Archive for the 'Spirituality' Category

Salesian Method of Meditation

Francis de Sales (1567―1622)

Francis de Sales (1567―1622)

Salesian Method of Meditation

Prayer vs. Meditation vs. Contemplation

Prayer, meditation, and contemplation may be defined many ways. In part the definition chosen depends upon who is rendering it, and to what end. For the purposes of this essay, below I offer a working definition of these terms, allowing us to open a discussion concerning Salesian meditation.

There are many kinds of prayer, including: liturgic prayers one chants or says in unison with others during a period of worship; ritual or formal public prayers recited before a meal or meeting or event; sets of formal prayers one may chant or read privately or in a small group; and prayers one might say privately.

One of the shared characteristics of each of the above forms of prayer is they are linguistic in nature: these prayers are composed of words stated or read, aloud or silently. They may be composed contemporaneously (off-the-cuff; unplanned) or formally. They may be private or they may serve a ritual or liturgical function. But they are all linguistic constructs: words.

Sidebar: Words are symbolic constructs, serving as pointers to that which they describe: they are not the object being described. As obvious as this sounds, we frequently forget this in our daily dealings with one another through language. There is always some distance between our interior, subjective world and everything/everyone else. That which connects our interior world to the perceived exterior world is rendered to us both neuro-linguistically and psychologically; and I would argue energetically and spiritually as well. One reason persons may engage in prayer, meditation, and contemplation is to short-circuit this interior/exterior mode of perception, in an attempt to enter direct interior perception ―apperception [1], is more accurate― of the sacred More.

Prayer may be directed outward (a shared public event) or be directed inward (a private event). Meditation on the other hand is an inward directed event.

As an exception to this one might cite guided meditation, in which one person leads others through a meditation. But even in such cases the goal is frequently to train the individuals comprising the group how to conduct their own private meditations at a later date, or to facilitate a meditative technique from which they might continue to benefit in private. Thus, one may argue this is a primarily a means of teaching meditation, not meditation itself.

Furthermore, prayer and meditation are similar to one another in that they each behold an object of attention: that upon which one is focusing. In prayer this is typically a linguistic event. Meditation too may be a linguistic event (repeatedly chanting a verse or mantra), but it may also be a visual (watching a flame, staring into a mandala, or imagining a symbol, such as the Sacred Heart) or sensory event (awareness of one’s breath), or an emotional event (feeling peacefulness or love), or any other event one may imagine.

When meditating, we are focusing our attention upon something, be that a word, a phrase, an image, a scene, another sensory-based experience, or an emotion. The intent is to focus our attention on this object, at the exclusion of all other objects of sensory or cognitive input competing for our attention. This is a kataphatic process ―a state of fullness― an imaginal process in which we are actively engaging and populating our attention.

Contemplation on the other hand is an apophatic state in which we seek emptiness, or the cessation of cognition and awareness. Achieving emptiness is challenging, to say the least. There always seems to be some aspect of the mind which must chatter! Buddhist mediators I’ve read often refer to this as the monkey mind.

Mystics and other contemplatives indicate there is little an individual may do to intentionally bring about an apophatic ―empty― state upon command. Their best counsel is to prepare oneself for the occasion of achieving emptiness, usually through periods of prayer and/or meditation, which are frequently seen as precursors, or means of training, for encountering a contemplative event.

In describing contemplation, I use words such as “event” and “occasion” deliberately. My intention is to suggest the cultivation of a contemplative state yields a rare fruit, short in duration. Often the very onset of the event may itself be sufficient to bring about its conclusion. Such has been my own experience at any rate, and it is one frequently attested to in writings of mystics. One author said he looks for these brief moments of emptiness in the gaps between his train of thoughts; in those brief silences between the near-constant chattering of the monkey mind.

With the foregoing in mind, we will recognize that the Salesian method of meditation is part prayer and part meditation. It will also be self-evident that Salesian meditation is a kataphatic process, deliberately engaging the imagination.

Salesian Method of Meditation

First I am going to offer an outline of the Salesian method of meditation. Then I will explore certain elements of this method, with the hope of highlighting some of what I see at play in this meditative method.

Francis de Sales (1567―1622) was a Roman Catholic bishop and spiritual director who “was not overly concerned for the etiquette of piety, but in offering a way for souls to find union with God” [2] and is best known for his book, Introduction to the Devout Life which was “written for laity and teaches a simple form of meditation known as the Salesian method [which] is sometimes taught in the Episcopal Church as the way to meditate.” [3]

When broken down into five (5) steps, the Salesian method of meditation may be summarized as follows:

  1. Preparation
    • Place yourself in the presence of God.
    • Pray for assistance.
    • Compose the place (i.e. imagine a scene from the life of Jesus).
  2. Considerations: identify those images in the scene that affect you.
  3. Affections and Resolutions: convert feelings into understanding and then resolutions (acts of the will).
  4. Conclusion
    • Thanksgiving.
    • Oblation or offering of the results of the meditation.
    • Petition to fulfill in your life this day its insights.
    • The Spiritual Nosegay: that which we carry through the day from the meditation.
  5. The “spiritual nosegay,” which is a distinctive mark of Salesian meditation, is a clue to Francis de Sales’ spirituality. A nosegay is a little bunch of sweet-smelling flowers that ladies and gentlemen of the period carried with them when they went outdoors, so they could travel without being overcome by the stench of the open sewers that commonly ran along the streets of European cities. [4]

I invite you to spend a few minutes walking through each of these five steps ― imagine how you might engage this process. How do you enter the state? To what end? What might be among the (beneficial) outcomes? What might this meditative process look like? Feel like? How might we more fully engage our senses? (And ought we?) Do you imagine any benefits may derive from such a practice?

Transformative Flow of the Salesian Meditation

Before going into greater detail, I wish to direct your attention to the broad outline of the transformative flow taking place within the Salesian meditation:

  1. Preparation: Visual Imagery (Anchor/Trigger)
  2. Considerations: Emotional Upwelling (Response from our Unconscious)
  3. Affections and Resolutions: Rational-Thinking (Formulating a Plan of Action/Exertion of Will)
  4. Affections and Resolutions: Action-Behavioral Modification (Adoption of New Behavior/Overlaying Old Behavior)

A similar pattern is repeated, in condensed form, throughout the Conclusion:

  1. Thanksgiving: Emotional Upwelling
  2. Oblation: Emotional Upwelling
  3. Petition: Rational-Thinking
  4. Petition: Action-Behavioral Modification
  5. Spiritual Nosegay: Emotional Nosegay & Behavioral Modification

Thus, we are engaging a specific physical and mental state through imaginal entry into a visual scene (other modalities could be used, but most of us are highly visual, so it is a very good general approach to ushering us into the desired, impressionable state).

One inside this imaginal scene, we seek an emotional response, upwelling from our unconscious. Once we have had this experience, we seek to engage our analytical process to ascertain a moral lesson which may be derived from the emotionally charged scene. While in this emotionally charged state, we imagine applying the moral lesson in our own lives. We commit to doing so, setting our will upon doing so.

We then carry a “spiritual nosegay” with us throughout our day, in an attempt to maintain this disposition; a reminder and aromatic trigger (metaphorically speaking) of our desired behavior change.

Entering the Salesian Meditation

Preparation

Preparation begins by adopting a mental attitude or state which will be conducive to our entering into a meditative state. I specifically read this in the first two steps, of (1) placing ourselves in the presence of God; and (2) praying for assistance.

  • Place yourself in the presence of God.

I read this as occupying a physical space in which I have made it my habit to meditate. This may be a dedicated space, indoors or outdoors, although if outdoors the variation in weather and season must be taken into consideration when preparing the site.

I would also associate the specific anchoring of triggers [5] with my physical space which signal that I am about to intentionally enter a sacred space. Such items traditionally include icons, the lighting of candles, and the burning of incense. Gentle music, chimes, or sounds of nature may also be signaling triggers.

Some may find it helpful to ask the Holy Spirit to direct the prayer (Romans 8:26 NRSV “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes [for us] with sighs too deep for words.”)

  • Pray for assistance.

Praying is the trigger that signals I am now operating within the sacred space. One of my first intentional acts is to cross myself (touching one’s fingers to the forehead, drawing a downward stroke to one’s solar plexus, and then from shoulder to shoulder, touching the heart at each passing).

As one may imagine, there are a host of possible triggers when praying: physical position, posture, attitude, adoption of specific verbal cadence (chanting, singing), and the specific texts employed, just to name a few. The more frequently one uses these specific anchors/triggers in one’s prayerful meditation, the more strongly they will become linked to the resulting physical, mental, and emotional state [6], thus proving increasingly effective over time.

  • Compose the place (i.e. imagine a scene from the life of Jesus).

Now that one has adopted the state one wishes to enter, one composes the object of one’s meditation. The example given is to imagine a scene from the life of Jesus; but any biblical scene may be employed, as may any church tradition which one finds suitably moving (perhaps an event from the life of a saint, for example).

Considerations

  • Identify those images in the scene that affect you.

We now enter into the scene we have created. The point is to live this as vividly as we may, to make the experience of the imagination as real as possible by smelling, hearing, touching, seeing, and tasting it. But do not overlook additional senses such as equilibrioception (sense of balance), proprioception (the perception of one’s body in space or the body’s position), or thermoception (sense of heat).

Having entered into the scene, we monitor our response to the scene in which we are immersed. We are seeking that which provokes in us a strong emotional reaction. These strong emotions, and that which induces them, we will carry into the next step.

Affections and Resolutions

  • Convert feelings into (1) understanding, and then into (2) resolutions (acts of the will).

(1) Understanding

I read the identification of the strong feeling, as a signal that something in my unconscious is responding to that element of the scene. And because it is my belief that the unconscious is one of the best avenues for the sacred More (Divine; God; Immanent aspect of the Transcendent) to flow into my awareness and experience, I am especially interested in accessing these unconscious objects as directly as I may.

Thus, as the emotion is triggered from within me, I note that with which I associate the emotion, or that which triggered the rising of the emotion. Once I have that scene, event, symbol, or whatever it may be, before my mind’s eye, I evaluate it: what is it? what is it trying to tell me, or show me?

Where this may begin as an unknown, as I inspect it (imagining my senses all reaching out to it, grasping it, listening to it, smelling it, tasting it, watching for any changes) I am awaiting some depth of understanding or apprehension to come to mind. At some point my interaction with this imaginal object (be that “object” of the imagination a person, symbol, experience, etc), it will give rise to some form of understanding or apprehension.

(2) Resolutions (acts of the will)

Once I have come to an understanding/apprehension prompted by the meditative scene, I am to make a resolution. The point of this meditation is to identify an act that I may carry out in my normal waking life. Many scenes from the life of Jesus may call me to show greater compassion to others, for example, or to take real steps to correct an injustice taking place in my community (be that in the church or city council).

Other scenes may call me to begin an internal transformation of character (to be more forgiving, less quick to anger, more generous, etc). Transformation of both self and community are part and parcel of the authentic Christian spiritual experience. Both are important, and one supports the other.

Conclusion

Our meditation concludes by offering thanks, both generally to the Transcendent More (God) and specifically for the fruit of the meditation, and by asking for the wherewithal to carry out our resolution.

  • Thanksgiving

This is the general offering of thanksgiving to the Transcendent More (God), in whatever way we apprehend that More. Praise and blessing are preferred responses to the sacred More; holding affection and joy in your heart for creation and creatures.

Psychologically, this is akin to positive reinforcement. We wish to exit our meditation with a positive and uplifting feeling. The meditation should become a form of nourishment for us. Adopting a state of positive appreciation affects us in this manner.

  • Oblation or offering of the results of the meditation.

This too is a form of thanksgiving. We thank the sacred More that has visited us with the gift of insight for the fruit of this meditation. We are blessed by the fruit of our meditation, and we offer as blessing those fruits we have been granted.

Psychologically, this establishes within us an environment of bounty and thankfulness. We are cultivating within ourselves this creative state of plenty, a cosmos built of and upon loving-kindness.

  • Petition to fulfill in your life this day its insights.

In our final petition to the sacred Transcendent More (God), we ask for the grace to stand by our resolution. We are fully invested and affirming that we will take positive steps to bring about our resolution (we are active), but we are also asking for the generous, compassionate support of the creative loving-kindness upon which/within which we are all swimming.

Spiritual Nosegay

  • The Spiritual Nosegay: that which we carry through the day from the meditation.

As a “little bunch of sweet-smelling flowers” or a perfumed handkerchief carried with us, provides around us a pleasing aroma wherever we travel, so too the fruits of our meditation ought to provide us with a sweet-smelling disposition toward the world and all persons  (this includes ourselves).

This may play a role in the process of theosis [7] ― we seek to carry with us throughout our day, a sweet-smelling spiritual nosegay, to refresh us, to inspire us, to help us dwell in our experience of our mediation all day. Where the mind dwells the body will follow. If we wish to transform into more compassionate, loving persons, therein our thoughts must reside.

Sidebar: While Roger Ray only briefly mentions Salesian meditation, for those interested in reading a simple, down to earth introduction to the basic stages of spirituality, from a Christian perspective, I recommend Ray’s short book, “Christian Wisdom for Today: Three Classic Stages of Spirituality” (St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 1999).

May God be gracious to us, and bless us, and make his face to shine upon us.
― Ps. 67:1

Erik+

Footnotes:

[1] APPERCEPTION:

  • Merriam-Webster On-line:
    1. : introspective self-consciousness
    2. : mental perception; especially : the process of understanding something perceived in terms of previous experience
  • Wikipedia On-line: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apperception
    • Apperception (from the Latin ad-, “to, toward” and percipere, “to perceive, gain, secure, learn, or feel”) is any of several aspects of perception and consciousness in such fields as psychology, philosophy and epistemology.

[2] Holmes III, Urban T.: “A History of Christian Spirituality: An Analytical Introduction” (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 2002) page 105.

