Thursday, February 17, 2011

Wrestling with traditional Christian scripture and prayers

So here's the thing.

There are many wonderful people who have come to such profound insight into the Divine, and through this to a solidarity with the core insights of other religions, by practicing with traditional Christian scriptures and prayers.  They have inspired me, and I mention them often: Fr. Thomas Merton, Fr. Thomas Keating, Fr. Richard Rohr, Fr. Bede Griffiths, Br. Wayne Teasdale, Br. David Steindl-Rast (to name a few).  So for reasons discussed elsewhere I joined a politically tolerant, theologically inspirational Episcopal parish with a strong anglo-catholic flavor ("high church liturgy"). The Anglicans, including the Episcopal Church, recommend their version of the Daily Office to both priests and laity alike, religious and secular.  So this sounds like a good idea.  Many in the Anglican tradition simply don't do any of the Daily Offices at all, let alone on a regular basis.  And when they do go to Mass, the reading from the Psalter (the Psalms) tends to be edited so that the harsh portions are left out.  So I will offer some background on my views as well as examples of why this practice hasn't been working out as well as I had initially hoped.

It should be recalled that I see no reason to defend the Bible as something it isn't but rather to appreciate it for what it is.  It is an attempt to record people's understanding of their encounter with the Divine Mystery.  This means appreciating things such as historical and cultural context in the use of language and thus not missing the point of why something was phrased a particular way rather than assuming it would have been said the exact same way if it were written today.  Otherwise much of the power of the texts is muted and we risk misunderstanding that can be profoundly damaging. The necessary process of maintaining the vitality of such texts and their commentaries produces a perpetual tension between between received wisdom through tradition and insights from ongoing revelation.  I don't have any need to deny that there is all manner of ugliness recorded in the Bible, often framed as the will of God, nor should anyone be surprised to find such things.  The human path to peace and wisdom is filled with wrong turns and dead ends because of our shortcomings and poor choices.  Our hearts, the deepest parts of our selves, are often hard, narrow, and crowded, which causes plenty of distortion in discerning who God is and what God wants.

With that said, I do still find that keeping all of this in mind does not nearly always dull or instantly convert those rough passages or phrasing that repeatedly come up in traditional Christian scriptures and prayers.  It is one thing to recognize, through proper context, the important steps forward certain passages contain, even though we tend to focus on the aspects we find offensive.  An eye for an eye was a step forward in justice, but then Jesus moves us beyond that to a higher level of mercy.  Gotcha.  But when I read this stuff everyday, with all of the parts where "the Lord is a great God and a great King above all gods" (Psalm 95) or where "the Lord is a man of war" (Exodus 15:3) or where "I will destine you to the sword, and all of you shall bow down to the slaughter" (Isaiah 65), well, it isn't what I would call inspiring.

In part this is because when doing these kinds of prayers, I for one don't want to have to keep thinking about how in proper context this probably means something other than a superficial reading would suggest, or that a particular attitude was a stepping stone to a more enlightened perspective, or that my contemporary mind is missing the point of what the writer was saying by focusing on the aspects of the language or imagery that sound offensive to my ears. I really don't.  It's not practical on any level.  It's a distraction at best and disincentive at worst.  I am not drawn to the holy wonder of an all-embracing God who is love when I am reading such passages; I feel like I am walking through a liturgical morgue.  Now it could be said that this is a good thing, that I am being reminded of the errors and pitfalls that people can fall into when jingoism, xenophobia, immature religiosity, self-righteous arrogance, and other temptations get the better of us.  But I am pretty sure that isn't the goal.  From everything I've read and heard, the purpose really is inspiration.  Well, to use to an annoying contemporary Internet idiom: EPIC FAIL.

For those who haven't become overly familiar with the Psalms in their entirety and in their unsanitized form, here are the major common themes of I have noticed after a few complete trips through the Psalter:
  • waiting for God (to help, to save, to be a friend, etc)
  • trying to follow the Jewish laws and requirements
  • claims his innocence
  • then confesses his guilt
  • bargaining/negotiating a trade of obedience for blessings
  • desperate and fearful of mocking, violent, dishonest enemies
  • angry at the the oppressors and murderers
  • equates justice with blessing for the poor and oppressed
  • equates justice with the horrible suffering and the swift destruction of the wicked and powerful
  • recognizes (at least partially) the mercy and splendor of God
  • sitting and lying down are equated with those stuck in sin
  • walking and running are equated living in righteousness
  • the (coming) judgment of God is good news to the weak, the infirm, the slave and the prisoner
  • doesn't understand why God hasn't yet rendered judgment 
  • maintains faith in God despite misgivings and disappointments
This is certainly on honest reflection of people struggling with their desires and with their faith, people who are seeking God with their own limited understanding.  In that sense the psalms do give us an insight into the human condition and need, our fickle and selfish approach to religion, and our deepest hopes and fears.  But so much of it seems to require constant reflection on the circumstances and intent of the psalmist.

