We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Searching for Christian Meditation in the Age of Thich Nhat Hanh

In the West, we associate meditation with the East generally and Buddhism in particular even while church historians assure us that we have a rich meditation heritage of our own.  We Protestants are especially ignorant of that heritage because it is associated with monastic Catholicism, something we "put aside" long ago—to our loss, to be sure.  The face of meditation for us is Thich Nhat Hanh, the medium is his impressive literature on its methods and spirituality.

As helpful as he is, there is for us a piece of the spiritual life that is missing, which is a connection with God—the source, the direction, and the inspiration of our personal spirituality.  Christian spirituality is a reaching Out and Up with longing as well as a reaching down in peace, rest, and quiet.  Hence an adjustment is for us helpful in meditation:

The mantra:
Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in;
Breathing out, I know that I am breathing out.
Breathing in, Lord, I know that I am breathing in;
Breathing out, Lord, I know that I am breathing out.
And the mantra:
Breathing in, I embrace being peaceful, calm, and at rest;
Breathing out, I embrace being peaceful, calm, and at rest.
Breathing in, Lord, you inspire me to be peaceful, calm, and at rest;
Breathing out, Lord, I welcome being peaceful, calm, and at rest.
Buddhist insight meditation is an invitation to dialogue with oneself in order to come to rest in the non-self that is the true self.  Christian insight meditation is a divine invitation to dialogue with oneself in the Presence of God in order to come to rest in the Beyond-self that is the true self.  Amen.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Mark's Resurrection

As we enter Holy Week again, the Gospel of Mark's version of the events surrounding Jesus' resurrection is worth lingering over.  That version, recorded in Mark 16, raises serious questions about the way in which Jesus' followers received the news of his resurrection.  In particular, when the three women who went to the tomb to anoint the corpse heard from a "young man dressed in a white robe" that Jesus was raised from the dead, they, "fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid." (Mark 16:8)

If we follow the rule concerning historical documents that a thing is more likely to be true if it is inconvenient to the larger purpose of the author, this account  seems quite credible.  The women didn't see Jesus.  They weren't inspired or fell at his knees.  This was no Pentecost with flames of holy fire.  The empty tomb and the young man scared them out of their wits.  They fled an evident display of God's holy power, and unlike Moses at the burning bush they did not bow down in worship.  They ran.  And in their terror, they told no one.

According to scholars, Mark 16:8 is the end of the original version of the gospel, so far as we know.  If that is the case, it means that Jesus' followers initially greeted his resurrection with fear and silence.  The accounts of the resurrection in the other gospels are much more inspiring, but this one seems more likely.  It is consistent with a tendency found in the gospels to highlight the spiritual ignorance of Jesus' followers—an inconvenient truth that rings true down through the long years since.  It is also consistent with how people of a time when there was a holy terror of things divine would react.  It is also consistent with how three women might react in a male dominated society where they were used to being treated as "just women."  Why risk ridicule?  Finally, the reaction of the three women as Mark describes it is just plain typically human.  Most of us most of the time prefer the known to the unknown, the safe way to the dangerous one; and it makes perfect sense that we do.

This is not the resurrection that the Easter crowd wants to hear about.  It is not the resurrection preached from pulpits on that "glorious and wonderful morn."  This is an account shorn of piety.  In that sense, it may be taken as a call to a faith shorn of piety and the pretensions of religiosity.  We run, we tremble, we keep quiet, but eventually we stop to catch our breath, calm down, and find our voice—eventually.  Amen.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Sabbath Rest

The decline of the church in the U.S., has any number of ramifications, some obvious and others less so.  One of the "less so" ramifications is the continuing loss of the biblical understanding of the Sabbath as time off from the cares of daily life, time for refocusing on the deeper things underlying the grind.  In times gone by in our nation, the rhythm of life was six days of labor and a seventh day for putting aside that labor, dressing up, going to worship (which was a source of entertainment and intellectual stimulation), and slowing down.  Today, committed church folks don't slow down on the weekend; they cram in, rather, an alternative set of hectic activities.  On retirement, they get busier with as much or more busy-ness as beforehand.  It is not just that there is less space for church even among the committed.  There is less time for rest.  And more than that, our modern, multitasking society is losing its capacity for rest, esp. for Sabbath rest.

Sabbath rest is partly time for prayer, reading "spiritual literature" unhurriedly, and reflection.  It is time for meditation.  It is partly time for sitting quietly, taking a walk, sharing an unhurried meal with a friend, and smelling the roses.  It is a time for not doing, not accomplishing.  It is not goal oriented time but rather time for being lazy.  It is, as one happy example, time spent sitting around a fire in the evening with the forest gone quiet, watching the dancing flames, seeing the shadows they cast on the surrounding trees, hearing the long trilling call of a loon, and simply being at rest.  A cup of hot chocolate or coffee or tea—or not. Sabbath rest is the stillness of the night forest discovered in other places in our lives where for a moment we hear the echoes of peace quieting for that moment the busyness of our busyness.

The decline of the church and the decline of Sabbath rest are not unrelated.  Renewal of the latter is not unrelated to the renewal of the former, if by the church we mean the community of faith rather than the religious institution.  Amen.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Thoughts on Noah, the Movie

So, Friday afternoon we went to see the movie, Noah, at a movie complex in Watertown, NY.  There is a ton of reviews of the movie, many of which can be read at Rotten Tomatoes, so let me simply share some thoughts rather than do a full critical analysis.

However the critics may feel about the various aspects of Noah, from a theological perspective the movie embodies a fascinating contemporary dialogue between the biblical story found in Genesis 6-9 and modern culture.  Both the original tale and the modern remake are mythic descriptions of God's struggle with destructive, prideful humanity, the modern movie version being a remythologizing of the story in a contemporary context. There are both similarities and differences, but it is the differences that are most interesting and instructive.