[3] Holmes, pg. 106.

[4] Holmes, pg. 106.

[5] anchoring of triggers, Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP): “The process of associating an internal response with some external trigger (similar to classical conditioning) so that the response may be quickly, and sometimes covertly, reaccessed” (http://purenlp.com/textonly/glossry2.htm#anchor). We all have developed a multitude of triggers, some we intentionally establish, but most are unconsciously established. One of the practical benefits of utilizing NLP is to reprogram unconscious behavior, so we behave as we consciously choose, not as we unconsciously react. To persons interested in learning more about NLP, I commend “Frogs into Princes” by Bandler and Grinder (see below).

[6] state, Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP): “The total ongoing mental and physical conditions from which a person is acting” (http://purenlp.com/textonly/glossry2.htm#State).

[7] Theosis, “(‘deification,’ ‘divinization’) is the process of a worshiper becoming free of hamartía (‘missing the mark’), being united with God…” (Orthodoxwiki, on-line: http://orthodoxwiki.org/Theosis). I see this as the intentional process of trying to live our lives as if we were channels for the Christ to flow through us, into the world. I suspect this is a goal few will achieve; yet we are the better for striving for it. This is one of the most important reasons I take part in the sacrament of the Eucharist (Holy Communion).

On-line Resources:

Francis de Sales:

“Meditation and Contemplation – What is the Difference?” (Carmelite Sisters, on-line) http://www.carmelitesistersocd.com/2013/meditation-contemplation/

“Christian Meditation” (Wikipedia, on-line) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_meditation

“Christian Contemplation” (Wikipedia, on-line) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_contemplation

“The Cloud of Unknowing” (written by an anonymous author of the 14th century; widely available from many publishers; Christian Classics Ethereal Library: on-line, text or PDF) http://www.ccel.org/ccel/anonymous2/cloud.html.

“Linguistics” (Wikipedia, on-line) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linguistics

“Neurolinguistics” (Wikipedia, on-line) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neurolinguistics

“Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP)”

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Mysticism (on-line) http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/mysticism/

Theosis (Orthodoxwiki, on-line) http://orthodoxwiki.org/Theosis

Books:

“Christian Wisdom for Today: Three Classic Stages of Spirituality” (St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 1999) Roger L. Ray.

“The Cloud of Unknowing” (written by an anonymous author of the 14th century; widely available from many publishers).

“Frogs into Princes: Neuro Linguistic Programming” (Real People Press, 1979) by Richard Bandler and John Grinder.

“A History of Christian Spirituality: An Analytical Introduction” (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 2002) Urban T. Holmes, III.

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Belief & Faith

Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit

When speaking of belief and faith, I find our common understanding of these words has become impoverished, lacking vitality as compared to their older meanings found in the Christian New Testament. The words belief and faith carry an importance we ought to appreciate as Christians, if we are to come to a deeper understanding of our own sacred texts, so that we may taste the richness of scriptural language.

What do you imagine most people now mean when they speak of belief? Of faith?

In the vernacular of contemporary American English, belief and faith are closely related. Their primary difference is one of color, taste, or degree. In my experience belief holds wider use in secular (nonreligious) language and faith is more common to religious language. Also, so far as I am concerned, faith runs deeper than belief.

In its secular use, belief may identify a difference in degree of certainty: to say I believe the capital of Alaska is Juneau, means I am not 100% certain that is factual; if I tell someone I believe them, I am assuring them I assume they are telling me the truth (as they perceive it, of course). As Marcus Borg observes, “…knowing and believing are different. Believing is what you turn to when knowledge runs out.” [1]

In the religious context, belief carries a different connotation: affirming as true, that which one would otherwise not hold to be true, e.g. virgin birth (based upon a mistranslation and misreading of Isaiah 7:14 [2]), or that the earth was literally created in six days.

The assertion of a literal six-day creation also demonstrates a logical fallacy, in that one must willfully ignore that within the cosmogany [3] of Genesis itself, the sun and moon were created on the fourth day [4], and our measure of a day is dependent upon the earth’s rotation relative to the sun; thus, even within it’s own logical construct, Genesis cannot be understood literally. As with all mythology, it’s meaning runs far deeper than assertions concerning empirically demonstrable facts. Failing to appreciate the vitality of mythology is another impoverishment many (most?) in the modern age suffer.

Saying, “I believe you” does not carry the same conviction as saying, “I have faith in you.” Belief is directed toward an estimate of accuracy in data ―the known vs. the unknown― whereas faith is an estimation of a person’s intrinsic character or qualities.

Faith may also be understood as choosing to believe something as being true, which cannot be demonstrated to be true; or even choosing to believe a thing as being true, despite empirical evidence it is not true. One may choose to believe life has meaning beyond the physical; one may choose to believe there is a God; one may choose to believe Jesus was the son of God; one may choose to believe one is saved or redeemed. But none of these assertions may be empirically proved or disproved. This is why believing them requires a demonstration of faith.

Significant error creeps into our thinking when one confuses empirically demonstrable facts with claims of truth and perceptions of what one deems to be true. Simply put, facts and truth are not always the same things; many truths are imbued with an ineffable quality, or display a quality richer than that which may be measured.

For those interested in the topic of the meaning of Christian words, and how they have changed over the centuries, I commend to you Marcus Borg’s book “Speaking Christian.” I find Borg to be both an intelligent and caring person, able to convey refined details of theology from a scholars perspective, without losing touch with the heart of Christianity, which is love.

What the Christian New Testament attempts to convey when using faith

Faith, carries several simultaneous connotations: assensus, fidelitas, fiducia (Latin Vulgate translation of the New Testament). [5]

Assensus, we may translate as assent; however, until we appreciate the depth of meaning in the remaining terms, we miss the mark if assuming this simply means to believe things that a rational person cannot. But let us first visit fidelitas and fiducia, then return to assensus.

Fidelitas, means faith as faithfulness; fidelity. To help us better understand this kind of faith, Borg uses the example of fidelity in marriage, as one being faithful to the relationship with one’s spouse; not faithful to a set of logical statements concerning one’s spouse.

In the same way, fidelity to God is not about believing dogma or church traditions or even scripture; fidelity to God is being faithful to one’s relationship with God; intentionally and mindfully enriching our sense of relationship with that transcendent More, which Christians identify as God or Father.

One aspect of this, is deliberately, consciously living in the presence of the divine throughout our daily life, as best we are able. How do we do this? We start by being aware of each moment as it passes. We open ourselves to the possibility of feeling a Presence at any time. We look for opportunities to relate to others directly, with compassion, and to help them when we are able.

Why? Because “God” is not up in heaven somewhere, and “God” is not “out there” somewhere. Quite the opposite: it is we who are “in God” because we are immersed in the sacred More all the time, as is a fish in water. Sometimes we are aware of this; other times we forget or become distracted.

Fiducia, is faith as trust. Radical –as in fundamental, foundational– trust in one’s relationship with God; this is not trust in statements, or affirmations, or assertions about God. The root lies not in logical constructs, but in experiential relationship. Thus, the heart of faith as fiducia, is rooted in personal experience of the divine.

Sensing our personal experience of the divine, by the way, is one way to define mysticism. Fiducia is related to fidelitas (fidelity), because fidelity is expressed through our concern for others, daily moving through our life mindful of the possibility of encountering the divine, and specifically of encountering the divine in those we meet. Thus, faith as fidelity is rooted in experiencing life, as is fiducia, faith as trust in relationship.

And let us remember, our daily life is where we must “meet God” because that is where we find ourselves. It is like the old joke, everywhere you go, there you are. But so too, “God” the transcendent and immanent More in which we swim, and have our very be-ing-ness, is there with us.

Returning to assensus –“faith as believing something is true” [6]– I agree with Borg, that first and foremost, we are (as William James defined the Sacred) affirming there is a mysterious More which permeates the cosmos. And for me as a Christian, Jesus is the “decisive disclosure of the More,” [7] that in which “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Thus, as Christians we seek theosis [8] of the Christ living in, and through, us.

What the Christian New Testament attempts to convey when using belief

Belief, one may best read as beloved [9]. As used in the New Testament, the heart of its meaning is love; not assertion, nor affirmation, and certainly not as acknowledging empirically derived facts. Once one shifts one’s understanding of the word belief, to beloved, many passages in the New Testament take on a new life and vitality.

This brings to mind what for me is the most central aspect of the teaching of Jesus ― the Greatest Commandment:

Matthew 22:36-40 New International Version (NIV)

36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ [Deut. 6:5] 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ [Lev. 19:18] 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Speaking practically, what might one do to help encourage some experience of the divine, of “God” in one’s life?

Mindful, intentional, loving, engagement is the path many mystics cite when asked how one might draw oneself nearer an experience of the divine in one’s life. There are a number of ways one might begin one’s journey along this path. Among them are regularly praying and/or meditating, studying and/or contemplating scripture, and participating in the Eucharist.

Why pray? Why study scripture? Why attend Mass?

Each of these embeds one in the Mind of Christ, to some degree; to what depth changes with each person. Some respond more to prayer, some by immersing themselves in scripture, and others by partaking of Holy Communion. But in each case, the objective is to find a means of immersing oneself in maturing spiritual thought and maturing spiritual emotion.

I would make the point that both thought and emotion play important roles in acquiring the skill leading to one’s spiritual maturity. Each provides a measure of balance to the other. Without emotion one may become dry, empty husks merely spouting facts and figures which have been memorized. Where is the Spirit in this? Without thought, one is lost, awash in emotional turmoil, seething and reacting, but without guidance, lacking long-term goals and unable to direct one’s spiritual development. Where is the Spirit in this?

One prays, studies scripture, and partakes of Holy Communion because the more one does so, the more one embeds oneself in the process of forming in oneself the Mind of Christ. As one dwells more frequently in this mode of thought and experience, one more frequently views one’s view daily interactions and internal dialogue through this spiritual lens. One becomes more mindful of one’s presence, that of others, and ultimately of the More, to which we all aspire.

All of these are means of transforming oneself into the type of person one wishes to become. As one increasingly finds one dwells in this state of mind, one increasingly has an effect upon others. Thus transformation of self, overflows into transformation of community, which over time creates a feedback, in which one is more spiritually nourished by one’s community; and as one better nourishes other members of one’s community, the cycle of spiritual generation continues. Where the Heart and Mind leads, the body will follow.

John 3:16, For God so loved the world…

With all the above in mind, I wish to offer two translations of John 3:16 for your consideration. The first is the King Jame’s Version, and the second a translation done by Marcus Borg. I invite you to compare these versions of John 3:16 and ask yourself which version better promotes the mature psychological and spiritual thinking of Unity Consciousness; that of putting on the Mind of Christ.

For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son
that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish
but have everlasting life.
[John 3:16 KJV]

For God so loved the world that God gave the only beloved Son of God
that whosoever beloves him shall not perish
but experience the life of the age to come in the here and now.
[John 3:16 translation by Marcus Borg][10]

As you come to the end of this essay, I encourage you to read Marcus Borg’s short sermon, “What is Faith?” upon which this essay is based. I find his thoughts on this topic insightful, and I believe you will as well:

Marcus Borg’s Lenten Homily http://www.explorefaith.org/LentenHomily03.16.01.html

May the Lord bless and keep you,
Erik+

Footnotes:

[1] Marcus J. Borg, “Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power ― And How They Can Be Restored” (New York: HarperCollins, 2011) 116.

[2] Isaiah 7:14 is typically taken out of context when quoted by Christians in the defense of Jesus’ virgin birth; few who read it are aware the Hebrew word used is Almah, which carries a range of meanings: girl; maid; maiden; young woman, and virgin. Almah is indeed translated as virgin in the Greek Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Bible (from which the author of Matthew drew their reference). However, this is obviously a mistaken interpretation when read in context; read Isaiah 7:10-17 for yourself: “Isaiah Gives Ahaz the Sign of Immanuel”… 10 Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, 11 Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. 12 But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test. 13 Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? 14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman [Greek, the virgin] is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel [God is with us]. 15 He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. 16 For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted. 17 The Lord will bring on you and on your people and on your ancestral house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria.” (NRSV) Basically, this passage is a prophecy that the current siege shall be lifted after the young woman gives birth, and that king Ahaz will not be defeated by these two kings, as he fears. It has nothing to do with Jesus’ virgin birth (although in the ancient literature of many cultures, accounts of virgin births are mythic/legendary elements often employed to raise the status of those to whom they are directed: Krishna (India); Horus (Egypt); Lao-Tsze (China); even Plato (Athens); as well as, Dionysus, Buddha, Zoroaster, and of course Jesus). This is not to imply that virgin births are not important, but they are not to be understood literally either.

[3]Cosmogany: a theory or story of the origin and development of the universe, the solar system, or the earth-moon system (http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/Cosmogony).

[4] Genesis 1:14-19. The fourth day.

[5] Marcus J. Borg, “What is Faith?” (Memphis, TN: Lenten Homily, 2001) http://www.explorefaith.org/LentenHomily03.16.01.html

[6] Borg, “What is Faith?”

[7] Borg, “What is Faith?”

[8] “Theosis literally means to become gods by Grace. The Biblical words that are synonymous and descriptive of Theosis are: adoption, redemption, inheritance, glorification, holiness and perfection. Theosis is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit, whereby through Grace one becomes a participant in the Kingdom of God. Theosis is an act of the uncreated and infinite love of God. It begins here in time and space, but it is not static or complete, and is an open-ended progression uninterrupted through all eternity.” Archimandrite George, Abbot of the Holy Monastery of St. Gregorios, Mount Athos “Theosis: The True Purpose of Human Life” (Mount Athos, Greece: 2006) page 86.

[9] Borg, “What is Faith?”

[10] Borg, “What is Faith?”

