds of a hostile world utterly unlike the warm and open paradise of Eden.