Saturday, March 5, 2011

Reconciling tradition and contemporary insight: How to live, meeting God, and judgment

This is part of a series of essays exploring ways to honor religious tradition while making its message accessible and relevant to people today. It isn't officially endorsed by any group, it is an attempt to spark people to move forward with their faith. It draws on another essay sketching the outlines of two visions of the Christian message.

Too often we see important elements and individuals in religion reduced to lists of rules and theological reflections. The overly familiar images and language becomes sterile, and they make the way we speak or think of God lazy: "Almighty God", "in the name of Jesus", "who with the Father and the Holy Spirit", etc. Many have an idea that they should use these things because they are Christian, but what if we took away those convenient, easy and familiar words and the handy reactionary assumptions of theology that they hide?

Because some overarching themes became so ingrained and taken for granted in major swaths of the Christian traditions, people just assume what terms like sin and holiness mean and never really bother to explore them beyond the impression the receive from the environment in which their beliefs were formed. But what if there is more to it? What if a failure to take into account the original context of an idea or to ask how it might have been expressed today isn't just lazy, it shows a disrespect for the idea itself. It also means many people will find the idea sounds outdated or irrelevant, no matter how much its proponents shout and stamp their feet.

Let's continue from where we left off  taking a look at how the way in which we understand the nature of God, the vision of Jesus, the nature of the Gospel, and the purpose of the Church impacts how we live our lives and what it means to meet God and face judgment.

For this part of the series, coming at the end, I am going to assume you have read the previous essays rather than trying to remind or refresh the reader with the basic point of view established for what I am terming a mystical view of the issues being reviewed. Quite a bit of ground has been covered, including most of the big ticket items people tend to think of when they reflect on the religion known as Christianity.
Of course, there is still the topic that turns people off more than nearly any other: judgment.

Those who more fully embrace the moralistic, literalistic, superstitious view of the Gospel and Christianity, who tend to operate from insecurity and interpret things solely from the perspective of the lesser self, which, let's face it, tend to be more or less what we refer to as the more fundamentalist groups, have a clearer, simpler message which is easily grasped, even if it is immediately rejected. Positions with more nuance and subtly are hard to convey, relying on euphemisms, poetic license and similar forms of expression which can be misunderstood or taken literally. When moralistic views are heavily used, even in symbolic form, this can further the confusion. Moreover, it makes the more fundamentalist views look strong and clear while the mixed views look weak and apologetic. However, a strong, open and welcoming mystic view is a distinct and genuine alternative. This requires an unambiguous approach to considering issues such as the Christian concept of judgment. This is the natural culmination of the other topic covered and it has a lot to do with the role the Church is to play outside of the doors of its cathedrals and parishes and worship centers.

You no doubt expected, dear reader, that given what has gone before, I reject the notion of going before a big throne "up in" heaven where a catalog of all the times I violated lists of rules will be read out, only to be spared if my name is found written in the so-called book of life. I wish it were a straw man argument to say this accurately depicts what many Christians actually expect, but this is not the case. Which leads into an important point. Much of the imagery I feel is abused in moralistic aspects of Christianity are not hopelessly inadequate or without value. But this value can only be properly assessed and appreciated from a firm foundation not based on misuse of such imagery. Let's go through the idea again of connecting to our divine consciousness.

The core concept used to imagine this is panentheism, that God is the ground of being and therefore the raw potential out of which reality comes. Thus God is simultaneously transcendent and immanent, as the source of reality, the substance of reality, and the sustainer of reality. God's full nature is beyond our intellectual comprehension, but the closest we can to describing the experience of God is unconditional and unyielding love, infinite compassion flowing out of infinite wisdom. Beyond categories such as personal or impersonal (but far from less than a person), we can apprehend God to some degree as a foundational level of consciousness, which may be referred to a divine consciousness. Is the most fundamental and valid aspect of reality, so it may also be referred to as ultimate reality.

I've also appeared to criticize magical thinking and superstition. I define superstition as an inappropriate attribution of causality; that is, to say that X caused Y when it wasn't really X that led to Y. More importantly, it isn't just incorrect, it is also as I said inappropriate, either because it isn't warranted or it isn't sensible based on what we know about how things work. Magic and magical thinking is the invoking of unseen forces, nearly always by some specific set of rituals in invocations, which compel said forces to produce some observable result. A good example is when God is treated like a cosmic vending machine. If I pray just the right way or make the right gestures or do the right things, God will give me what I ask for, like, say, a new job or an attractive date. All human beings have a tendency to succumb to both superstition and magical thinking, even those who are not involved with religious activity or beliefs, such as the pitcher who wear his lucky socks to improve his ERA or the jockey who always drinks a chocolate milkshake prior to a race. This is what I am criticizing.