Resources:

Books:

Borg, Marcus J.:

“The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith”

“Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power ― And How They Can Be Restored”

Ehrman, Bart D.: “Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew”

James, William : “Varieties of Religious Experience, a Study in Human Nature”

Online:

Borg, Marcus J.: Lenten Homily, “What is Faith?” (Memphis, TN: 2001) http://www.explorefaith.org/LentenHomily03.16.01.html

Archimandrite George, Abbot of the Holy Monastery of St. Gregorios, Mount Athos “Theosis: The True Purpose of Human Life” (Mount Athos, Greece: 2006) http://orthodoxinfo.com/general/theosis.aspx (http://orthodoxinfo.com/general/theosis-english.pdf)

Putting on the Mind of Christ ― Levels of Human Consciousness (Introduction)

St. John's Ashfield, StainedGlass of Jesus as the Good Shepherd (cropped to portrait)

St. John’s Ashfield, StainedGlass of Jesus as the Good Shepherd (cropped to portrait)

Putting on the Mind of Christ ― Levels of Human Consciousness (Introduction)

Putting on the mind of Christ is an analogy Paul uses to encourage us to create in ourselves the same manner of looking at the world, and of relating to our fellow humankind, as did Jesus.

The change which Paul is encouraging us to embrace runs extremely deep, he in fact, wishes for us to assume the very mind of the Christ; which in our modern language, we may read as learning to evolve our own psychological and spiritual growth to the same degree as did Jesus.

Let the same mind be in you that you have in Christ Jesus.
Philippians 2:5 (NRSV)

We have the mind of Christ.
1 Corinthians 2:16 (NRSV)

But is this feasible? The author of John thought so:

John 17:21-ff  (NRSV)

Jesus Prays for His Disciples

“As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be one in us…. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one….

“Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

[Note: In John, when we read “glory” we ought to envision an image of divine Presence; this Light shines through us, to others; by example, by our way of living, by our treatment of others; it is a metaphor for a hierophany (a revelation of the sacred) which calls us to develop the highest level of psychological and spiritual wholeness and health. In the passage above, Jesus extends the metaphor to say that God the Father, Jesus, and the divine Love of God the Father lives in each of us; and importantly, all are One (Unity Consciousness). EW]

Developing a Background for the Exploration of Spiritual Maturation

In his book “Putting on the Mind of Christ” Jim Marion uses the work of persons such as James Fowler (“Stages of Faith”) and Ken Wilber (“Integral Spirituality”) as jumping off points to explore his own spiritual journey and maturation. Marion’s exploration of human consciousness ―beginning with his own― is seen as a process of spiritual evolution, in which we all play our own role; we may each do so either mindfully aware, or blind and deaf to that which Jesus seeks to enlighten us.

I find this process suggests a fascinating way of discovering, and better understanding, our own spirituality, and its development as a natural process. Equally fascinating to me is viewing our individual ―and communal― spiritual development as a means of understanding the role of Spirit as an evolutionary force that is woven into the very fabric of the cosmos (a tenet of Process Theology, which in itself is a means of better understanding what Paul Tillich tries to convey in his discussions of God as the Ground of Being). While this sounds outlandish, there are quantum physicists who suggest this may a reasonable hypothesis, including David Bohm (1917-1972).

  • Sidebar: Bohm’s intriguing contributions include: quantum theory, neuropsychology, philosophy of mind, implicate and explicate order, the holonomic model of the brain; his books include: “Quantum Theory,” “Thought as a System,” “The Undivided Universe,” “Wholeness and the Implicate Order”.

But first, we must understand there are various levels ―or stages― of human consciousness. As we will see, some of these stages all healthy adults process through as a result of their natural psychological development; but not everyone is equipped to attain the later stages of human consciousness; certainly not without consistent, mindful effort.

Second, we must view the evolution of the human species from the perspective of the predominate level of human consciousness presenting at different stages of human culture. This is a means of characterizing the average level of consciousness development in human cultures through history; the predominate consciousness during the Stone Age is not the same as during the Middle Ages, which is not the same as in the developed world of the 21st century of the Common Era.

This is to say that once we come to understand the development of consciousness in individuals, we are then able to see that human culture is itself a reflection of the level of consciousness held by the majority of persons at that time (or of those persons holding power). This also offers a means of understanding the literary arch of biblical scripture. However, this is not a topic widely discussed, so it is a perspective of which a great many persons remain unaware (if this sounds interesting, you may wish to watch the sermon given by bishop Spong, listed in the references below).

As one might expect, this is a very complex topic which I cannot hope to fully develop in one essay (dozens if not hundreds of books have been written exploring these matters). I will however, examine these topics in a series of essays.

For further study I would direct those interested in this subject to the references I have listed at the conclusion of this essay. The primary topics include process theology and the various levels of consciousness of the human personality. I will begin my discussion with a brief introduction to the later, largely adopting the framework of Marion’s work (who in turn, adopts the framework of those authors he most respects).

Similarities Observed in Maturing Levels of Consciousness

As we begin to learn about the various levels of consciousness, it may initially seem confusing. For this reason I thought I’d begin by briefly introducing similarities shared by all of the levels of human consciousness, specifically from the point of view of the process of consciousness maturation. In his book “Putting on the Mind of Christ” Jim Marion identifies four traits shared by those maturing in consciousness, regardless of their predominate level of consciousness (“Putting on the Mind of Christ” pg. 34):

 

  • All growth in consciousness is a process of inner realization.
  • All inner realizations are the result of personal experience “meditated upon” in some fashion.
  • All growth in consciousness is a lessening of self-centeredness, a “death” to the old self-centered way of looking at the world and a simultaneous “rebirth” into a less self-centered way of seeing things.
  • As a person’s consciousness goes up the spiritual ladder from level to level, the person’s consciousness becomes less and less attached to (i.e., stuck in or define by) physical matter.

 

When we consider human societies as a whole, we note another common thread shared by them all: the predominate level of consciousness present in a society impacts and limits the thoughts, goals, and behaviors of members of that society. Thus, human societies reflect the average level of consciousness of the society; or at least of those who dominate and rule the society (a behavior which by definition, is a trait only displayed by lower consciousness societies). Thus we may observe, the vast majority of human societies have been inhabiting the lower levels of human consciousness development throughout recorded history.

Persons of significantly lower or higher levels of consciousness (as compared to the average level of consciousness found within that society) tend to be marginalized. Furthermore, it is always easier for a society to backslide to a lower level of consciousness, and much more difficult to evolve into a higher level of consciousness. So while we do see growth over time, it is slow and halting, and more easily stymied than stimulated toward progress.

Levels of Consciousness of the Human Personality

Viewed broadly, certain levels of human consciousness are typical of youth, and others are typical of adults who have begun the process of spiritual maturation. All developmental levels are vital to us as individuals. It is important we recognize these developmental phases are necessary and desirable stages of psychic development in each of us.

Indeed, we do not skip levels of consciousness, but rather grow and mature from one level toward another, and later to another. As we move from one level of consciousness to the next, there are varying degrees of overlap between them during our transition. Our understanding and perception of the world typically changes slowly, by degree. We see this both in the individual, and in human cultural evolution over thousands of years.

Thus, when we are dealing with a person who inhabits an earlier level of consciousness than our own, we must remind ourselves we too matured through that level, and that we benefited from our experiences within that level of consciousness; just as is the person with whom we are dealing. We may now observe certain limitations in that earlier level of consciousness, but the other person may not yet be able to do so. This is simply because our capacity for perception is radically different from one level of consciousness to another; certain insights are occluded to those of younger development.

The following are the identified levels of consciousness of the human personality which I will discuss in future essays:

  • Youth Stages:
    • Archaic Consciousness of the Infant
    • Magical Consciousness of Children
    • Mythic Consciousness of the Pre-adolescent (1st Mental Level)
  • Adult Stages:
    • Rational Consciousness (2nd Mental Level)
    • Vision-Logic Consciousness (3rd Mental Level)
    • Psychic Consciousness
    • The Dark Night of the Senses
    • Subtle Consciousness.

May you be blessed with an increasing experience of connection with the Holy Spirit within,

Erik+

Resources:

My Other Essays:

Stages of Faith – Introduction (March 2013)
Stages of Faith – Intro to James W. Fowler (May 2013)
Stages of Faith – Intro to M. Scott Peck (May 2013)
Stages of Faith – James W.Fowler: Approximate Ages During Stages (June 2013)
Stages of Faith – Miller’s Four Floors of Consciousness (June 2013)

Videos:

Miller, Ron: Nine Talks from the Theosophical Society
http://www.ronmillersworld.org/updates/eight-talks-from-the-theosophical-society/

Spong, John Shelby: “Bishop John Shelby Spong ‘From a Tribal God to a Universal Presence: The Story Of The Bible'”

Books:

Bohm, David:

“Thought as a System”
“Quantum Theory”
“The Undivided Universe: An Ontological Interpretation of Quantum Theory”
“Wholeness and the Implicate Order”

Artson, Bradley Shavit: “God of Becoming and Relationship: The Dynamic Nature of Process Theology”

Fowler, James: “Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning”

Marion, Jim: “Putting on the Mind of Christ: The Inner Work of Christian Spirituality”

Smith, Paul: “Integral Christianity: The Spirit’s Call to Evolve”

Talbot, Michael: “The Holographic Universe”

Whitehead, Alfred North: “Process and Reality” (Gifford Lectures Delivered in the University of Edinburgh, 1927-28)

Wilber, Ken: “Integral Spirituality: A Startling New Role for Religion in the Modern and Postmodern World”

Scriptural References:

Romans 12:2 (NRSV)

Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the good and acceptable and perfect will of God.

1 Corinthians 2:6-16 (NRSV)

The True Wisdom of God

Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written,

“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived,
what God has prepared for those who love him”―

these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For what human being knows what is truly human except the human spirit that is within? So also no one comprehends what is truly God’s except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. And we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual.

[or: …interpreting spiritual things in spiritual language].
[or: …comparing spiritual things with spiritual].

Those who are unspiritual [natural] do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. Those who are spiritual discern all things, and they are themselves subject to no one else’s scrutiny.

“For who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?”

But we have the mind of Christ.

Philippians 2:1-11 (NRSV)

Imitating Christ’s Humility

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that you have [or: was] in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

[Note: Here Paul is quoting an early Christian hymn or poem. Paul’s inclusion of this type of material offers us a glimpse of Christian thought from the 20 year gap between Jesus’ crucifixion and Paul’s writing (which is the earliest surviving Christian writing). EW]

Seeking the Face of Christ

Christ And The Two Marys by William Holman Hunt

Christ And The Two Marys by William Holman Hunt

 

Seeking the Face of Christ

 
While reading Celia Hales’ blog, “Miracles Each Day” (https://celiaelaine.wordpress.com/2014/12/19/seek-to-find-christs-face-and-look-on-nothing-else/) the following observation struck me as worthy of reflection:

“Until we see the face of Christ in all others, we are still in the learning stages. And often, even when we succeed briefly, we do not sustain this manner of looking. When we see Christ, we are being loving and forgiving.”

This strikes me as one example of what I imagine Paul may have been suggesting when advising us of the importance of putting on the mind of Christ.  In so doing, we are seeking to emulate the behaviors that Jesus modeled for us, and to live in such a manner as to encourage the Christ to flow into us, and through our thoughts, words, and deeds, into the world; thereby affecting others positively through the example of our lives.

Understood in this way, I believe putting on the mind of Christ is one aspect of the process of theosis.

  •      Theosis  ―  Deification;  divinization;  in Eastern Orthodox theology it is the process of coming into union (or oneness) with God;  “The Son of God became man, that we might become god”  (St. Athanasius of Alexandria).

I believe we Westerners often have great difficulty seeing through the lens of Eastern Orthodox Christianity.  In the above quote of St. Athanasius it is important to understand there is a difference in becoming God, and in becoming god:  the capital G God points to one meaning, and the lower case g god points to another.

The upper case God is the Uncreated;  that from which all that is created flows.  In the Christian tradition -both Eastern and Western- we perceive a line which cannot be crossed, between that which is Uncreated, and that which is created.

Henosis, in contrast, is the ancient Greek belief that one may literally be fully absorbed into God.  Therefore, using Christian terminology, henosis fails to make a distinction between the Uncreated and the created.

Eastern Orthodox Christianity appreciates there is a power or energy of God flowing from the Divine, into and through, all that is;  everything which exists, is caught up in the process of becoming or being, and does so as a result of being bathed-born of this energy flowing forth from the Divine/God.

There is a further subtly, in that there is both the potentiality to exist, and the actuality of existing.  Many things are possible;  some of these come into being.  This becoming is the the actuality of God ― the point at which a creature attains real-ness, as opposed to merely having a potential to become real.  The same may be said of atoms and rocks and suns.

This is how we see the cosmos itself as comprised of the Immanence of God.  The energy (Energeia) of God is sustaining the cosmos coming into existence as the actuality of God.  Were God *not* flowing into Time and Space, the cosmos would cease to exist.  Thus, the Immanence of God is the very fabric from which Time and Space is constructed.

Our solar system and planet may offer a useful analogy.  Energy flows from the sun, and this energy has the potential to sustain all manner of life on earth.  If the energy radiates out of the solar system, missing our planet, it’s life-giving sustenance may be said to have remained only in potential.  However, if the energy from the sun strikes earth, this potential blooms into life, and becomes the actuality of the sun on earth.

The energy of the sun (God) flows everywhere;  in some cases it also transforms into life, and becomes the actuality of the sun (God).

So, while we as creatures can never share the ontology (being-ness) of the Uncreated (we can never become the sun), we are living in the field of energy (sunlight) flowing forth from the Uncreated.

Perhaps this is what Paul Tillich had in mind when he spoke of God as the Ground of Being?  

The concept of God as the Ground of Being, I continue to find an awkward idea to wrap my mind around, but I suspect there is something to it.  It certainly better lends itself to the understanding of “God” as Transcendent, as well as panentheistic.

