Thursday, March 22, 2007

God and Monism

Having finished with Anthony Bloom's Living Prayer, I've now moved on to Hans Urs von Balthasar's Prayer. I've had this book sitting on my shelf for about three years, and only now have mustered the resolve to read it. Having read a few books by von Balthasar in the past, my experience has been that some are written with pastoral intent and are fairly accessible while others are so intensly theological that I can only dimly comprehend them. This one is a mix of both, intensly theological but pastoral.

The section I came to today particularly touched on one of my theological interests, namely the ideas of immanence and transcendence. Divine immanence is very popular these days. Everyone wants to affirm the inherent divinity within all things. Transcendence has some play too, but only in the weaker sense of mystery. Traditional affirmations about God's otherness tend to be frowned upon in many circles as awkward artifacts of the "Old Man in the Sky" sort of theism.

All this is clearly true in popular culture, particularly among the "spiritual but not religious" crowd, but I've seen it also in somewhat more academic settings (see, for example, Paul Laughlin's Getting Oriented). The prevailing wisdom seems to be that mysticism reveals that the common root of all religion lies in the experience of the Divine Oneness of all things. When it is noted that Christian, Jewish and Muslim mystics nevertheless have (sometimes) affirmed God's otherness, this is dismissed as a product of dogma imposed on these thinkers from religious institutions and not part of their genuine experience.

But what if the traditional monotheistic teaching of God's otherness isn't just dogma? What if it is an essential part of the experience of monotheistic mystics? It seems to me that this is an immensely valuable gift that Western religions bring to the table of interreligious dialogue, and it is rejected out of hand, ironically, because it clashes with implicit dogmas of Eastern religions with regard to monism.

Christians are quite willing and able to incorporate ideas of divine immanence in creation in the strongest possible terms, and we can point to testimony about this deep and constant throughout our own traditions. Nevertheless, we also insist on divine transcendence, also in the strongest possible terms. It requires, I think, a dialectical understanding.

At this point, I must quote von Balthasar. He expresses the mystical insight of God's transcendence so well.
Every awareness of existence turns into a looking up to [God], a word addressed to him, a thought of him; every situation is clarified through being related to him. It is man's anguish and his glory, his weakness and his dignity, that he must and may relate himself to God in this way; he can only be himself through God, and he can never be God. He can only affirm himself, and only then his whole environment and his fellow creatures, by uttering the stupendous No and Yes which are built into the very foundations of his being; No, I am not God; Yes, I need God as my beginning and my end. No relative being is Being, but none is apart from Being and each exists in relation and as a pointer to Being.

This is the insight that monotheism offers. Following this, von Balthasar talks about the problem that comtemplation can only lead to the insight above. We can never reach God through comptemplation. And here he brings in the Christian scandal.
There was only one way out of this impasse, namely, that infinite, eternal Being should utter its own self in the form of a relative being.

Set as it is in the context of deep mystical insight, this statement highlights what I think is the most remarkable thing about Christianity. When popular culture looks at the Incarnation, it can only see it as a product of antiquated models of God-as-superbeing who can step into another form. But that's not the Christian teaching on the Incarnation. People try to domesticate the idea and speak of Jesus as an exceptional man who was in touch with the divinity within him (and all of us), but that's not the Christian teaching either.

The Christian teaching on the Incarnation, mind-bending as it may be, is precisely that the ground of all being, Atman, the Tao, use whatever ultra-monistic term you like for the fundamental, irreducible One-ness, Is-ness, that lies behind/beneath/within all reality became a human being and dwelt among us who were not this.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Learning Prayer

God has been teaching me this week. In the first instance, I’ve been learning rather directly from Anthony Bloom’s book, Living Prayer. This is a marvelous book. I tend to have a love-hate relationship with books about prayer. I know there’s something more I need to learn, and so I keep reading new books, but so often I’m unsatisfied.

Every book on prayer, it seems, has a section on unanswered prayer. This is where they usually turn me against them. The typical response (God answers all prayers: yes, no or wait) leaves me so cold as to suspect that the author doesn’t really know any more about prayer than I do, but is repeating taught answers. And this answer is just categorically off target for me.

This is where Metropolitan Anthony’s book won me over. He deals briefly with the misconception that “answers to prayer” are about getting what we prayed for, and then delves into what he’s really interested in. Namely, for him, and for me, the idea of unanswered prayer is more about prayer feeling like monologue – praying and not sensing that God is there. In this, I got the sense that Bloom is doing the same thing when he prays that I’m doing, but he knows far more about it than I do.