There is a lot of confused usage of another term these days, which is the word supernatural. It has come to mean any kind of literal belief in mythical imagery, magic, superstition, and anything to do with religion. As a friend of mine who studies these kinds of things has informed me, supernature actually had a meaning much closer to the one I gave above for God, especially the idea of ultimate reality, which is the potential and source of all phenomena, in which conventional notions of time and space, i.e. the hallmarks of historical reality, break down. The two realities are not truly separate, just different aspects or angles on the same thing. I've suggested and endorse again the idea that many things which may in fact be part of our historical reality are still nonetheless beyond or ability to adequately and regularly detect, perceive, analyze or explain are also sometimes lumped into the catch-all category of the supernatural, although this particular set of phenomena may also be referred to instead as belonging to the category of the paranormal. Nothing I am writing in this series of articles is rejecting the possibility of such mysteries or in any way denigrating the experiences of those who claim to have experience them.

With this established alongside what has gone before in this series, let us return to the idea that we must mature spiritually as well as physically and mentally. This includes a journey through consciousness, which is not just the local phenomenon associated with the brain but a fundamental aspect of reality itself of which the local phenomena is a part. This is commonly represented with the image of the heart, the core of our being. So to complete the picture, our hearts are not isolated and small, they have deeper levels that open up into a limitless expanse. The basis of sin, or separation from God, is that which, either through immaturity or poor choices, limits or obstructs our recognition of such depth in our being. This leaves us incomplete, feeling like isolated beings in a world of disconnected phenomena; limited beings, who then try to fill their need for wholeness and realness and assuage a lingering existential insecurity with affirmations of the ego. This limited thinking and living is also taken to be that to which Biblical references to "the flesh" are referring, whereas insight that comes from immersion in the divine consciousness is taken to coincide with references to "the spirit". Moreover, the flesh here is not seen as evil but merely incomplete, like a young child left to its own devices. Hence to reach our full potential, to not fall short of the glory God intends for us, we ought to strive to grow into a full relationship with God, which involves developing our divine consciousness (or in common parlance a relationship with God).

This takes us back to the nature of Jesus, what he did, why he did it, and so forth, which was covered previously, with the main thrust being that Jesus seems to have been totally immersed in divine consciousness during his ministry, and he wanted others to follow him and do the same. His role as the Christ serves as an example for others to be one with the Father, which means taking up our own crosses and seeking and committing to the same insight from which his own vision came. But what is it like? What is it like to start to approach the divine mystery? What is it like to seek the face of God? To plumb the depths of our divine consciousness? The writings from those who have gone far into that terrain (which does not include me!), from every religion and from none, give surprisingly consistent account: fear, shame and joy seem to be fairly common. Fear because it can be very strange and disorienting, as they ego has to give up the illusion it had of itself and the size and scope of reality, of which it is no longer the center. Shame because it is so pure and beautiful and gentle, loving everything and everyone intensely and favoring none, while we have ourselves been relatively self-absorbed and fickle in our own interactions. And joy because despite that we are still accepted, still embraced, still intensely loved.

The road is not easy, because our journey means giving up a lot of props and training wheels, which can feel like God has suddenly gone absent. There may be frustration, doubt and even fear as we wander through a bleak spiritual desert. This is described by St John of the Cross as the dark night of the soul, a period of purification of expectations and assumptions to ready us for that fuller exploration of the divine consciousness. This appears to be echoed by Jesus himself, both in the Gethsemane and on the cross when he utters "My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me?" Yet this is the road, difficult or not, that Jesus calls us to follow him down. Not as Jews or Gentiles, not as Christians or Muslims or Buddhists, but as human beings who will never be whole, fully content or complete, until they have learned to rest in God. These experiences can help to shed light on much which has developed, either borrowed or original, in Christianity.

For example, atonement and appeasement models of the Passion, which seem to have taken a beating in previous essays in this series, can be appreciated in the context of the experience of shame. These models, in which we lay our mistakes, our shortcomings, the things we have done to hurt ourselves or others, upon God. Upon the cross. Jesus fuses with the Christ, our shared consciousness in the divine, and in him we relate to our own flaws. The problem is when we make these poetic and cathartic images literal, that is, when we say Jesus had to die for us as a blood sacrifice, rather than seeing God through Jesus who accepts all of our flaws and tells us that we are still loved. In our psychology, this registers as forgiveness, as receiving grace, but in a sense is the same limitless love that has always been ours. If these images or models help us to accept this love, to accept grace, and move on to joy, they are effective. But this can have another negative side when we yo-yo, thinking that we have to keep feeling guilty because we don't actualize the acceptance and love and learn how to live in it. Hence when we seek repentance it can become a situation where we just feel worse and worse and more and more unworthy rather than growing into our maturity and sharing in the life of (as) Christ.