The pay-off is that a Transcendent, panentheistic God is the Immanence which sustains all of the cosmos, and without which/whom the cosmos would cease to exist (Hinduism and Buddhism have long held this view).  This is the aforementioned effect or “energy” of God within Time and Space.

But if we are to take panentheism seriously, there must be another aspect of the Divine which is outside of both Time and Space, which is totally alien to us.  We are creatures of Time and Space, so we cannot intellectually grasp what it means *not* to be of Time and Space.  Time and Space define everything we know and have the capacity to know.

However, I believe this is largely a mental-intellectual limitation.  If we reside only in our head, we cannot grasp God.  God must remain forever abstract, alien, and ultimately unknowable to us in any literal, logical sense.

In fact, every time we intellectually define God, we limit and diminish God.  We must do so, because we are taking what is Transcendent, and forcing it out of the Infinite, into a concept tiny enough for us to wrap our minds around.  This is seeing with our head.

But the mystics tell us we can learn to see with our heart.  They indicate we each possess some facility to sense there is something More beyond the confines of Time and Space.  This seems to be based in experience, is intuitive, and suggestive, and cannot be adequately described with words.  (Words are tools of symbolic logic, and therefore within the intellectual domain, not the domain of the heart experience.)

Becoming a lower case g, god

It is because we are living within the “energy” of God that we may aspire to become a lower-g god.  God is always everywhere, and God is always the center of the cosmos.  As the late Joseph Campbell observes:

God is a circle whose center is everywhere, whose circumference is nowhere.

Thus, God is anywhere we happen to be.  God’s Light, God’s Radiance, God’s Immanence, *is* the cosmos in which all the galaxies of the universe spin.  Thus, in a certain sense, we cannot help but be in the presence of God;  God is everywhere, always.

  •       God is always open to us.

The critical point is that we must open ourselves to God, so as to be able to perceive the Immanence of God.  But this does not normally happen spontaneously (although some report that it has);  typically, it requires that we change our perception through mindful attention and intention.

When religion is operating at its greatest spiritual potential, it helps open us to the Transcendent;  but when religion is made concrete and literal, it has the opposite effect, closing us to the Transcendent.

Living into the actuality of the Divine

Given that we are alive, we are already caught up in the actuality of God;  as with a fish living in the ocean, we cannot do otherwise.  But unlike the fish, we have the choice of living mindfully within this actuality, or of living our life in metaphoric darkness, unaware of, or denying, any connection to the Ground of Being.

With all of the above informing our thoughts, let us return to the observation made by Celia Hales:

“Until we see the face of Christ in all others, we are still in the learning stages. And often, even when we succeed briefly, we do not sustain this manner of looking. When we see Christ, we are being loving and forgiving.”

 

All of us are living within the actuality of God;  whether we know it or not.  Not only is the fish in the water, but the water is in the fish.  So when we look at another person, we should look for the Divine in them.  If we do not recognize the Divinity present in all persons ―and other creatures, for that matter― we are operating from a very young, early stage of faith, and we have a great deal more to learn about our spirituality.

As our spirit matures, and we become increasingly aware of the Divinity in others, at first we tend to do so only for short periods of time.  Life gets in the way, and we forget that we are all moving and living in the same God, sharing in the same Ground of Being.  Such is human nature.  Strive to do better, but do not beat yourself up unduly for simply being human.

With sustained observation, mindfulness, and practice, over time we will do better.  We do not physically or psychologically or emotionally mature over night.  So too with attaining greater spiritual maturity.  We are all works in progress.  But the work begins with mindfulness;  being present in each moment, and throughout our interactions with others.

Seeking the face of Christ

Where do we seek the face of Christ?  We seek the face of Christ in others!

When we are able to look into another person’s face, and see in them the Christ, we are able to recognize the Divinity living in each of us.  And seeing this, how can we fail to rise ourselves to a higher standard of living ―even if only briefly― and how can we fail to treat others with greater compassion and love (agápe)?

The more often we practice holding this vision of the Christ, the longer we will be able to retain it, the more easily it will return when disrupted, and the more deeply, and naturally it will become part of us.  All of this is related to the psychological and behavioral transformation of self.

Where do we seek the face of Christ?  We seek the face of Christ in ourselves!

This is why we strive for theosis, so that we may open ourselves to the in-flowing energy of the Christ, to first fill us, and then flow through us, into the world.  This is the process of conditioning ourselves to become beacons through which the Divine Light may illuminate the world.

Water, Light, Energy, the Christ, these are all metaphors which are designed to open us to some experience of the Transcendent in our lives;  hopefully, guiding us to engage in more compassionate dealings with ourselves and others.

And this is what takes place during the Eucharist.  We seek to open ourselves to the Divine, so that we may become entry points for the Divine into this world.  Ideally the in-flow of the  Christ energy takes place not only during the Eucharist, but continues to take place as we move through the world, revealing itself in our compassionate interactions with others.

This is why we seek the face of Christ in others.

This is why we seek the face of Christ in ourselves.

And Jesus said:

 
…Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, you are gods’?  (John 10:34, quoting Ps. 82:6, “I say, “You are gods, children of the Most High, all of you”)

…Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above [or born anew].  (John 3:3)

…the Father’s kingdom is spread out upon the earth, and people don’t see it.  (Gospel of Thomas, 113)

…the (Father’s) kingdom is within you and it is outside you.  (Gospel of Thomas, 3)

…the kingdom of God is within you. (Luke 17:21)

May the Lord Bless and Keep You,
Erik+

Resources:

http://orthodoxwiki.org/Theosis
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theosis_%28Eastern_Orthodox_theology%29
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Potentiality_and_actuality

https://celiaelaine.wordpress.com/2014/12/19/seek-to-find-christs-face-and-look-on-nothing-else/

Joseph Campbell, “Mythos” (Vol. I, II, and III)

Gospel of Thomas:
http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/thomas/
http://gnosis.org/naghamm/gosthom.html

Thin Places: Opening the Heart

Modern Celtic cross at cimetière du Père-Lachaise, Paris

Modern Celtic cross at cimetière du Père-Lachaise, Paris

 

My title is taken from the eighth chapter of Marcus Borg’s book “The Heart of Christianity” which prompted my thoughts for this essay.  This is a moving, thoughtful book which I enthusiastically recommend.

 

Thin Places

The image of Thin Places occurring throughout the physical world is often attributed to the Celts.  And while the Christian tradition may attribute the term to the infusion of ancient Celtic influences, we should recognize that the concept, and more importantly the experience of Thin Places, is far older than is Celtic Christianity (dating from the third century CE).  Thin places are in fact reported in all spiritual traditions of which I am aware.

A closely related concept is that of the axis mundi:

Axis Mundi (Merriam-Webster)  turning point of the world; line through the earth’s center around which the universe revolves

Everywhere the divine realm meets the earthly realm in which we live, that intersection becomes an axis mundi.  Frequently these locations are sacred mountains (Mount Fuji, Mount Olympus, Mount Hermon, Mount Sinai) or sacred trees (Bodhi tree, Yggdrasil, The Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil).

A church, temple or an altar may also become an axis mundi.  Less obvious to many Westerners, one’s home may become an axis mundi (as in the practice of Feng shui).  Our physical body may also become an axis mundi:  the chakra system common to Hinduism and Buddhism, as well as the practice of Yoga and Tai Chi, are all rooted in the understanding that the human body forms a pillar between heaven and earth (an axis mundi).

Within the Judeo-Christian traditions we can easily recognize the shared concepts of the axis mundi and of Thin Places in the telling sacred stories such as Jacob’s Ladder, Moses’ encounter with the burning bush, and the transfiguration of Christ on Mount Tabor.

We may also recall that Jesus often sought out a special place to commune with God (Mark 1:35, Matt. 14:13, Matt. 14:23, Luke 4:42, Luke 5:15, to name just a few).  Among the more memorable occasions are his 40-day fast in the wilderness,  praying in the garden of Gethsemane,  and the aforementioned transfiguration upon Mount Tabor.

While we seldom refer to Jesus as seeking out Thin Places, it seems obvious to me that the gospels tell us he did so with great frequency;  only the words used to describe his experience differ.  Thus, seeking out Thin Places, or a private sacred space in which we may seek an encounter with the divine, is as authentically Christian as is Jesus himself.

By whatever name we give it, persons from all cultures have sought an experience of the divine.  Thus, we may quite properly observe seeking Thin Places in which one may encounter the divine is a shared human experiences, common to all religions.  It is as much Christian as Buddhist;  as much Muslim as Hindu;  as much Jewish as Taoist;  as much Shinto as Native American.

It is true that the highly personal and subjective nature of the encounter with a Thin Place makes it difficult to convey to others.  And for those who have not had their own experience, it is also very easy to deny that it ever happens.

For those of us who have not had our own Road to Damascus experience, we must rely upon testimony of persons trying to share something of their encounter with the divine, however limited by language their efforts may be.

In 1931, during a trip to England, Mahatma Gandhi was asked to record an address.  He chose his essay “On God” which opens with the following lines:

     “There is an indefinable mysterious power that pervades everything, I feel it though I do not see it. It is this unseen power which makes itself felt and yet defies all proof, because it is so unlike all that I perceive through my senses. It transcends the senses.”

One may note that Mahatma Gandhi was speaking of a personal encounter, somehow perceiving a presence, which he identified as God, yet transcendent to his senses.  Near the end of his address, he states, “I confess that I have no argument to convince through reason. Faith transcends reason.”

I suspect another way of saying this, is to observe that having had the experience of encountering the divine, one no longer questions the existence of the divine.  But one may never “prove” the divine exists to a person who has yet to have a similar experience or encounter.

In this we are all alone:  we perceive the world only through the lens of our own sense experience.  Anything we have not yet experienced, we may only appreciate through the testimony of those who have gone before us, those who may light the flame of our own imagination.

And we choose to accept or reject their testimony.

“Life is this simple. We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent, and God is shining through it all the time. That is not just fable or a nice story. It is true. If we abandon ourselves to God and forget ourselves, we see it sometimes, and we see it maybe frequently. God shows Himself everywhere, in everything ― in people and in things and in nature and in events. It becomes very obvious that God is everywhere and in everything and we cannot be without Him. It’s impossible. The only thing is, is that we don’t see it.”
― Thomas Merton, Trappist monk, in a 1965 audiotape

 

Opening Our Closed Heart

Marcus Borg observes that our heart closes as a result of the very natural process of growing up.  As we mature psychologically, we grow more deeply into a sense of “us.”  We become increasingly aware of the lens through which we observe all that lies outside of ourselves;  in fact, we perceive ourselves as that lens.

I am convinced Borg correctly identifies this process as “[t]he birth and development of self-awareness [which] involves an increasing sense of being a separated self” (page 153, “The Heart of Christianity”).

It is this self-awareness which creates the sense that we are separated from the rest of the cosmos.  And this sense of isolation and disconnection is what must be overcome, at least to some degree, if we are to begin opening our hearts.

This is part of what it means to be born again (or born from above).  I am convinced the author of the Gospel of John is alluding to a psychological-emotional-spiritual process ―although they would not have used that language 2,000 years ago― which brings about a reforming of one’s state of consciousness.

  •      (For a deeper discussion of the psychological and spiritual aspects of the Gospel of John, I recommend Bishop Spong’s book “The Fourth Gospel” and John Sanford’s book “Mystical Christianity.”)

Opening our heart is a process, and one which requires a daily effort.  We must seek out ways of opening our senses to the sacred, of feeling that presence of which Mahatma Gandhi spoke, or as Thomas Merton intimated, of forgetting ourselves enough that we may see that divine light shining everywhere into the world.

Perhaps it is useful to hear how we might recognize when we are failing to open our heart.  Borg gives us a stark example (“The Heart of Christianity” page 154):

     “When I stand in a supermarket checkout line and all the people I see look kind of ugly, I know that my heart is closed.”

 

Thin Places Facilitate the Opening of Our Heart

We truly are creatures of habit.  If we never seek out a Thin Place, we are unlikely to find one.  Yet if we make it a habit to seek Thin Places, thresholds where the divine crosses over into the physical world are increasingly likely to be revealed to us.

There is no guarantee this will happen, but I do believe it becomes increasingly likely over time.  (Especially if we are attentive to how we are being affected by our behaviors;  see Newberg in the Recommended Resources.)

Thin Places may be physical locations.  I have been in places where I felt something which may be described as a presence.  I suspect there may be some merit to the argument that we may encounter something like a “spiritual battery” if we enter a physical space which has been regularly used for spiritual and/or religious practices.

  •      ( And if this is true, we may ask whether the religious relic makes the shrine holy, or whether the heart-felt prayers of pilgrims sanctify it. )

But I am not suggesting we seek out a specific physical location.  One may, of course, but I suspect this is of secondary importance.  I am suggesting of primary importance is that we seek inwardly for our Thin Place.

A Thin Place may be encountered wherever we happen to be.  It is a matter of changing our state of consciousness.  It is a matter of training our body to trigger certain mental, emotional, and psychological states so that we become sensitive to the existence of a Thin Place being created within us.

This may happen any where.  It may happen at any time.  It may happen to us unexpectedly.

But I firmly believe we may also engage in certain behaviors which make the experience more likely, and increasingly so over time, with practice and iteration of our behaviors.  I see this as one of the practical functions of ritual.

Practical examples include:

  • Attending regular places/modes of worship
    Sermons (although words tend to be least effective)
    Liturgical ritual
    Liturgical language
    Liturgical time (Easter, Christmas)
    Study of the bible and other sacred texts
    Contemplation of the bible and other sacred texts
    Internal, silent prayer (especially wordless, feeling-based)
    Communing with/in nature
    Participation in the sacraments (especially the Eucharist)
    Music, hymns, poetry
    Speaking/chanting in tongues
    Dancing, drumming, chanting
    Praying the rosary, or other prayer beads

 

Getting Thin

Getting “Thin” is about entering a psychological-emotional state in which we are more receptive to the Divine.  Intention is also important.  I believe fostering a sense of love is key to improving our spiritual health.