Metropolitan Anthony offers several suggestions at this point. First, it may be that we are so busy speaking to God that we don’t give him space to be present. He suggests more intentional silence – a time of standing quietly in God’s presence and only speaking when you can no longer remain silent. Second, it may be that we are placing a false idea of God between us and God. He uses the example of a schoolboy who knows his headmaster by what he does and only years later realizes that he was a man. If we approach God wrongly, but convinced that we know God, we may be praying to an idol who cannot answer. Third, it may be that God has something to teach us by remaining absent. I get the sense that I’m not in that place.

But in addition to this direct instruction two things happened that were connected.

I ride the light rail to work, and everyday on my way to the platform I pass a row of bushes which are growing along side a fence that separates them from the train tracks. Often, I hear a rustling in these bushes. I’ve guessed that there was an animal, probably a squirrel in there. I’ve looked to see it, but I’ve never managed to catch sight of it. Yesterday, as I heard the sound, rather than looking down and into the bush, I took a step toward it, and I saw a bird on the other side of the fence. This is an object lesson for me.

Today, my wife and I are at the Oregon Coast, celebrating our anniversary. I was sitting inside reading for a while, and then I decided I’d like to go out on the balcony and look at the ocean. When I went out, I could see nothing. A thick fog obscured my view. I could hear the roar of the waves. I eventually managed to spot some people walking in the sand, but I couldn’t see the water at all. I stayed and kept watching. Eventually the fog drew back enough that I could see the waves breaking on the shore, but no more. This also is an object lesson.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

What Christians Don't Do

It is worth remembering, as we sit here, well-fed and in the bosom of our families, that in the ancient world, the two hardest things to do are to propagate yourself and to get enough to eat. Something of the order of 80% of families did not manage to maintain a secure male line over four generations and most of the world's population lived by subsistence farming. Consequently it is something of a surprise that the two great religions to have survived from classical times are Judaism and Christianity, one of which says you shouldn't eat the most readily available supply of protein, pork, and the other of which makes a virtue of not having sex.

-Simon Goldhill, from The 2005 Kaufmann Memorial Lecture

I came across the above lecture on the topic "What Christians Don't Do" by chance today while searching for the story from the Talmud that Professor Goldhill relates toward the end. It's a very interested read. Check it out.

Monday, March 12, 2007

We're Not Worthy

During the opening confession yesterday, I took pause at the words "We are not worthy to be called your children." A friend had joined us for worship, and I knew from past discussions that she takes issue with this sort of theology. Doesn't God love us as we are? And if God loves us, who is it who thinks we're not worthy?

But I've also been reading Anthony Bloom's Living Prayer in which he suggests that we must always approach prayer as a sort of Last Judgment and, as such, should always come before God with this sort of attitude of unworthiness.

And so for much of the worship service, my mind was occupied by this question. Two stories from the desert fathers came to mind.

The first is a story of two monks who went into town to sell the baskets they had weaved and to buy bread. Once in town they separated. One monk sold his baskets, bought some bread and waited for his friend. When they met again, the second monk said to the first, "You return to the monastery without me, for I have fallen into temptation with a woman and am no longer worthy to live in the community." But the first monk replied, "Not so brother, for I also have fallen into temptation. Let us go back together and confess our sin and receive whatever discipline is necessary." So the two monks returned to the monastery and together confessed and remained in the community as penitents.

From this story I considered the corporate nature of confession. Some of us have surely committed graver sins than others. Some of us are more aware of our sins than others. But in confessing together, we stand together. Together, we are not worthy to be called children of God. And so we bear one another's burdens.

The second story that came to mind is a story of Bessarion. A man was being sent out of the church because of some moral offense. But Bessarion arose and left with him saying, "I also am a sinful man."

This story is like the first in that it also contains an element of standing together in sin and bearing one another's burdens. It also contains a bit of the theological point that if we are to be judged on sin, none of us can stand, though I don't think this is really the point of the story.

The phrase "we are not worthy to be called your children" is clearly taken from the story of the prodigal son. If the father's reaction to this claim tells us anything, it's that he couldn't care less whether or not the son merits acceptance. We can only speculate what would have happened if the son had come strutting home saying, "Hey dad, let's party." I suspect the father would have grieved knowing that he would soon lose his son again.

