Sunday, January 02, 2011

A Spirituality of Being - I

In-the-Gut knowledge of the Divine

On this first day of a new year and decade, I find myself considering this thought from an Episcopal laywoman from New York whose experiential wisdom is offered in this month’s Faith Matters column in The Christian Century. Here’s a part of her column:

From Suzanne Guthrie, “The Sound of Silence,” in Faith Matters, 127 The Christian Century 26, p. 33 (Dec. 28, 2010)

“Apophatic theology is in-the-gut knowledge that God transcends images, names and definitions; that words limit both the experience and description of the Divine. It acknowledges the restraints of human perceptions of space and time.

Rather than saying ‘God is this or that,” negative theologians begin by saying, ‘God is not this or that.’ (Junior high-age theologians love this stuff!) Moreover, this way of the unknowing of God paradoxically unfolds as a way toward union with God.

Why are some of us wired to perceive the Divine most acutely in darkness, solitude and silence? Is it brain chemistry? Temperament? Some necessary evolutionary balance? It isn’t that we don’t experience the Divine Presence in other people, or nature or great liturgy or service to others. But connecting first wit this primary Nothingness makes Presence possible for us within all those other things.

It wouldn’t hurt pastors to learn about apophatic mysticism and to become better able to respond when a faithful parishioner comes to the office dumbfounded because ‘God has abandoned me.’ Rather than offer some platitude (‘If God seems distant, who moved?’) the pastor might say, ‘Hmmm, well that sounds about right! This probably means you’re being drawn into a deeper, more profound and integrated consciousness of God. Sit with it, trust it, wait, like you do in Advent or Lent. God has not abandoned you, but more likely, as John of the Cross says, God is flooding your soul with light and you can’t quite apprehend it yet. So it is ‘dark’ in the way the light blinds you when you switch it on in the middle of the night.’”

I read these words as I lay in my bed before sleeping two nights ago and suddenly found myself wide awake, mind racing, heart beating widely, unable to drop off to sleep. You see, this woman was speaking the truths of my own heart. I relate to her insights implicitly. It was immensely gratifying to know someone actually understands what I labor to comprehend myself, much less relate to others.

Increasingly as my spiritual journey has progressed, I, too, have found that words get in the way of spirit. Words seem like attempts to nail down something that is by definition elusive. And if words actually could succeed in nailing down spirit, it would undoubtedly stop flowing, languish and die.

As I pondered this thought, the crucifixion of Jesus suddenly became clear to me in a way previously unconsidered. When human beings are confronted with the wildness, the overpowering – and thus uncontrollable – amorphous nature of spirit, they become afraid. They desperately seek to regain a sense of control, however contrived, to conquer and contain that which has disturbed their illusions. When that is not possible, spirit – along with its prophetic purveyors - becomes an enemy of that which has been domesticated – tradition – and must be destroyed.

In the Gospel of Matthew, these words are attributed to Jesus:

You scholars and Pharisees, you imposters! Damn you! You are like whitewashed tombs: on the outside they look beautiful but inside they are full of dead bones and every kind of decay. So you too look like decent people on the outside but on the inside your are doing nothing but posturing and subverting the Law….You erect tombs to the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous and claim, “If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we wouldn’t have joined them in spilling the prophets’ blood.” (Matthew 23: 27-30, Scholars’ Version).

The Jesus Seminar scholars coded this entire passage black meaning they adjudged that Jesus probably did not say this. According to the Seminar scholars, Jesus probably had limited contact with Pharisees whose domain was primarily in Judea while this saying is reported to have occurred in the north in Galilee. Rather, it reflects the period toward the end of 1st CE when the Jewish followers of a now-executed Jesus were excommunicated from their synagogues by their estranged co-religionists. The Jesus followers retaliated in writing, heaping criticism on their Jewish rivals who had ousted them from their spiritual homes, unwittingly providing the fodder for anti-Jewish and ultimately anti-Semitic polemics for the coming two millennia.

But these words do give insights into the very human clash between spirit, which frequently represents change, and tradition, which inevitably sees change as inimical. For first century Jews, holding onto the traditions that defined them as Jews was essential. Anything new represented a potential loss of an entire tradition following the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE. Similarly, for a developing institutional church with its own perceived needs for definition and uniformity, it is much easier to worship a construction of a crucified savior who, safely nailed up on an immobile wooden cross, cannot cause any more trouble than to follow a living and prophetic spirit, which calls all human beings bearing the image of the Divine to their fullest states of development, i.e., to grow ever more into the likeness of the Divine.

I think it important to note here that while words in their various arrangements can provide the nails for immobilizing pesky incarnations of spirit, images often serve as liberatory windows into the Divine. Images provoke as many responses as responders. For those whose right brains have not yet been completely lobotomized by the dominant left brain hegemony of our culture, images – and thus symbols - serve an iconic function – to point beyond themselves to a truth which words are ultimately incapable of fully relating. In many ways, this is the divide between the word-driven dialectical spirit of Augustinian Christianity - both in its authoritarian Roman Catholic hierarchical form and in much of the Protestant response to that hierarchy flowing out of the Reformation - and the analogical, communal spirit of catholic (i.e., universal) spirituality.

Increasingly I have come to see the highly overemphasized dialectical approach of western cultures generally and western religions specifically to be the antithesis of spirit. Religions which are nailed down and stored away in word-driven safe boxes of bibles, creeds and confessions – both the formal variety of the Reformation era and the informal, single issue variety of post-modernity – largely speak to security issues. Ironically, the result of such endeavors is a tenuous security on a good day. Socially constructed systems can never really provide the human beings who create them the security we believe we need even as we willfully ignore their constructed natures and make untenable claims to universality about our idols, the works of our own hands.

This post continues.


The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
ost things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.


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