And we need travel no farther than where we are to do so;  provided we travel within.  We certainly may travel to a sacred place, but this is not required.

The specifics of the process are best tailored to the individual.  My best triggers may leave you unaffected, and vice versa.  Experimentation is required, and sufficient time so as to develop a sensitivity to the technique in question is recommended.

In trying to decide what practices may be more likely to bring about results, I suspect that C.G. Jung is correct in suggesting those behaviors which diminish our strongest conscious psychological functions, while supporting our unconscious psychological functions are the better choice.

But I do not think it matters whether one takes a quiet, subtle inward-directed approach (meditation and contemplation, for example) or whether one takes a louder, active outward-directed approach (singing and dancing, for example).

One approach to developing a trigger, is to so thoroughly engage either the active or quiet portions of the mind, that the neural networks supporting these areas of the brain saturate, and create an over-flow or cascading effect which ends up triggering both the active and quiet portions of the brain-mind simultaneously.

  •      ( To gain some insight as to how this may take place, I refer you to Dr. Andrew Newberg books, “Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief” and “Mystical Mind: Probing the Biology of Religious Experience.” )

 

The Practice of Esoteric Christianity & Christian Mysticism

All of the above is part of what I understand to be the practice of Inner (Esoteric) Christianity, as well as the practice of Christian Mysticism.

In addition to reading classics on Christian Mysticism, one may study Dr. Newberg’s material on neural-theology as well as Neural Linguistic Programming (NLP).

I believe Dr. Newberg’s material offers valuable insights as to what is happening in our brain as we seek to enter transcendental states of consciousness, providing a useful over-view of what physical-psychological states we are trying to induce in ourselves.

NLP offers a number of very practical suggestions as to how we may “speak” to our own brain, so as to be understood most effectively.  NLP communicates to us the importance of appreciating various “states” of physiology and consciousness, as well as how they are related.

Some of the elemental aspects of NLP include understanding triggers, state, and modes of perception.  I believe each of these are very useful concepts with which to be familiar as we attempt to travel into Thin Places.  (See “Frogs Into Princes” by Bandler and Grinder.)

And, as described above, I do believe travelling into Thin Places is one means of Seeking the Divine Center.

 

May the Lord bless and keep you,

Erik+

 

Recommended Resources:

Bandler, Richard; Grinder, John:  “Frogs into Princes: Neuro Linguistic Programming”
http://www.amazon.com/Frogs-into-Princes-Linguistic-Programming/dp/0911226192/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1417408101&sr=1-1&keywords=frogs+into+princes+by+bandler+and+grinder

Borg, Marcus:  “The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith”
http://www.amazon.com/The-Heart-Christianity-Rediscovering-Faith/dp/0060730684

Gandhi, Mahatma:  Spiritual Message (“On God”), 1931
http://youtu.be/EtWr04MBGYI
http://www.gandhiserve.org/information/listen_to_gandhi/lec_1_on_god/augven_spiritual_message.html

Newberg, Andrew:
http://www.andrewnewberg.com/
“Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief”
“Mystical Mind: Probing the Biology of Religious Experience”

Sanford, John:  “Mystical Christianity: A Psychological Commentary on the Gospel of John”

Spong, John Shelby:  “The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic”

Hearing the Voice of Jesus

Icon of Jesus Christ

Icon of Jesus Christ

Why is Hearing the Voice of Jesus a Problem in the First Place?

The most obvious reason we find hearing the voice of Jesus so challenging, is that in so far as we know, Jesus never wrote anything.

At the best of times, literacy rates in the ancient world were very low.  Literacy rates of peasants living in the backwoods of Galilee would have been vanishingly low.  It took a great deal of time and money to learn to read and write.  Dirt poor farmers, fishermen, and other peasants simply did not have the luxury of the time or money required to acquire this set of skills.

So speaking from a strictly historical perspective, it is very unlikely Jesus was able to read or write.  Some biblical scholars argue that Jesus was an exception to this rule, however, while one cannot categorically state Jesus was illiterate, we have no objective reason to think otherwise.

And we ought not cite the story of the woman accused of adultery as evidence to the contrary.  This story, which includes the observation that Jesus wrote something in the dirt, does not appear in any manuscripts until the late 4th century, well over 300-years after Jesus’ death.  This story now appears in the Gospel of John, chapter 8, but over the centuries is has appeared elsewhere, including in an entirely different gospel.  It is a lovely, instructive story, but it cannot be properly attributed to the historical Jesus.

In any event, no writings of Jesus survive.  So to discover the voice of Jesus we are unable to appeal to Jesus directly, as we may with Paul, for example.

20-Year Silence

If anything was written about Jesus during his lifetime, it no longer survives.  In fact, we know of no Christian writings during the 20-years following Jesus’ crucifixion.  There are indications of an oral tradition during this period, but it remained an oral tradition for two decades.

The earliest Jewish-Christian writings we have about Jesus come from the pen of Paul, who began writing in the early 50s.  And as surprising as it may seem to us today, Paul wrote very little about Jesus.  This is because Paul wrote what are called occasional letters, meaning he wrote in response to specific occasions, or problems.

Why is it Important that we Hear the Words of Jesus?

To many ears this may sound like a crazy question.  Some answer, who would *not* wish to hear the very words of God!  Others answer that the original words of Jesus are long lost to history, and can never be recovered, so only a fool would propose the question in the first place.

My answer is to be found somewhere between these stark responses.

I start with the recognition that recovering the original words of Jesus is challenging.  We certainly cannot simply read the Red Letter Edition of the Holy Bible and assume that Jesus really spoke all these words.

The evolution of the Christian New Testament ―which is an anthology of 27 books and letters, written in Greek― grew organically, over a period of decades.  These writings were then transmitted to us over the course of several centuries.  And it took nearly 300-years for these books and letters to coalesce into an agreed upon canon of scripture.

Scholarly historical and textual criticism is able to inform our understanding of this organic process.  Through this scholarship we are able to discern layers of redaction (editing) and interpretation laid over one another throughout the New Testament.  And this is equally true for the words put upon the lips of Jesus by the gospel authors.

But those who already “know” Jesus’ voice is forever lost to us, will never hear it;  just as those who already know every word attributed to Jesus “must be” authentic, will be unable to hear the other voices laid over his.  Both arguments have their strengths and weaknesses.  And one must carefully weigh their merits, one saying at a time, teasing apart the accrued layers, when present.

Yet, provided we listen carefully, I do believe we may hear the voice of Jesus through these accrued layers.  But I also acknowledge it takes most of us some time to acquire that ear.
So how might we begin to train our ear to hear Jesus’ voice?  

One approach is to contemplate the various characterizations of Jesus, as represented in the gospels.  If we read these accounts carefully, what might we discern of Jesus?  What might we discern of the author who wrote the text?  Or of the audience to whom it was directed?  What were the completing religious-political concerns of ancient Palestine?

Each of these are useful interrogations of the text.  But in this essay I wish to discuss Jesus.  Some observations about Jesus are almost obvious, while others are quite complex and variously debated even among professionals in the field of biblical and New Testament studies.  So if we become confused at times, at least we are in good company!

Jesus the Jewish Mystic

Jesus was clearly a Jewish mystic.  “Mystics are people who have vivid and typically frequent experiences of God. … As a Jewish mystic, Jesus lived a life radically centered in God; that was its foundation”  (Marcus Borg, “The Heart of Christianity” pgs. 89-90).

Jesus spent long hours in private prayer, which I suspect we would today understand as periods of deep contemplation and meditation.  We might even think of his 40-days in the wilderness as a kind of “vision quest.”  God was an experiential presence in Jesus’ life.  He spoke of God as his father, and even more affectionately as his Abba, which we may translate as Daddy or Poppa.

This speaks to a profound closeness Jesus felt with God.  For Jesus, God was not some distant sky god like Zeus or Jupiter, nor even a remote, abstract version of the Jewish God.  For Jesus, God was present in a deeply meaningful way;  God was experienced as present to Jesus, both in time and proximity.

Jesus the Jewish Prophet

Jesus was clearly a Jewish prophet.  Like other Jewish prophets before him, Jesus spoke of the God of Israel, the importance of centering one’s life in God, and specifically that a deep change was required of the people of Israel, because they and their nation had lost their way.

Prophets tell us we each face two paths:  we may estrange ourselves from God, and suffer as a result;  or we may return to the proper observance of what is important to God, and live with God’s blessing.

And as Marcus Borg observes, Jesus was specifically a social prophet, in the likeness of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, and Micah, and “as such he was a radical critic of the domination system of his time” (Borg, “The Heart of Christianity” pg. 91).

Jesus the Teacher of Wisdom

Jesus was clearly a profound teacher.  He was a master of the aphorism (a short, memorable, insightful saying) and metaphor, often teaching in parables.  Jesus was a travelling teacher, so most likely he used his most memorable phrases and stories frequently, although finessing them to fit specific occasions, which is typical of oral traditions.

“At the heart of the alternative wisdom of Jesus was the path of death and resurrection understood as metaphor for an internal psychological-spiritual process.  It involved dying to an old identity and being born into a new identity, dying to an old way of being and being born into a new way of being” (Borg, “The Heart of Christianity” pg. 90).

Jesus Taught “The Way”

In the book of Acts we are told the earliest name for what evolved into Christianity was simply, the Way (Acts 9:2).  And choosing to participate in the Way does seem to me an accurate characterization of many of Jesus’ sayings.

We may further observe that many of Jesus’ stories and parables fit quite well into a well-established mode of teaching, common to many world religions, frequently called “Two Way” teachings.  As Marcus Borg states in “The Lost Gospel Q” (page 18):  “There is the wise way and the foolish way, the narrow way and the broad way.  One way leads to life, the other to death.”

Jesus the Healer

Jesus was clearly a extraordinary healer and exorcist.  We know of other noted healers and exorcists in the New Testament period, but “more healing stories are told about Jesus that about any other figure in the Jewish tradition” (Borg, “The Heart of Christianity” pg. 90).

Jesus the Apocalyptic Prophet

I believe this is one of the hardest choices one must ultimately make about Jesus.  Was he an apocalyptic prophet or not?  It seems pretty clear that John the Baptist was, and many scholars believe Jesus must have been a follower of John.  And the canonical gospels do present Jesus as speaking with an apocalyptic voice (as does Q);  Matthew chapter 24 is a good example;  verse 34 is of particular interest to me:

>  “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place”  (NRSV).

Which leads me to ask the obvious question of how long does a generation last?  2,000 years or longer?  The old work-around to this troubling question is that it is merely metaphoric language, and generation means humankind.  While I do consider the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament to be highly metaphorical ―in the richest meaning of that term― in this case I’ve never found that argument convincing.

A far better explanation to my mind, is this language is reflective of the apocalyptic voice in the 1st century, which was common roughly 100-years before and after the life of Jesus.  In the Jewish apocalyptic movement, there was widespread belief that God was going to overthrow Rome and put in its place a kingdom ruled by God, through his emissary, the Messiah (the Christ, as it comes to us from the Greek, Χριστός).

So the question we have to answer to our individual satisfaction, is to whom shall we attribute these sayings of Jesus?  Did the historical Jesus really make apocalyptic prophecy?  Or did a later author put these words upon the lips of Jesus when writing his gospel?

I will not presume to answer for you, but I will state that I do not believe one may simultaneously hold Jesus to be an apocalyptic prophet and a divine incarnation of God.  Incarnation, means in the flesh, so if one posits that Jesus became divine after his death, this dilemma may resolve itself.

The Kingdom of God

This is a phrase we hear throughout the canonical gospels with some frequency.  Do these words reach back to Jesus?  If so, what might Jesus have meant?

To my experience, main stream Christianity predominately teaches the kingdom of God is referring to a heavenly existence to be experienced after our physical death, or a future second coming of Jesus on earth.  I however, disagree with these views.

The kingdom to which the authentic Jesus spoke, I firmly believe is to be found right here on earth, within each of us, and is found in our loving interactions with others, expressed through such actions as shoeing children, helping to feed the hungry, and providing winter clothing to homeless persons.

This is what Dom Crossan and Marcus Borg sometimes call the participatory model of Christianity.  They use this phrase to mean that the kingdom of God is only going to come about through our personal investment and actions to bring it about, directly into the communities in which we live.

I find this to be both an interesting and practical perspective which holds a lot of merit.  It may be that God could “invade” earth and establish his kingdom forcefully;  but I also think that would defeat the entire point of doing so.  What good would it be to artificially force such a kingdom upon persons who were not sufficiently evolved spiritually to sustain it?

The point is this:  our very natures are changed if we invest ourselves in the process of bringing the kingdom of God upon earth during our lifetimes.  And it is that very process of spiritual transformation that I believe may very well be the critical point.

Which is to say, it really does not do us any good to be “given” the kingdom;  we really only undergo personal, internal spiritual transformation if we mature ―evolve― to the point that we *desire* to help bring that kingdom into existence.  And I believe *that* is the point to which Jesus was trying to open our hearts.

Luke 17:20-21  Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed;  nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among-within you” (NRSV).

The Jesus Movement

Jesus was a Jew from rural Galilee.  Jesus’ followers were primarily Jews, and Jesus primarily ministered to his fellow Jews.  This is the Jewish Jesus Movement which predates Christianity.  A few years after Jesus was crucified, Paul began to teach his understanding of Jesus’ ministry to the Greeks.  Used in this way, to be a “Greek” simply means one is a gentile ― a person who is not Jewish.

Thus, we may also speak of a Greek (or Gentile) Jesus Movement.  As greater numbers of gentiles entered the Jesus Movement, it evolved from a Jewish Jesus Movement, into a predominately Gentile Jesus Movement, and later into various forms of early Christianity.

