Friday, May 20, 2011

No outside force is going to save you

Cima da Conegliano, God the FatherImage via Wikipedia
I was recently reading a book which had what many in the Christian world (as well as the Jewish and Muslim worlds) would consider to be some pretty offensive or blasphemous statements, about looking for protection in some kind of divine parental figure or waiting for some outside force to save you. Many I'm sure would see that as the antithesis of belief in God, especially in what has become in our age the common understanding of the Christian message. I can hear a reply:

"We pray to God every day to bless us and save us, this goes against God and the Gospel! You much be teaching the heresy that we can save ourselves, but the community and tradition (including the Bible) that arose from the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth tells us that our salvation is a matter of grace. You are a false prophet and a liar."

The problem here is one of idolatry. Yes, I wrote idolatry. In fact I did it twice. Third time is a charm: idolatry. If we look to the limited conceptualized view of the world, of this versus that, then we are dividing up a continuous whole into artificial fragments, assigning them names, and assigning them qualities and properties (good/bad, pretty/ugly, big/small, long/short). This is what the mind does, and it has its usefulness, but all such concepts are limited and to some degree distorted. Even philosophical and scientific models ignore, diminish, or emphasize some aspects of what is being studied in order to focus on a particular question.

The problems arise when we forget these conceptual models are just that, models, and that for all of their usefulness we mustn't mistake them for reality. But too often we do, including our conception of "me" or "myself", and this is where we run into the problem of believing we are our lesser self, the flesh, the ego. "I am my body and my memories and my experiences". Yet none of those things are stable or lasting, so if we are told we are not those things, we can slip into a kind of nihilism. The point isn't that we are nothing, but rather that what we are at the deepest level is neither defined nor confined by these other aspects, aspects of form (or again what some call flesh, but which is more than just the body as used here).  The idea that we are the awareness of these things, the ground consciousness in which they arise and exist, which the ancients referred to as "spirit", "the divine", or "God" seems nonsensical to many because it can only truly be experienced, not really described or imagined.

And therein lies the trouble, because we must know, we have to know, what that is. So we cling to metaphors and philosophical descriptions as if they were real, as if any concept was going to be an adequate substitute for the raw experience of reality itself. When so many people "call on God", or on "Jesus", or whatever, they are calling out to form, to flesh, to concepts. They have made these concepts into idols and they worship them. I don't accuse anyone in particular, as I have no knowledge or desire upon which to do this. Nor can we assume that just because someone prays "to God" or meditates in front of a crucifix that they are being idolatrous. These expressions of words and physical art tell us nothing about how that person actually experiences spirit, whether these things are focuses and reminders rather than substitutions or idols.

Let us get back then to the original potentially disturbing statements about looking for protection in some kind of divine parental figure or waiting for some outside force to save you. The flaw here is in the literalization. God is like a father or mother in some respects, that is, God can be experienced in that way, but to make God merely that is an error. A deeper error, however, goes with making God a thing, a concept, an object, whether it is an internal or especially if it is an external object. God is our reality. Not our conceptual reality, but our actual reality. God is experienced when we work out of this basic awareness, or mindfulness, or stillness, or peace. That is, when we aren't projecting, grasping, wanting, seeking, etc. When we accept openly and without limitations whatever we are experiencing at that moment, not separate from and thinking about it or reacting to it in a habituated way.

Hence is is neither God-as-object nor yourself-as-object that saves you. To use some properly confusing language, it is act of merging the generic "you" into a larger "I am" that makes the difference. I know, I know, but words, even imaginative ones, can't really get at it. A more bland way to say it is that being fully aware here and now that dissolves "sin", the erroneous way of living that misses the mark and falls short of the glory of God. It is true that this is not earned or achieved, it simply is. It cannot be accepted or rejected, only experienced. The tools of religion may help or may become an obstacle. If they assist us in disrupting the assumptions of ego, of flesh, and put them in their proper place, if they assist us in allowing ourselves to be present (in the deepest possible sense of the word), then they are beneficial. If they reinforce the assumptions of the flesh and distract us from awareness of presence, then they are a hindrance. Too often they become redefined and reinterpreted to make them compatible with the desires of the flesh, to reinforce the ego's need to make our conceptualizations solid and firm.

We are afraid of belief and of faith which takes us into the mystery, into what the ego would label (and fear) as uncertainty, into the active presence of God. So we construct counterfeits and idols and viciously defend them.We take great care to neuter, redirect or deny that which points us beyond the perceived safety of our conceptual limits and to dismiss and denigrate and defame those who dare to disregard our boundaries. Emotionalism and rationalism, separate or in tandem, take the place of genuine spiritual encounters. (This isn't to trivialize emotions or reason, but rather to point out that they are often substituted or mistaken for a complete or genuine spirituality.) The Apostle Paul referred to this in his analogical discussion of Jews and Greeks. We use the tools of our tradition, including the symbols and concepts of religion, to recharge these experiences, because they are form, they are flesh, and therefore are ephemeral. But they are still a poor substitute for for the basic awareness of our being, the presence of God.

So do we want magic in the most banal sense of the word, or the miracle of existence? What does the scandal of the cross say to you? How can one talk about the foolishness of the world and yet practice their faith with the same kinds of expectations and desires as the world? Just putting in lots of religious and spiritual language doesn't change the basic assumptions and motivations. Trying to be peaceful, trying to be compassionate, trying to be wise, trying to be humble, trying to be spiritual, this is all delusion. It's just the flesh again, the ego. More temptation of the devil, if that language works for you. A distraction to keep you in the mode of "doing", to worry about the past or the future, rather than allowing yourself to experience being. To know God. To be one with the Father as Jesus was one.

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