Having discussed the second coming thus:
Again, we have the same tension, of that which already is that which is still happening. The coming of Christ and the reign of God has already begun, yet in our hearts and minds it is not yet complete, therefore the world reflects this incompleteness in the structure of our societies, in the way we treat each other, and in the way we treat the planet and its inhabitants, human and otherwise.

In the mystic view offered here, this is the hope of seasons such as Epiphany: that more and more we will seek Christ, not as something alien to be worshiped and revered from a safe distance, but as our own heritage as Jesus' brothers and sisters, that is, as humanity. To seek to find and fuse with our complete nature, or as the classic language has it, to dwell in the house of the Lord. Each time someone connects with this truth and lives in it, Christ returns. Every time someone finds that they are an incarnation of God and accepts this revelation, the reign of God draws nearer. Because each time that happens, we follow the example of Jesus and in a sense become activated. Each of us, as we awaken to this truth, is another part of the body of Christ that has become fully alive. Piece by piece this body is completed. Person by person it becomes manifest in the historical realm of time and space.
There is judgment then, as we come closer and closer to full immersion in the divine consciousness, closer to a complete awareness of God. Our faults and flaws are exposed, and nothing is hidden. As we become part of the body of Christ, we see in ourselves that which we least like about ourselves. This is not mere soul searching, or thoughtful introspection. And the fear and shame we experience can send to into despair. If we don't die to the self, if we don't accept ourselves in God's love and let go of the small world to which we have become accustomed, while we are still in our physical bodies, spiritual wisdom from many faiths tell us we will still have to deal with this later.

For example, take this contemporary account from Into the Light by Dr. John Lerma about a terminally ill patient who has been unconscious for two days:
"That's impossible. I know I was in hell in for hundreds of years. I just know it... I was in a dark cave, shoulder to shoulder with many other Nazis and Roman soldiers who had been involved in mass killings. I could hear their thoughts and feel their anguish, and it mirrored my own guilt and shame. The emotional pain was deep and raw, and it was unending and seemed eternal...

"[T]here was always a bright light in the distance, and I felt drawn to it, but I was afraid, not knowing what kind of judgment awaited me. I knew it was the light of God and did not feel worthy to even be seeing it. After what seemed to be years of looking into the light, I finally had enough energy to cry out for help. At once I noticed the formation of an opening in the distant part of the lifeless cavern. From the small opening, I saw light beings walking past the entrance, back and forth, but never uttering a single word or sound. I assumed they were the guards that kept all of them from leaving, and I cowered from them, ashamed of who I had been.

"As I intensely stared at the light beings... [I recognized one of them as a] beautiful Jewish woman I escorted to the cyanide showers. I screamed out to her 'I'm sorry, I'm so sorry'... "

Feeling ashamed, he stepped back into the darkness and, as she stepped into the darkness, white light replaced it...

"As I stepped out of the cave, I was bathed in a light that filled me with intense love and joy... I told her 'I caused great suffering, and I need to know that suffering in order to release it.' She shook her head sadly and said, 'So be it.'"

In a split second, William said he entered the minds and bodies of every Jew and Christian he killed at the Nazi concentration camp. He felt their pain, fear, and death all at the same time...

At some point, the woman of light returned and asked William if he was ready to forgive himself, and he said that he was. At that point, all the people he had killed surrounded him, forgave him, and let him know how happy they were that he had been redeemed. She wrapped him in her arms of light and carried him into the greater light of God. He was bathed in unconditional love..."
I am not saying this validates near-death experiences, nor can I personally vouch for this story, but at whatever level of consciousness this occurred, but it is illustrative of the idea of judgment being expounded here. Indeed, Christ does judge us in the second coming, as we merge with Christ and thereby, as members of the body of Christ, we judge ourselves.

This is no easy way out, no getting off easy. Do we know, do I know, this is how it all works? Of course not! Again, it, like the rest of what we practice and discuss, is based on our own insights and those shared by others as best as they can describe it given their own beliefs, disposition and ability. But it consistent with the mystic elements of Christianity as well as other faiths and with accounts of patients who claim to have ventured closer than most of us to death's door. As Fr. Richard Rohr once wrote, and in doing so echoing others, the goal is to learn how to die and pass through all of this while we are still here on Earth so we can truly live, to have life to the full.