Identifying the Authentic Voice of Jesus is Far from Obvious

I hope the above discussion allows you to see we may find a number of ways of understanding and characterizing Jesus.  And we may do so while remaining rooted within the canonical texts.  This is an important point.  One may arrive at a number of ways of seeing Jesus, while supporting one’s view entirely from a biblical point of view.  One need not introduce non-canonical texts, such as the Gospel of Thomas.

Now, I happen to like the Gospel of Thomas, and take the late Prof. Ron Miller’s lead, and that of The Jesus Seminar, and suspect that perhaps a third of it may reach back to the authentic voice of Jesus.  And for this reason, I do make use of the Gospel of Thomas;  but thoughtfully, and with deliberation.  After all, if we hold the position that about 1/3 of the Gospel of Thomas may be the echo of Jesus’ voice, we are also observing some 2/3 of it fails to capture the voice of Jesus.

The Jesus Seminar

The Jesus Seminar is a fellowship of a biblical scholars who have spent decades attempting to identify the authentic voice of Jesus in the ancient texts available to us.  They do include the Gospel of Thomas as viable source material.  Their work has determined that approximately 20% of the “red letter” words of Jesus may be properly attributed to Jesus.

Q Hypothesis

Q is a hypothetical early text of the sayings of Jesus.  No surviving Q manuscript is known to exist.  This is the weakest link in the Q Hypothesis argument.  Supporters will however, point to the recent (mid-1900’s) discovery of the Gospel of Thomas, which is an authentic sayings gospel.  Where one such gospel was written, so too a second may have been written.

But what is Q?

Q is short for Quelle, from the German, meaning “source.”  It is alternately known as the Q source, the Q document, the Q Gospel, and the Q Sayings Gospel.  But most frequently it is simply called Q.  It is primarily composed of the sayings attributed to Jesus which are found in both Matthew and Luke, but not Mark.

Scholars who find this hypothesis of value believe that the authors of Matthew and Luke wrote without knowledge of one another, so there must have been a source for the sayings which they share, which are not taken from Mark.  Since both are known to have drawn extensively from the earliest gospel, Mark, it is a natural deduction they may have similarly drawn from another, as yet undiscovered, source document (Q).

Incidentally, the Gospel of John does not enter into such debates because it is clearly, dramatically different than the other canonical gospels.  John was written in the 90’s, after the synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke) and is often referred to as the Fourth Gospel.  (And the Gospel of Thomas is sometimes referred to as the Fifth Gospel, even though it is non-canonical.)

Detractors of the Q Hypothesis often have great difficulty with the invention of an undiscovered document.  Supporters of Q point out there may have already been such discoveries, but we cannot identify them.  Does this sound like a strange claim?  Their point is that if we discover a small scrap of ancient manuscript that only contains a portion of a saying which is shared between Matthew and Luke, but not found in Mark (a partial definition of a Q-saying) we cannot determine whether that scrap originated from Matthew, Luke, or the proposed Q.

Thus, the only way to provide evidence of Q is to find a much larger, much more rare, document fragment which contains at least large portions of two proposed Q-sayings.  Anything less, and detractors simply assume the small fragment originates in either Matthew or Luke.  This logic cannot prove Q ever existed, but it does demonstrate that proving Q will be very difficult.

How Might One Begin to Hear the Voice of Jesus?  

First and foremost, recognize that it is up to each of us to discern our own interpretation.  We may avail ourselves of a great deal of critical scholarship over the last 150-years which may greatly inform our investigation, but ultimately, we each have to come to terms with difficult and sometimes contradictory information.

>  Was Jesus an apocalyptic prophet?

>  Was the historical Jesus divine?  If so, when, and to what extent?

It is up to *us* to answers these and other difficult questions to our own satisfaction.  Through the process of resolving such questions, our apprehension of Jesus, and his role as the Christ, will progressively be revealed to us.

With the goal of informing our search for the voice of Jesus, I highly recommend studying each of the following books, which discuss Q, Jesus, and the Gospel of Thomas.  “The Lost Gospel Q” and “The Gospel of Jesus” may be read quite quickly ―over the course of a quiet afternoon or evening― because the actual text of the ancient documents in each case is quite short;  but do spend time reading their introductions and appendixes.  Ron Miller’s book on the Gospel of Thomas is somewhat longer, but I find it to be superlative (as are all his books and lectures).

>  “The Lost Gospel Q: The Original Sayings of Jesus” (Marcus Borg)

>  “The Gospel of Jesus: According to the Jesus Seminar” (Robert Funk & The Jesus Seminar)

>  “The Gospel of Thomas: A Guidebook for Spiritual Practice” (Ron Miller)

I always welcome opportunities to mention the talks the late Ron Miller gave to the Theosophical Society.  And since I suspect many readers will not have these three books immediately at hand, I would like to recommend Ron Miller’s talks, which you may immediately access on-line:

http://www.ronmillersworld.org/updates/eight-talks-from-the-theosophical-society/

In reference to this essay, I would begin with his discussion of the Gospel of Thomas:

http://www.ronmillersworld.org/watch/the-gospel-of-thomas/

For those who enjoy trying to discern the voice of Jesus, I would recommend another book published by The Jesus Seminar:

>  “The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say? The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus”

Guided by these books, authors such as bishop Spong and Marcus Borg, Ron Miller’s wise counsel, and time spent in quiet contemplation, I believe I have heard an echo of Jesus’ voice, reaching to me across 2,000 years.  My hope is that you too encounter the voice of Jesus.  And that through hearing, you are able to discern a variety of layers which have accrued upon Jesus’ words, as they have come to us in the Christian New Testament.

Upon attuning your hearing to Jesus’ voice, I suspect you may very well apprehend the Way of which Jesus spoke.  Once you do, you cannot help but to begin reading the New Testament with a heart born from above.

Erik+

Resources:

Marcus Borg

Book: “The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith”

Book: “The Lost Gospel Q: The Original Sayings of Jesus”

The Jesus Seminar

Book: “The Gospel of Jesus: According to the Jesus Seminar”

Book: “The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say? The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus”

Ron Miller

Book: “The Gospel of Thomas: A Guidebook for Spiritual Practice”

Video: http://www.ronmillersworld.org/updates/eight-talks-from-the-theosophical-society/

Video: http://www.ronmillersworld.org/watch/the-gospel-of-thomas/

Seeking Consonance with the Transcendent

William Blake's "Jacob's Ladder"

William Blake’s “Jacob’s Ladder”

Do you see an apparent contradiction in the following statement?  In my previous essay, I wrote:

  •      “I understand the inner (esoteric) religious experience to be concerned with personal transformation, so as to bring ourselves into increasing consonance with that which transcends our human experience.”

 

If the Transcendent is truly transcendent, then by definition it is beyond our ability to experience.  How then, is it possible to bring oneself into consonance with something one posits must exist outside our universe and experience?  

 

This is the point I will address in this essay.  But first, let’s refresh our memory of certain terms, and provide a frame of reference for this discussion.  The following are the best definitions of “transcendent” when I use terms like “Uncreated/Divine/God” and “Transcendent-Ineffable”:

  Transcendent

  •     Being beyond the limits of all possible experience and knowledge;  being beyond comprehension (Merriam-Webster);
  •     Beyond consciousness or direct apprehension;  beyond or before experience (a priori);  having continuous existence outside the created world (Collins English);
  •     Being above and independent of the material universe (American Heritage);
  •     Not realizable in human experience;  referred to, but beyond, direct apprehension; outside consciousness (Kernerman Webster’s College);

 

The view that “God” (the Uncreated-Divine-Transcendent-Ineffable) is to an indeterminate degree Unknowable, is one of my radical (meaning, foundational) theological tenets.  (I addressed this point in a previous essay).  I find it to be the most certain positive statement I may make concerning the Divine;  more than this, everything else one wishes to say of “God” must reside within the shadow of this observation.  (We forget this at our peril, and the peril of others, as history is replete with examples.)

 

Negative theology (also known as Via Negativa, “Negative Way”) seeks to clarify this point by stating we are unable to make *positive* assertions as to the nature of the Uncreated/Divine/God.  This is because the divine realm is completely unavailable to our human senses.

When using negative theology, we limit our statements to observing what the Uncreated/Divine/God is *not*.  The intention is to specifically limit our statements to that of which we *do* have experience, namely:  objects, events, and persons of this world.  Simultaneously, we assert the Divine always exceeds that which is limited to human experience.

Thus:

  • Our experience is limited to the world in which we live
  • We assert there is a divine world, which transcends our world
  • As human beings, we are unable to directly experience the divine world *
  • Therefore, we are insufficient to the task of describing and defining the divine world
  • But we are able to describe experiences we have as human beings
  • And we may acknowledge human experience is insufficient to fully describe & define the Divine
  • This leads some to the adoption of the Negative Way:  limiting ourselves to stating what the Uncreated/Divine/God is not **

*  This is not to say that the Divine is unable to enter our world;  I believe it may.  But it is to say, that in so doing, what the Divine reveals of itself to us is limited by our ability to perceive it.
**  I am not aware of anyone who thinks the Negative Way adequately reveals the Divine to us.  Primarily it is an exercise designed to make us mindfully aware of our limitations in attempting to describe that which is outside the meaning of time and space, or any other categories of understanding we have access to as human beings.

 

But God Can Do Anything!

I frequently hear the argument that God can do anything, including reveal the entirety of the divine to the mortal.  I disagree.  The problem is this:  we remain mortal;  human.  Anything revealed to us must *still* be filtered through our perception and then cognitively processed by us.  We have bodies, sense organs, and a brain;  and these present limitations.  And so long as we remain human, we will always face limitation.

 

  •      The limitation in receiving divine revelation is not God (the Source), but ourselves (the Receptor)

 

If we use the metaphor of radio waves, the Uncreated sends forth a vast array of radio waves -we may even posit an infinite range of frequencies- but we as the radio receiver are only able to perceive those frequencies which our antenna and filters allow us to receive.  Psychologically, we may also consider more human corollaries.  There have been cases of persons born blind, who later gain vision;  but they cannot make any sense of what they are seeing, because their brains never developed the ability to make sense of the photons hitting their retina.

 

  •      As with one born physically blind, we are all born spiritually blind, in terms of directly seeing the divine realm.

 

The Claims of Mystics

Mystics, however, report experiencing something which they interpret as an aspect of the Divine.  But they have difficulty relating their experience to someone who has not had a similar experience.  Invariably, such experiences lose a great deal when transmitted by the spoken or written word.  A great deal of mysticism struggles with exactly this problem.

Mystics tell us they are able to push their perception to some degree beyond those most persons experience.  For those wishing to explore this more deeply I believe it is helpful to distinguish between perception, comprehension, and apprehension.

Perception is both physical and psychological;  it requires the ability to receive raw input, and it requires the ability to be aware of the input.  Comprehension is a cognitive process;  this is making sense of the raw data we are receiving as input to our perceptions.  Comprehension is a conscious endeavour.

Apprehension is more subtle.  Apprehension is linked to instincts and intuition.  I suspect it is also linked to the human collective unconscious;  which may in turn be linked to the what we might call the divine collective unconscious.  (I believe there is an interesting Jungian argument here, which I will not explore in this essay.)

Thus, through apprehension, we are able to exceed our purely physical (sensory) and psychological (cognitive) limitations.  Through apprehension, the mystic seeks connection with the Divine, pushing back portions of the veil which separates the mortal and divine realms.  And I suspect many mystics would agree that the Divine may simultaneously pull back this veil.

So I do believe the Divine is both willing and able to assist us.  (Which leads to a future discussion regarding the immanent nature of the Divine.)  And I do believe that given sufficient desire, trial, and effort, we may gain greater access to what may be a “shadow” of the divine realm.  Yet there remains a radical, fundamental difference between the divine and human which cannot be fully bridged.

Not even God can fully bridge the gap between the divine and human.  Because to do so, we could no longer remain human.  And we are not capable of being fully human and fully divine.

 

  •      This also opens the door to a discussion about “Christology” -the study of Christ- and theological debate surrounding the questions of Jesus being fully human while simultaneously fully divine.  It took several hundred years for the Church to address these and related questions.  These are extensive discussions and are beyond the scope of this essay.  Christology may be the topic of future essays.

 

Healthy Humility

Developing a healthy sense of humility is very important.  In fact, I believe this to be critical for our spiritual maturity.  This is my starting point when contemplating the Divine.  It may sound strange at first, but I believe having severely limited access to the Divine may actually be beneficial to our spiritual growth.

 

  •      Knowing that the ultimate nature of the Divine is unavailable to human experience, is a very healthy and peace-affirming theological position to assume.

 

After all, if everyone were to admit the greatest depths of the Divine are totally unavailable to our comprehension (that the Divine is in fact “transcendent”), each of us would be *unable* to assume the position that *I* understand the Mind of God –and most importantly– therefore, *you* *lack* this understanding.

 

  •      To believe and accept there are depths of the Divine beyond our ken, is a significant step toward eliminating the religious persecution and victimization of others.

 

It is a sad indictment of humanity to observe this would be a giant step forward.  It would be the end of religious war, and the end of murdering in the name of God!  (The greatest of sins, in my opinion.)  If for no other reason, this makes it an extremely worthwhile theological tenet to adopt (even if only provisionally).

 

Are We Then Bereft of God?

If we can never have any experience of, and are unable to have any contact with, the transcendent elements of “God” does this mean we have no access to any part of the Divine?  Does this mean we are utterly alone and alienated from that which we believe is the Source of existence itself?

Not at all.  We do have the ability to access those parts of the Divine which are manifest in this world.  But we should be mindful that this is only a partial understanding, and affords us an incomplete view of the Divine.  But there are steps we may take to mitigate these difficulties.