 In the original, God is very clearly present, while in the movie "the Creator" is hidden and speaks through visions that are open to interpretation.  In Genesis, Noah is the very prototype of the faithful man, but in the movie he is constantly conflicted and apparently misinterprets God's will concerning the survival of the human race.  He also comes across as something of a more up to date zealot.  And where the emphasis in Genesis is on the destruction of wicked humanity, a key theme in the movie is the environmental salvation of Planet Earth and its non-human life.  In the movie's version of the epic, Earth was undergoing a massive environmental crisis that was impoverishing humanity as well as destroying the rest of life on the planet.

While reviewers note a number of striking parallels with The Lord of the Rings trilogy (the rock encrusted, over-sized "Watchers" of this movie, for example, look suspiciously like stony versions of Peter Jackson's visualization of Tolkien's Ents), there is an important difference.  The boundaries between good and evil are generally clearly drawn in Tolkien's trilogy; good guys are good and bad guys are bad.  That is less the case in Noah; Noah himself acts unwisely at times and comes across as only relatively good.  His son, Ham, is a flawed figure who for a time allies himself with the evil protagonist of the film, Tubal-cain (who is rotten to the core).  Noah himself feels the inherent evil in himself and those he loves, which is why he believed that they must not become the seed of a renewed human race—a fear not shared by the Creator, apparently.  This is to say that the biblical story is highly dualistic while this contemporary rendering is much less so.  Just as the movie's optics tend to be darkish grays, so does Noah and his family live in a world that is more gray than black or white.

In a moment of theological boldness, the move contains a rendering of Genesis 1 and the seven days of creation that clearly leaves room for evolution.  That too brings the story of Noah into the 21st century and aptly illustrates the manner in which the movie is a remythologizing of the biblical original.  Our larger society is trending haphazardly away from absolutist dualism with its hard and fast boundaries to a more realist, less dualistic postmodern worldview that is also less bounded by the agendas of organized, institutional Christianity.  This movie version of the biblical story is a fascinating rendering of the old, old stories for our time.  It is not scripture.  It is a comment and even a meditation on scripture that puts the story in a contemporary idiom for our reflection.  It invites us to engage in our own dialogue with the story of the flood, and in fact encourages us to actually go back and open our Bibles and read the original script again.

There are a couple of nice touches in the movie.  It solves the problem of how to feed and care for all the animals in the ark by having Noah's family mix a potion that when burned as incense puts them all to sleep for the duration (a kind of sci-fi suspended animation apparently).  The movie also conveniently has Noah plant a magic seed that grows a huge forest, which solves the problem of where he got all the lumber for the ark; and it has the Watchers assist in building it, which solves the problem of how Noah and his family could build such a huge craft.  In short, if there is science  fiction, which provides imaginative, even playful commentary on science, then Noah is might be considered as biblical fiction in an almost sci-fi mode: an imaginative, even playful commentary on the Bible.

Reviewers pan some of the acting in the movie; they criticize it from an artistic, cinematic perspective.  But, I found it interesting and instructive from a theological and biblical point of view.  If you haven't seen it and are concerned for such things as faith, scripture, and theological reflection, I highly recommend it.  It is fun.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Boundaries, Imagined and Real

In his outstanding book, Siam Mapped (Hawaii, 1997), Thai historian Thongchai Winichakul observes that traditionally boundaries between nation-states in Southeast Asia were ill-defined regions between power centers that melded into each other at their outer peripheries.  One did not cross a boundary but rather travelled through it, gradually leaving one power sphere and just as gradually entering another.  At the peripheries, local rulers and people often gave shifting allegiance to two or more centers of power.  When the Europeans showed began to take control of most of the region in the 19th century, however, they introduced carefully surveyed, sharply drawn boundaries.  They wanted to know the precise extent of their authority for purposes of control and taxation.  The "mapping of Siam," thus, was not just about cartography.  It was about power.

We in the West continue to think of boundaries in this sharp-edged, almost rigid way.  A recent posting entitled, "Facebook Data Creates Incredible MLB Fan Map That Proves That Yankees Fans Are Everywhere," provides a striking example of how such mapping of realty is both useful and deceiving at the same time.  Illustrating the posting is this map:

The point of the posting is that Yankee fans are everywhere.  Its assumption is that sports cartographers are able to draw fine-lined boundaries between geographical areas "occupied" by each major league baseball team.  Thus, Minnesota Twins support all but ends at the Minnesota-Wisconsin state line and the Milwaukee Brewers take over.

In truth, it isn't like that.  The boundaries of support for each team are far more porous, less well-defined, and more like traditional Southeast Asia than the above map suggests.  The actual point of the article, that there are Yankee fans in large numbers all across the nation, itself suggests that sports boundaries are more amorphous that the map suggests.  The map evidently uses counties for its basic unit, so that a county that has a bare plurality of Yankee fans is colored Yankee black, while another one that almost has a plurality of support is not Yankee black.  Twins support does not abruptly end one county into Wisconsin or Iowa, but it does dribble off so that there are more Brewers fans or Cubs fans east or south of the state line.

The point here is that people who habitually draw maps with sharp-edged boundaries tend to perceive such boundaries in other areas of life.  Such boundaries promote rigid identities in all facets of life, and those who think in terms of pencil-thin boundaries tend to draw them when it comes to religion as well.  One must be either a believer or an unbeliever, an atheist or a religionist.  In reality, even in our hearts the boundaries between faith and unfaith are just not that clear.  We have, in fact, a word for those who eschew amorphous shifting boundaries of the heart: "fanatics".