Don't get me wrong. Learning about the meaning of context helps me appreciate many verses in the sacred texts of many religions, particularly Christianity and Buddhism, but apparently for me there is a limit; a certain percentage that is "hard to grasp".  And then there is are the parts that just seem outdated or irrelevant.  I want to honor tradition, but it can be difficult.  Kathleen Norris makes an excellent case in The Cloister Walk that the Psalter in particular and the Daily Office overall have spiritually nourished people for thousands of years, and that the psalms are poetry to be felt, not analyzed for content.  They are meant to be true expressions of the heart, even a heart in pain or confusion, not theological statements to be analyzed. Maybe I am just spiritually or poetically tone deaf.  I want to get it, but more often than not I do not. On a related note, while I understand why it was important for many communities to always refer to Jesus as "lord" and make constant references to the trinity, and furthermore why this is retained in the fixed parts of the liturgy, why do none of the variable portions, such as the collects, ever refer to Jesus as brother (Matthew 12:49-50) or friend (John 15:15)?

Just because I do or don't get something doesn't make it valid or useful.  And I am still fairly new to the practice. But it does leave me to wonder what it is I am not getting right.  If there is something that those who have become so deep in wisdom are getting from such practice that I am just missing. I really am trying to get this down, but some of it is still out of sync.  Please feel free to offer your suggestions or experiences or to share the link to this post with someone you think might want to offer their perspective.  But please, if you are going to be rude, don't bother. 

[UPDATE: I recently re-read the chapter on the Psalms in The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris, and it really spoke to exactly what my problems have been and it has been immensely beneficial. If you think what I wrote sounds similar to your own concerns go and read that book, or at least that chapter!]

An new post updating my view of the Psalms is available.

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  1. thanks for sharing. you seem to be someone who does a lot of research into faiths, and spiritual practice. I applaud you.

  2. You're welcome. Too bad research in and of itself doesn't lead to awakening :)

  3. The human path to peace and wisdom is filled with wrong turns and dead ends because of our shortcomings and poor choices.
    This is your quote above. I am going to contemplate this. This statement sounds like a moral judgement. In other articles you agree that morality is a human add on and a contruct. It seems you are doing just that. :) Unavoidable isnt it, being human. The whole take on parts on the Bible that you dislike is a moral contruct. An all inclusive god accepts all drama.
    How I have come to see things is that the relational duality of life is the perfect execution of existance aka god's plan. Here we are in the middle of a perfect setup to create human life and awarness. The perfect plan that sets up good and bad for us to evolve and along the way discuss it until death, literally, lol, so that we can think up the latest creative ways to execute the perfect plan. So hey if you do not get some parts, they are there for you, to stir up the new thought, to create the new perfect plan. And god can look through your eyes and have a little chuckle about u steaming it up about the littel annoying nugget that way planed a 1000 years ago just so u can be annoyed about it today. It is the perfect plan, isnt it.
    But more on your dissapointed commentary of human condition and wisdom. The relational duality of taking the wrong turn is there to take the right turn. How could we take the wrong turn in the first place if we didnt have the right turn. As much as I totally understand that you are dissapointed in human wisdom, we need the stupid to have smart. On top of it, it is only a turn until we judge it to be good or bad. On top of it the turn does not exist until we show up to judge it. But here we are to discuss the glory of god. We certainly can not discuss it without having the relational anti glory, when god really sucks. You seem to want to have an all loving god, which is based on your human judgemental morality. God is ALL things. God is infinity. I certainly wish I could understand more. This is how far I have come.

  4. I suppose I made this comment to try to alleviate your frustration with it, and provide opening to accept that some things you will not accept and that is fine as well.
    I appreciate the discussion and thought provoking articles.


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