Religious Education

In the outer, exoteric sense, this is the role of religion in the public sphere.  This is a beginning point.  We attend public worship, meetings, and study sessions.  Largely, I see this as an effort to educate ourselves.  In this “exoteric” category I would also include private bible study and seminary studies.  We are trying to better understand our own religious tradition, the roles persons play within that tradition, and where we fit into our religious tradition.  (We may further benefit by including the study of other religious traditions;  how they both differ and are similar to our own.)

Public Mysticism

There are also more mystical encounters which take place in the public sphere, which are not about educating ourselves, but are instead focused upon *experiencing* the Presence of the Divine.  In my opinion, facilitating our connection (with what we may experience of) the Divine is the role of the Holy Spirit  (which I equate with the Shakinah in the Jewish tradition).

Several very different examples which immediately come to mind include:  Catholic Eucharist;  Whirling Dervish;  and very active forms of worship, such as Pentecostal, Charismatic, and Appalachian Snake Handling services.  Of these, the Catholic Eucharist is the most introverted expression of public mysticism.

Private Mysticism

For me, this is the deeper experience.  But I may simply feel this way because I am strongly introverted, therefore I have a natural inclination to this path, and a natural disinclination toward being part of a “public spectacle.”  I will point out that each of us should endeavour to be aware that what *we* find natural, may or may not be what another person finds to be a “natural” means of entering an experience of the Holy Presence.

Judge not.  Whether one sits quietly, mumbles under their breath, chants, drums, dances, or whirles in dizzying circles, it is the state of entering a sense of rapport with the Divine which is important, not how one achieves this state.  And this is an internal state, which only the person entering it may judge to be effective or ineffective.  Therefore, use whatever approach works for you.  And feel free to experiment with different means of entering this state.

Inner Mysticism

Inner mysticism may also be called esoteric mysticism, because at its core it is an internal event and experience.  One may enter this state through a public event (Eucharist, Pentecost, etc) or one may enter this state through a private event (contemplation, meditation, drumming, chanting, etc).

The point is that the encounter itself is internal to the person experiencing it.  Whether this encounter takes place in a public space or within a private space is secondary.  Another way of saying this, is that our body just happens to be wherever it is occupying physical space;  however, it is our spirit, that is engaging the mystical experience.

For this reason, I believe the inner-esoteric experience is properly called “spirituality.”  Here we seek to bridge the gap between our (lower case) spirit and the (upper case) Divine Spirit.  In this essay, I will suggest we may think of this process as trying to attain “resonance” with the Divine.  This is an intermediate step (it was preceded by the educational process, and as we shall see, may eventually may lead to a state of “consonance” with the Divine).

Attaining resonance with the Divine, repeated over time, leads to an even deeper connection.  Terms which I find useful in describing this state are establishing a “rapport” with the Divine, or of attaining “consonance” with the Divine.  Both terms are useful.  Rapport is very useful when speaking of the neural-linguistic processes taking place within our body, brain, and mind.  Consonance offers a beautiful musical metaphor for the experience, which also lends itself to the concept of participation in the “Field Theory” of the Divine.  By whatever name one wishes to use as a label for the encounter, the active attempt to bring oneself into a state of rapport/consonance with the Divine is the primary objective of mysticism.

Each of these processes builds upon and refines that which precedes.  First an outer-exoteric religious experience, followed by a spiritual attempt to bring oneself into “resonance” with the Divine, followed by a deepening “consonance” with the Divine.  While the terms used to describe these processes vary, all great religions acknowledge them.

 

Achieving a State of Consonance

It is understanding the role of mysticism as a means of establishing rapport with the Divine which I wish to discuss in this essay.  I propose this may be thought of as a two-step process.  First we determine how to enter a state of resonance with the Divine.  Once we have learned to enter a state of resonance, we refine the process over time, through repetition and exploration.  Ultimately repetitive states of resonance results in achieving a state of consonance.

Resonance & Consonance

The following are the Merriam-Webster definitions of resonance and consonance:

Resonance

  • The quality or state of being resonant
  • A vibration of large amplitude in a mechanical or electrical system caused by a relatively small periodic stimulus of the same or nearly the same period as the natural vibration period of the system

Consonance

  • Harmony or agreement among components

 

Tightly stretched wires which share the same fundamental frequency will vibrate in sympathetic response with one another.  If you have access to a piano or two tuning forks of the same frequency (or a harmonic thereof) you may easily test this for yourself.

If you strike a C-note on a piano, every other wire in that piano tuned to a C will vibrate in resonance with the one you struck.  In fact, the same effect will take place with other musical instruments in the vicinity.  This is an example of sympathetic harmonic resonance.  Sound waves are transmitted by air molecules between the strings, tuning forks, or other musical instruments.

Related effects are well known in modern physics.  Gravitational waves are a form of field effect, electromagnetic field effects are integral to many mechanical and electromagnetic systems, and at the subatomic level, field effect semi-transistors control the flow of electrons in the computer you are using to read this essay.  Thus, we see examples of resonance throughout nature, at all scales.

Consonance is a particularly useful term as it is used when describing musical relationships, because it speaks to an artful impression of which we become aware when listening to a beautiful piece of music (there is also dissonance, which describes the opposite effect).  Personally, I find resonance to be a more abstract, sterile term than consonance.  Consonance conveys a sense of beauty and heart-felt appreciation.  Thus, we seek “consonance of the heart” when seeking union with the Divine.

 

  •      One may measure resonance with a frequency meter.  But one experiences consonance in one’s heart.

 

Is there a “consonant field effect” connecting us to the Uncreated/Divine/God?

I am asking whether the above examples of field effects in the physical realm -gravity, sympathetic harmonic resonance, electrical and magnetic fields- may serve as analogies for a similar “field effect” existing between the human spirit and the Divine Spirit.

 

  •      Might a “spiritual field effect” comprise a subtle connection between the physical and divine realms?

 

I suggest that such a connection does exists.  Further, I am suggesting that understanding our connection between the human and Divine realms as a form of spiritual “consonance” is instructive for a number of practical reasons.

 

First and foremost, it affirms we have access to some aspects of the Divine Spirit while we exist in the physical-human realm.

People who have not felt any indication of such a connection are often doubtful of this assertion, but those who have felt it, no longer question that it exists.  They may question a great deal more, about its nature and meaning, and what to do with/about it;  but this connection itself, has become a part of their personal experience;  thus, it is not a theory, or an article of faith, it is something they know/feel to be as true as the wind upon their face.

It is important to emphasize, this does not mean they also understand or comprehend it.  Being certain a thing exists, is not the same as knowing all there is to know about it, or even assurance one knows anything about it, beyond its existence.

 

Secondly, it suggests we may gain access to the Divine Spirit by conforming ourselves to become first “resonate” and then “consonant” with the Divine Spirit.

This point is critical.  This is what spiritual practices are all about.  Whether one is a whirling dervish, speaking in tongues, or practicing kataphatic and/or apophatic contemplation, all are means of placing oneself in greater resonance with what one perceives as the Uncreated/Divine/God.

And as one deepens one’s spiritual practices, from this preliminary state of *resonance*, one is increasingly likely to develop a resulting sense of *consonance* with the Uncreated/Divine/God.  And mystics indicate this in turn promotes a deepening sense of peace within, which is reflected upon the outer world through the experiences of richer, more peaceful relations with others.

 

  •      Divine Light is engendered in our heart, fills it and cascades, shining forth into the world as the ray of Love

 

How might we engender this sense of consonance within our experience?

We must first discover which of the many ways of experiencing a sense of the Uncreated/Divine/God in our personal lives is effective for us.  This will likely differ from one person to the next.  I suspect our individual psychology, and cultural influences are major contributing factors for such differences.

The uniqueness of our individual psychological and behaviour development influences whether we respond well to active dancing and chanting, or prefer quiet, solitary contemplation/meditation to enter an open spiritual state.  This is a case where the “how” is subjective, and completely secondary, to being able to achieve the state of connectedness with the Divine.

Once we discover one or more ways which promote -for us- this state of connectedness to the Divine, we must determine specifically under what circumstances this effect is experienced.  Equally important is learning what discourages this sense of connection.  Both are effected by our development as individuals:  culturally, socially, psychologically, and spiritually.  We should also be aware that we may discover certain methods are more appropriate given different circumstances.  We each may cultivate multiple means of connecting with the Divine.

 

Participating in the Kingdom of God

Over time, we should anticipate changes within ourselves.  These internal changes lead to behaviour modification, leading to changes in how we interact with other persons.  These mental, emotional, and behaviour changes which take root and blossom within our hearts is the “personal transformation” I speak of as one of the two major goals of leading a spiritual life.  The second major goal of leading a spiritual life takes place when our personal transformation is transferred to our interactions with others.  This is integral to the “transformation of society.”  In fact, I believe it is the only means of transforming the community in which we live.

It is my belief these transformations -personal and communal- are vital elements of what Jesus referred to as the coming Kingdom of God.  It is already present:  in potential.  But it requires our personal, individual, mindful participation to initiate the process.  And we do so by living appropriately spiritual lives;  spiritual lives which over time bring us into closer consonance with the Divine.

 

And how are we to judge whether we are living appropriately spiritual lives?

I believe we find this guidance in the ideals of selfless love, compassion, and loving-kindness.  These become our daily measures of success.  All great religions speak of these ideals.

We should also acknowledge we will trip and fall at times.  To err is human, after all.  The key is to get back up and recommit ourselves to the principals of selfless love, compassion, and loving-kindness, to whatever extent we are able.  It is a moment-by-moment, day-by-day continuing process.  It is a process of spiritual cultivation which we will practice for the rest of our lives.

I believe this is the process of “becoming more fully human” which bishop Spong speaks of in concert with his appeal for us to “love wastefully.”  And if we can remember only a single thing, if we may hold onto only a single thought throughout our daily lives, this is certainly a wonderful, transforming thought:

love wastefully!

 

Selected References:

Art of the Religious Experience

earthrise-NASA
Modern science is a predominately progressive endeavour.  Those of us living in the developed nations, not only anticipate new discoveries, we normally embrace such change as beneficial.

We have become accustomed to the idea that pretty much everything is subject to revision and refinement.  This is among the identifying features of living in a technology-based society.  Everything changes, and over the course of time, generally for the better.

In contrast, true art reaches something deep within us, something which is timeless.  In Jungian terms, one might say true art resonates with a counterpart in our deep unconscious;  this may reach even deeper, into the depths of our collective -shared- unconscious.

Art awakens within us a desire for -and facilitates a connection to- that which is timeless.  Likewise, profound religious-spiritual experiences bring us into an awareness of this timeless dimension of reality.

In thinking about the religious experience as a form of art, I am suggesting there are unchanging elements of human nature, which activate archetypal resonances.  One may even argue whatever these elements are, they reach across species.  After all, why did Neanderthals bury their dead, with apparent concern for their continuing care, even in death?

But how might we identify what in our religious experience is timeless?  And how might such experiences differ from secular (non-religious) experiences?  I would begin by suggesting we consider two broad categories of experience:

  •   External (Exoteric)
  •   Internal (Esoteric)

External / Exoteric

In this view, external experiences govern our interactions with others.  The application of morals and ethics within our society serve as examples.  These concerns may be both secular and religious.  While it is possible to live to a high moral and ethical standard without holding a religious conviction, both the secular and religious norms seek to instruct us how we are to live with one another.

The central difference between the two are found in the “whys” of doing so.

Secularly, such reasons may range from, these are the regulations handed down to us from our rulers, to these are the means of finding personal happiness;  if we are more ethically mature, to allowing others to also find their happiness;  and for those embracing very mature ethics, to actively assisting others find their happiness.

What of the religious dimension?

I believe the shift from the secular experience to the religious experience is revealed in the transformational qualities of that which we seek.  The call of the secular is of a more limited nature to my ear.  At its best, it calls for us to live in peace, and live our life so as to be happy, and helping others do likewise.  But where is the terminus, the end?  For the secular, that ending point is here, on planet earth.

If we care only about ourselves, it ends with us, here and now.  If we care about our children, it ends with them, and their children.  If we care about the children of strangers, we extend our concern greatly.  But all these concerns are limited to the continuation of life on this planet.

It is not that seeking to live a life filled with happiness is a bad goal.  It is not that seeking out ways of helping others to do the same is a bad thing.  These are objectively beneficial goals to hold throughout one’s life.  But they are goals limited to our worldly realm.  Thus, their nature is secular.

Positive transformation of society is a good thing, but by itself it falls short of being a religious experience because it limits itself to the “horizontal” axis of our lives.  Time is the horizontal axis in which we all live in this world.  We are by our physical nature creatures subject to time;  we are captured within its boundaries.

Vertical Axis of the Eternal

But there is also a “vertical axis” which the religious experience affirms:  the eternal;  that which is outside of time;  that which is unconstrained by time;  that which transcends time, and by extension, everything found in our vast universe.

This contrast and interaction between the horizontal and vertical aspects of our existence is part of what is symbolized in the cross.  The horizontal arm symbolizes our physical, material, time-constrained presence in the mortal world;  the vertical arm symbolizes our connection to the eternal.

I believe we may think of our desire for the eternal as what Joseph Campbell called “finding our bliss.”  And I believe Bishop Spong invites us to “love wastefully” because we are best in alignment with the vertical component of our nature when we live in a state of love.  And I believe this is what St. Augustine was aware of when observing that our weight is our love (in whatever we place our love, that acts like gravity, drawing us ever-nearer to it).

What have these views in common?  They are transformative experiences, because they encourage us to live for more than merely the horizontal dimension of our lives;  they point us toward the timeless, vertical-spiritual axis of our being, which transcends our mortal experience.

Internal / Esoteric

Internally -esoterically- the religious experience is about living in the vertical axis.  Here we meet what we may of that which transcends our human condition.  This experience is as limited or profound as is our state of consciousness.  The timeless-transcendent is always available to us;  *we* limit how much of this we may drink.

The objective of this encounter is to experience the numinous in our life.