And so I think this sense of unworthiness is for us and not for God. It is the condition in which we are capable of accepting reconciliation with God. Many of us these days, and I suspect it's nothing new, have trouble seeing ourselves in need of such a state. We're cool with God, right? But it's a shallow cool.

Bessarion's action was a prophetic act. It showed the church that was sending away the sinful man what true spirituality must look like.

Confession of sin -- real sin, systemic sin, far-reaching sin -- is a prized part of our spiritual heritage, but in many places I fear it is in danger of becoming a gaudy show piece more than a deep part of our spirituality. Those with different aesthetic sensibilities might need some help understanding the beauty of it.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Frittered Away

"Our lives are frittered away by details. Simplify, simplify!"
-Henry David Thoreau

I decided this year that for Lent I wanted to focus on prayer. For me, ironically, that begins with reading. I draw a lot of direction from what I'm reading, and I've got a few books on prayer sitting on the shelf that I've been meaning to read for a while now, as well as a couple that I'd like to re-read. And hopefully somewhere in there I'll manage to actual pray more too.

But we're over two weeks into Lent, and I'm just now getting started. I had previous commitments to teach classes on Luke and Acts, and I've been leading a discussion on The Evangelizing Church, not to mention my congregation is beginning a capital campaign and I volunteered for one of the early roles, so my reading program hasn't managed to get underway, and predictably my increased practice of prayer has also failed to materialize.

Helpfully, before Lent I managed to work in a reading of Alexander Schmemann's Great Lent which has given me some perspective. Schmemann talks about Lent as a journey. It's not just a season of penance, it's a season of moving toward something -- specifically moving toward Pascha, the Ressurrection. And so, it should be a season of stripping away, not holding off.

Typically, certainly for myself, and I suspect for most people, Lent is a season where you start off with great intentions, go through a couple of weeks demonstrating your ascetic powers and then gradually discover how weak you really are and can't wait for Easter so you can give up the charade. There's definitely a sort of spiritual value to that. It's real.

But Father Schmemann's model works somewhat more directly. You begin by looking at yourself and looking for your weaknesses and then trying to intentionally strip away the pretension. And rather than seeing the fast as some sort of spiritual accomplishment, it's the pressure that holds your feet to the fire, so to speak.

And so the business of my life these first two weeks serves as a sort of object lesson. What is it that's keeping me from God? It's not life, per se, because surely life is the field where God meets us. But very likely it's all that I'm trying to stuff into life.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Jesus Tomb

OK, I admit it. I watched the documentary on the "Lost Tomb of Jesus" on Sunday. I wanted to be informed in case it caught on in a "Da Vinci Code" sort of way.

It doesn't look like anybody's buying it, so there doesn't seem much point in refuting it, but for my own entertainment as much as anything else, here are some things I've learned so far:

  1. Biblical scholars, regardless of theological orientation, are NOT archaeologists

  2. Film makers are neither Biblical scholars nor archaeologists

  3. Neither film makers nor Biblical scholars nor archaeologists tend to be exceptionally good at math

Now I'm not really a film maker, Biblical scholar or archaeologist, but I do have a degree in mathematics (albeit only a B.S.).

First, let me say that my impression is that the coincidence of names is pretty much the only evidence they have. The archaeologists were very dismissive of this aspect, saying "These are very common names." This seems to me to be on par with the "I live in New York and there are people everywhere" argument for New York being more populous than California. So I wanted to see the numbers.

As I was watching the film, when they finally got around to rolling out their numbers, I spotted the card coming off the bottom of the deck. After showing a simplified form of how the odds were calculated (see p. 13 here), the film maker said, "So there is only a one in six hundred chance that this is not the tomb of Jesus." But wait! That isn't what had been calculated at all!

What the statistician had actually calculated were the odds that one of the approximately 1000 tombs excavated to date would contain this combination of names. (Look here if you want to read more, or if you're a math geek read here to hear what the statistician himself is now saying.)

And this is where a sense of math comes in for the second time. The 1 in 600 odds are being touted as convincing by the film makers. The conclusion is disputed on many grounds, mostly claims that the assumptions behind the calculations were wrong. That's probably so, but the thing that gets me is that given that we are talking about the odds that one of the tombs discovered to date would have this combination of names, 1 in 600 just isn't that amazing.

Consider: 1 in 600 is about the same as the odds of winning $7 (yes, seven dollars) on a single Powerball ticket.

Would you make a documentary about that?

For the morbidly curious such as myself, check out Joe Zias' critique for a professional archaeologists' take on the whole thing.