This also has implications for how we live. If we dial up the Jesus with rituals to reserve a space in heaven, where we get to be ethereal images of our limited selves and live in eternal pleasures desired by the flesh, and then later wipe out the current Earth to make room for a new one, it is easy to become complacent with the troubles of the world now. We get to keep our limited view, or worldly view, even as we decry "the world", those who fail to follow lists of rules associated with holiness. But as long we have our own personal relationship with Jesus, that is, with an idolized caricature of Jesus, we can find excuses not to challenge corruption and oppression, to have an unswerving commitment to the poor, outcast, and dispossessed. To simply try to sign others up to escape the sinking ship by doing the same rituals to dial up Jesus and reserve their own spaces. To see the world as us and them. But in the mystical view, this could never be. To undergo such purification, to fully accept ourselves and God's love, and to be inspired with the same vision Jesus claimed as the Christ, we could not but help to see everything and every person as aspect of the divine, as someone of profound value and importance. We could not help but make our very lives good news to the poor, to be the Gospel, and as St Francis of Assisi suggested, "At all times preach the Gospel, and when necessary use words." We can truly understand Desmond Tutu when he recounted the Jewish Midrash in which everyone on Earth without exception has an angel who walks before them proclaiming, "Make way for the image of God! Make way for the image of God!"


  1. I really liked this whole series. I especially resonated with this part:

    "This limited thinking and living is also taken to be that to which Biblical references to "the flesh" are referring, whereas insight that comes from immersion in the divine consciousness is taken to coincide with references to "the spirit". Moreover, the flesh here is not seen as evil but merely incomplete, like a young child left to its own devices. Hence to reach our full potential, to not fall short of the glory God intends for us, we ought to strive to grow into a full relationship with God, which involves developing our divine consciousness (or in common parlance a relationship with God)."

    I do, however, see Jesus as more than someone like ourselves who somehow connected fully with the Divine-- such that we can be just like him, be "Christ" ourselves, if we learn how to connect in the same way. I see a difference between being the "image" of God (me) and the "incarnation" of God (Jesus) -- and I think Christianity does make this distinction, and that it's more than just a form of immature or "magical" thinking about the nature of Jesus. I think Jesus saw himself as more than just a man who had tapped fully into the divine. If that were all there was to it, he would have rebuked those who treated him as more than that. And he would not have said things like, "Come to me, and I will give you rest" -- he would have said, "Come to God, and God will give you rest."

    This may be an area where we are going to have to just agree to disagree. :) I don't know exactly how to translate "Jesus is God incarnate" or "Jesus is the second Person of the Trinity" into more contemporary language-- it's a mystery that's hard to express. But I do feel a real distinction between Jesus and myself, and I do think that distinction is part of what Christianity is about, and not simply a misunderstanding based on literalism.

    That said, I do think you have done your readers a service in your analysis. Thank you for opening your mind in a way that helps me open mine.

  2. There is a lot of room in what I wrote, so that it's a starting point rather than a conclusion. One doesn't have to believe Jesus was "just another guy", but then, I don't believe any of us are. I think we each a unique role and a unique relationship with God. One of things to consider is that Jesus is already awake, he has already taken on the mantle of Christ, so it would not be inappropriate to say "Come to me", because he isn't pointing to just Jesus but to the Father as Christ. That's how I take passages such as John 3:16-17 ("For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned"), John 4:13 ("the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life"), John 5:24-26("Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life... For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself"), John 6:35 ("I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty"), John 7:37-38 ("Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them"),

    In those cases I hear Jesus speaking as the Chris, yet mixed in are also teachings that if we were just talking about Jesus, he would have no such power, insight, or authority: John 5:19 (“Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does"), John 7:16 ("My teaching is not my own. It comes from the one who sent me"), John 8:38 ("I am telling you what I have seen in the Father’s presence"), John 8:54 ("If I glorify myself, my glory means nothing. My Father, whom you claim as your God, is the one who glorifies me"), and John 10:36-38 ("what about the one whom the Father set apart as his very own and sent into the world? Why then do you accuse me of blasphemy because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’? Do not believe me unless I do the works of my Father. But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father").

    This isn't an argument for or against, but rather an illustration. Similarly, neither is the following argumentative but intended for clarification.