  Numinous  (Merriam-Webster)

  •     Having a mysterious, holy, or spiritual quality
  •     Supernatural, mysterious
  •     Filled with a sense of the presence of divinity :  holy
  •     Appealing to the higher emotions or to the aesthetic sense :  spiritual

The numinous encounter is what I see as the primary goal of mysticism.  And I see the numinous as a unifying force across many -perhaps all- religions.  This is what draws their mystics of differing religions closer to one another, even as they are sometimes distanced from non-mystics within their own religious tradition.

  •      There is a tension between persons within each religion, of the mystic/esoteric and the non-mystic/exoteric, persuasion.  This may be symbolized by a circle with a dot in the middle of it:  persons experiencing the exoteric nature of their religion, traverse along the outer perimeter of the circle, and quite accurately, note differences among the various religious traditions;  meanwhile, mystics experience the esoteric nature of their religion, and move ever-nearer to the central dot, which represents the Transcendent, and in so doing, note their experience is becoming increasingly similar to other esoterics, regardless of their exoteric religious tradition.

I understand the inner (esoteric) religious experience to be concerned with personal transformation, so as to bring ourselves into increasing consonance with that which transcends our human experience.

In Christian and Jewish terms, these transformational experiences are conveyed in the teaching of the Greatest Commandment, which St. Augustine presented as:  loving God with all that you are, and loving others in such as manner as to best foster their ability to love God with all that they are.  This is why Augustine said our love is our weight, meaning:

  •   …as gravity draws a rock to the ground, so too, that in which we place our love, to that we are drawn.

The Art of the Religious Experience  

I believe the Art of the Religious Experience is about Transformation:  of ourselves;  of our communities.  We are to transform first ourselves and then our community in such a manner as to bring us into consonance with what we identify as our Ultimate Concern (God, Oneness, or Love, for the religious;  perhaps Happiness or Love, for the secular).

I further believe all great religions may be understood as using the ideal of selfless love (or compassion, or loving-kindness) as our daily measure of success in striving toward this understanding of Ultimate Concern.  I would further observe this is the process of becoming more fully human which bishop Spong speaks of in concert with his appeal for us to “love wastefully.”

The opposite of this is also true.  Should our Ultimate Concern become Hate, we transform our communities into machines of war and destruction.  We turn from mystical unity with all, toward isolation, rejection of all that is not “us” (tribal thinking), and we project (transform) our hatred upon others to alienate them, so as to more easily cause them harm.  This is the corruption of the religious experience, and the rejection of the numinous.

Yet we may hope to learn from the great mystics of all religions, who seek to reveal to us the light they have encountered in presence of the timeless, eternal.

  •    It is up to each of us to choose that which shall become our Weight, our Gravity.

We each carry the dichotomies of Love-and-Hate, Eternal-and-Worldly, in our hearts.  The choice between Love and Hate is present in our interactions with others;  in each thought we harbour;  in each feeling we allow to linger within us;  in each look we cast upon another;  and carried in each word we speak.

We cannot be perfect, and we would drive ourselves mad were we to set such an impossible standard.  But we each may strive toward more frequently nourishing loving thoughts, feelings, and interactions with others.  This is a critical first- and continual-step in our spiritual maturity.  And I believe this is common to all true religions, when lived in their deepest, most spiritually transformative expression.

We should give ourselves permission to be gracious to ourselves when we fall short of this ideal.  And we should be gracious with others when they too fall short of “loving wastefully.”  Forgiveness, as with all things human, begins within us.  It is OK to be human.  It is OK to fall short of our ideals.

What is important is that we get up again;  that we start anew.

  •   It is never too late to recognize the vertical axis in our lives.
  •   It is never too late to embrace this spiritually transformative process.
  •   It is never too late to promote compassion for others.
  •   It is never too late to pick ourselves up after a fall.
  •   It is never too late to recommit our lives to transforming ourselves, and our community.
  •   It is never too late to be happy.
  •   It is never too late to love.

These are all important aspects of the Art of Living the Authentic Religious Experience.

Augustine, Grace, and the Holy Spirit

Holy Spirit, St Peters, Vatican City, Rome, Italy (Wikicommons)

Holy Spirit, St Peters, Vatican City, Rome, Italy (Wikicommons)

We sometimes hear people speaking of the Holy Spirit teaching them, providing guidance, or interpretation of scripture.  In recent decades such language is often used in Charismatic church traditions.  While the specific terms differ, I believe this is what Bishop Augustine of Hippo (circa 400 ce) spoke of as Grace working in our hearts.

Augustine speaks of the importance of Grace a great deal.  This is capital-G Grace, meaning Divine Grace.  Whenever St. Augustine uses capital letter terms describing aspects of God, these are to be understood as the very same thing as the Essence of God.  Examples of these Divine attributes include:  Grace, Faith, Hope, Love, Good, Reason, Understanding, Justice (which is exactly the same thing as Righteousness:  in English, both words derive from the same word in both Latin and Greek).

The logic goes something like this:  God the Creator is Uncreated;  Uncreated in the sense God always exists, and is outside of time;  thus, God is eternal (meaning, outside of time;  which is different than something which is ever-lasting, yet residing within time).  Everything within Creation is a “creature” having been created, be this salt, a tree, a person, or an angel.

But these Divine attributes all reside within the Divine Mind of God, and are of exactly the same Essence of God.  These are perfect “forms” which also reside outside of time;  they are as eternal as is God, and they are understood as being held in the Mind of God;  and because they are of the same Essence as God, they too are Uncreated.

This reasoning finds its roots in Platonic philosophy, and is directly related to Platonic Forms.  In the West, Augustine may be the most important writer outside the New Testament;  and one of his primary life works was to bring together Platonic philosophy and Christian theology.

That’s the back ground.  So, when Augustine speaks of Faith, Grace, Hope, and Charity/Love, he is speaking of aspects of God;  which are, for Augustine, every bit “God” as “God” is God.  And the basic Augustinian formula of how God works in our hearts follows from this understanding:

  •   Faith ->  Grace  ->  Hope  ->  Charity/Love

We begin the transformative process by taking the step of choosing (through an act of our will) to have faith in God, which God rewards by imbuing us with Faith.  (There are differences in opinion about the role faith and Faith play in our lives.  Are we really able to initiate this process?  If we are not, do we in fact have free will?)

Then through the entry of Grace (what I argue many name the Holy Spirit) into our lives, we (1) gain Hope for our continuing spiritual transformation, and (2) are assisted in leading our lives in greater affinity with God’s Charity/Love (remembering that “magnetic” attraction, or the “weight” of Love pulling us toward that which we Love, spoken of in the previous essay).

  •   A note about Charity:  Charity is God’s Love.  But more specifically, it is the marriage of the two greatest commandments:  Love God with all your heart, mind, and strength;  and love other’s as yourself.  And as Augustine interprets this, we are to Love ourselves so as to bring ourselves ever-closer to God;  thus, Loving other’s as ourselves, is to Love them so as to bring them ever-closer to God.  Our Love is our weight;  in Loving God we are drawn inexorably toward God.

 

Feeding Grace in our Heart

For Augustine an important part of facilitating or “feeding” this Grace at work within us, is reading and studying scripture.  Augustine is among those who says a given passage may have many interpretations.  So long as they draw you toward God -whether an inch or a mile- they are Good interpretations.  While there may be some interpretations which may offer deeper insights or more profoundly effect our lives, *all* interpretations which draw a person toward the Divine are desirable interpretations.  The longest journey begins with the first step, and is completed through a series of countless steps;  and each step is important in it’s own right.

Augustine further says that the struggle to understand difficult passages of scripture is important.  It is through such struggles that we grow and learn;  it us through such struggles that Grace/Holy Spirit teaches us.  Thus, such struggles are formative;  critical;  vital.

As we struggle with an interpretation of scripture, as we seek deeper meanings, and compare and contrast alternate possible interpretations, we provide an opportunity for Grace/Holy Spirit to work in us, to transform our mind, our understanding, and our heart.

 
How, specifically, do we do this?  

We begin by praying for perception and understanding.  Then we read, ponder, debate, and “think on” various possible meanings:  we struggle internally.  As I read Augustine, he speaks of three interactive aspects of this process of struggle:  Prayer;  Scripture (reading of);  and Grace (Holy Spirit).  It is implied that we are mentally and emotionally engaged in striving to come to a solution to the difficulty;  mindful there may be a variety of “good” answers to our question of interpretation;  some better than others.

I find I agree with these views offered by Augustine.

Offered with blessings,
Erik+

“My weight is my love”: Sin, Free Will, and Universal Salvation

Saint Augustine by Philippe de Champaigne

Saint Augustine by Philippe de Champaigne

 

My weight is my love.  Wherever I am carried my love is carrying me.
Augustine, Confessions 13.9.10

 
The above is a well known quote of St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430 ce).  The image Augustine is painting for us, is that we are attracted to what we love;  much as the earth’s gravity pulls us toward it.

Thus, in whatever we place our love, to that we are drawn.  If we place our love in Godly things, we will be drawn toward Godly things.  If we place our love in earthly things, we are drawn toward earthly things.

 

Consider the nature of Godly things, verses earthly things.

Specifically, consider the nature of existing within time, verses existing outside of time.  Earthly things exist within time;  they always fall apart, fail, and if living, eventually die.  Augustine calls this corruption.  Everything in time becomes corrupt.  Not so, however, for that which is outside of time.  That which is outside of time is eternal;  incorruptible.  Thus, Godly things are incorruptible;  eternal.

Augustine’s suggestion is that if we choose to place our love in earthly things, we are placing our love in things which must fail, corrupt, die.  And we will never find ultimate happiness loving things subject to corruption.  This is one reason why Augustine counsels us to place our love in eternal things;  Godly things.

  • (There is a Buddhist corollary:  attaching ourselves to things of this world always results in suffering, because such things are illusionary;  whereas attaching ourselves to that which is eternal frees us from suffering.)

 

Free Will is our ability to choose.

Do we choose to place our love in that which is eternal, or that which becomes corrupt?  The choice is ours.  However, even if we steadfastly choose corruption, Augustine offers us the hope that unlike a rock which once fallen to earth remains at rest, we are always subject to the attractive force of God’s love for us.

Love flows in both directions:  from us to God, and from God to us;  from the temporal (in time) to the eternal, and from the eternal to the temporal.  Thus, we may hope that the Grace of God will draw us to Him, no matter how strongly we resist this attraction.  If God’s Love for us is eternal, we are eternally carried upon that Love, toward the Divine Center/God.  I find this offers a beautiful, hopeful image.

 

What about sin?  

Augustine teaches that God is Good.  And all that God creates is also Good.  Thus, the world and all that has been created, is also Good.

Does this mean that sin is also Good?  Augustine does not go that far.  He teaches that sin actually lacks essence, being, or being-ness.  God has be-ing (more than this, God *is* the *source* of all be-ing).

We too have be-ing.  And my shirt has be-ing.

However -and this is the key point- the *hole* in my shirt does *not* have essence or being-ness.  The hole in my shirt is a lack or deprivation or privation.  This is easy to see in the case of a shirt:  the shirt is made from some material;  should a hole be torn in the shirt, in some sense we can say the hole “exists” because we can see it after all.

But in another important sense, the hole lacks being, because the totality of its apparent existence is comprised by the material no longer being there;  thus, that which comprises the hole, is without essence.

 

  •   The shirt has positive existence:  it exists because it has essence;  the material of the cloth.
  •   The hole has negative existence:  it does *not* have essence;  it is defined by the missing material.

 
So too, sin has negative existence.  Sin lacks essence or being-ness.  Augustine teaches that sin is the absence of God’s Goodness.

And this is related to our Free Will, because we choose into what we invest our love.  As we choose eternal, Godly things, we are attracted toward God;  and as we choose temporal, earthly things, we are attracted toward corruption;  and one manner in which corruption manifests is as sin (depriving ourselves of God’s Goodness).

We should, however, *not* take the next logical jump and say there must be Good and Evil.  Remember, Augustine teaches that *all* is Good.  There are different degrees of Good, to be sure!  But in the created world everything that has existence has some measure of God’s Goodness, be that measure great or small.

Thus, even Satan retains some degree and measure of God’s Goodness!  Try as he might to fight against this and deny it, Satan was created as an angel, and was created Good.  A long series of Free Will choices (placing his love in that which is ungodly, or anti-God) has been drawing Satan farther and farther away from God.

And yet, we may hope that God loves all of his creation eternally.  If this is so, God’s Love, even for Satan, will inevitably, ineluctably, eternally be drawing Satan back to God.

 

  • (Sidebar:  To my mind the personification of Evil in the person of Satan is an allegory.  At times it is convenient to use this language, of Satan vs. God, but I do *not* take it literally, because I find to do so leads one down the path of strong dualism, and the battle of Good God vs. Evil God, which I believe we inherited from Zoroastrianism, c. 500 bce.  I find this to be a destructive line of thought – especially when literalized.  For those interested in this subject, I recommend reading Elaine Pagels book: “The Origins of Satan.”)

 

Universal Salvation

God’s eternal Love for all of his creation is one way to frame the concept of Universal Salvation.  Augustine was a Latin-speaking Roman, and while this concept of Universal Salvation exists in the original Greek (see “Universalism” by Dr. J. W. Hanson), it had been almost entirely lost in the West by the time of Augustine.

Augustine was able to provide us the tools to arrive at the logical conclusion of his argument:

 

  •   Everything God creates is Good.
  •   God’s Love is eternal.
  •   Therefore, God eternally draws all of His creation back to Himself.

 

But Augustine did not officially take this position.  (Obviously, we cannot know what Augustine thought, but did not write or teach.)

Yet this teaching of Universal Salvation has never completely disappeared.  While it has never become an official Church doctrine (teaching) a variety of theologians have said we may still hope it is true, including the recent Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis.

 

Offered with blessings,
Erik+