  3. As for the other points, I don't mind disagreeing, but I do think that some of what I have said is understated in that it means something much deeper and more powerful than it may sound. I had a hard time really conveying the idea I wanted to describe about divinity. To say Jesus was fully immersed in God consciousness, for example, is no trivial thing. That doesn't just make him some extra wise guru. If the ground of being is understood as consciousness, then to be fully fused with it is much more than simply tapping into God like tapping into one's hidden reserves of courage. Jesus and the Father would have been one in a complete and perfect union.

    I do see evidence this is what Jesus wanted the same for us, to be one with him and the Father, and in fact we even have the image of the body of Christ of which the Church is so fond. The question of Christ's uniqueness is not unimportant, but I don't see the need to equate it with separation. This is where I think a lot of the royal images are overplayed, so that we are the little serfs and Jesus is the majestic king. I can't help but see Jesus as trying to find a way to tell people, "No! You are special too! You've just got to believe it. Look at me, whom everyone knows as a poor guy from the wrong side of the tracks, and look what I have done. At who I really am beyond just being the son of a carpenter. If you believe in me, you will be free. You won't keep seeing yourself that way anymore. Come and join me. There are plenty of rooms in the royal mansion."

    In any case, thanks for reading and commenting. Again, the point is to get people to think, and to pray, and to not leave a lot of what they believe unexamined. To expose and offer an alternative to hidden assumptions, not simply as a replacement, but as a catalyst to go further. Be well.

  4. And of course, by "your readers", you do realize that you mean yourself and two other people, right? ;O)

  5. A further thought that I guess didn't get pushed or explained enough, but yes, Christ I agree is definitely something we can contrast to ourselves (him/us), and since Jesus (some-image-of-fully-becoming-what-you-are-that-only-makes-sense-from-a-perspective-beyond-time-and-space) Christ, since he is Christ and Christ is he, then yes, it makes sense to have this idea of distinction. Perhaps the real difference is the idea that we can truly be one in the Christ with Jesus. I can appreciate the reluctance to believe that as well, but I do think it is where we are expected to go at some point with the teachings. I think the following parable might say it better (haha!):

    There is a Buddhist parable that has been compared to that of the Prodigal Son where the son doesn't recognize his wealthy father, but his father recognizes him when he spots him in the slums. The son is a poor wretch and his self image is so low and his understanding so weak, the father cannot just say "Hey, I'm your daddy and I happen to be the richest and most powerful guy around; even kings come to ask me favors." So the father has his steward hire the son as the lowest kind of servant, for which the son is immensely grateful (it saved his life from starvation and disease). As the son is given more and more responsibility, he gains more confidence (reminds me of the story of the servants and the talents from the Gospel) and is given more authority, until finally he becomes the master's right hand man, kind of like an adopted member of the family. He has charge, in his father's name, over everything his father owns. Then, finally, the son is ready. He has learned humility and gratitude from his failure, poverty, and redemption. He has gained true confidence as a servant and adopted heir. Now he is ready for the full truth, that he really is the wealthy man's son, and has been all along.

  6. Tiny, I like that parable! And I agree with a lot of what you said. The Scriptures do say that "now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. . . but when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is."

    But thinking about what you said about the immanence and the transcendence of God-- I think it makes sense to think of the Trinity in light of that: that the Father is in some sense the transcendence of God, while the Son and Spirit function in two different ways, as the immanence of God. I do think that Jesus did more than connect fully with the Divine; I think Jesus was, in some way, an embodiment of the immanence of God into a human form, with a nature that was both human and divine. I know you would say that our own human nature connects to and arises out of the Divine, and thus in some sense we are divine too-- but I think that the Christian tradition intentionally makes a distinction between us as smaller, individual consciences and the Foundational Consciousness-- whereas Jesus Christ IS the complete presence of the Foundational Consciousness in a human form, made one with a human consciousness in a way that is unique and that no other human can achieve. In other words, that we are distinct from the Divine Consciousness in a way that Jesus is not. This is hard to express in words, but that's the best I can do.

    I think the Trinity can be described as three distinct centers of the Foundational Consciousness, Each functioning in such a way that It can inter-relate with the other Two. We humans can connect to that Foundation, but we are not that Foundation, whereas Jesus in some way IS one of those three centers of Foundational Consciousness. This is different from "a piece of God in a human suit" because Jesus is not just a "piece" of that Consciousness but one of the three Centers of It-- not just embodied in flesh, but mingled with a fully human consciousness so as to become one human-divine individual. Our humanity tapping into the Divine, does not give us humans that Incarnational aspect.

    In any case, this sort of thing is hard to express in mere words. It's simpler to just show the picture of the man who was born blind "worshiping" Jesus, and Jesus not telling him to stop, but accepting that worship. John 9:38. A picture is worth a thousand words!


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