Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Ayn Rand Was Consistent

Copyright © 2o12 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. 

Ayn Rand was consistent. She was an individualist and an atheist. Notice what I am NOT saying: I am not saying that an atheist is necessarily an individualist. In truth I am aware of more atheists who are collectivists than individualists.  

Rather, I would say that belief in either God or spirituality goes hand in hand with collectivism. Spirituality is about “the whole enchilada,” a term the Watergate scandal helped popularize. It witnesses the connectedness of all things, that in the poet’s words, “no man is an island,” that, in Jesus’ words, “as much as you have done it to the least of these you have done it so to me.”  

In biblical understanding, not even God is an individualist. God created companions, dwells among us, and invites us to enjoy the common spiritual wealth that is already available. In both Jewish and Christian understandings, God treats us collectively: if one sinned, all are collectively responsible in the Old Testament; in the New Testament God makes rain and sunshine fall on the just and the unjust.  In both testaments we are to love our neighbor as ourselves, which requires compassion—identification, solidarity, justice and mercy. 

The Reformed tradition of Christianity emphasized collective salvation over individual salvation, but this has been a theme of Christianity from the beginning. Despite the emphasis on individual salvation in present-day evangelical circles, Jesus was said to reconcile the whole world to God’s self.  It’s not “all about me,” but “all about us,” and I would add that the whole creation is included in “us.” 

This does not mean that I don’t believe in individual responsibility, but that we are individually responsible for the whole world, that every action we take or don’t take—“sins of commission or omission”—must be accountable to needs broader than our own.  

I don’t know how anyone following the news does not cry or become indignant and angry at the inequality and injustice and violence, as well as grieve the losses of every nation in conflict or enduring calamity and the environment suffering global warming and deforestation. 

Something else I am NOT saying: I am not saying that Christians who claim individualism over collectivism are not Christian. I am saying they are inconsistent.


See also “The Making of You,” an earlier post.  Today’s post appeared Monday in The Huffington Post.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Spiritual Care for the Liberated

Copyright © 2012 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. 

“It would be an error to think that a liberated prisoner was not in need of spiritual care anymore.” –Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning 

This observation comes toward the end of Frankl’s autobiographical and psychological account of his time as a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps. Having described repeated traumatic events in the life of fellow prisoners, he turns to the trauma of suddenly being free: the feelings of unreality, bitterness, disappointment (when, for example, the person the prisoner most longed to see was no longer) and disillusionment (when others pleaded ignorance or relativized the prisoner’s suffering). 

Frankl writes that the liberated prisoner needed to re-learn how to feel pleasure. On the first day of “freedom” the inmates went outside the camp gates and witnessed “meadows full of flowers” but later confessed to one another, “Tell me, were you pleased today?” “Truthfully, no!” 

But a few days later, passing the same flowering meadows, hearing larks singing and seeing them rise to the skies, with nothing but earth and sky around him, he found himself kneeling and saying over and over again, “I called to the Lord from my narrow prison and He answered me in the freedom of space.” He didn’t know how long he knelt, repeating these words, beginning to feel human again. But it is in that context that he writes, “It would be an error to think that a liberated prisoner was not in need of spiritual care anymore.” 

The insight struck me as a hammer brought down full strength on an anvil. Without pretending to compare Frankl’s suffering to that of the rest of us, it is also true that those liberated from closets or fundamentalism or even church are still greatly in need of spiritual care. We too need a verse to chant, to sing, to pray, so that we may feel pleasure and awe as we come to our senses as “the human being fully alive” that is God’s glory.   

And I would say we need one thing more. 

The first sermon in which I included gay people by name among “the least of these” for whom Jesus cared, my text was the story from Acts of Paul and Silas in prison. An earthquake frees them, and the jail keeper prepares to take his own life, thinking they have escaped. But Paul shouts out, “Do not be afraid, for we are all here.” That was my sermon title, and I explained that despite their liberation, they take time to convert the jail keeper, recognizing he too is imprisoned. I’d like to think that, almost to the day that I gave that sermon 40 years ago, I still have some of that youthful idealism.


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Wednesday, August 15, 2012

A Personal Axis Mundi

Copyright © 2012 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. 

My first semester of college in 1968 I enrolled in RS 101: Man’s Religions (sic), one of the first courses offered by the newly established Religious Studies department of California State University, Northridge. Taught by Dr. Thomas Love, the department’s founding chair, it was my first immersion in biblical scholarship as well as the equal treatment of the world’s major religions. 

Though I had already begun my disengagement from fundamentalism and biblical literalism, it was still a shock to my system, as if I had plunged into a baptismal pool filled with ice-cold water. After the 8 a.m. class, I had four hours until my next course, so I studied beneath a young tree I nicknamed my “axis mundi,” my “center of the world,” an allusion to one of our texts, Mircea Eliade’s The Sacred and the Profane 

I usually felt depressed. The class questioned almost everything I had been taught to believe, but I wondered, why should that depress me? I could dismiss it and denounce it, as so many fundamentalists and biblical literalists do. But I realized the source of my depression: I believed the new information! I understood that to take the Bible seriously was to apply the best tools of scholarship to glean its spiritual wisdom. And I could not imagine that there was only “one way,” one spiritual path. Anyone who had hiked in the mountains and foothills of Southern California as I had knew better than that. 

I woke up last Friday morning thinking of my personal axis mundi, that tree that became my place of contemplation. Years later I would discover it had grown large and tall. But on my last visit to the campus, I found it had been removed in favor of yet another building. Good thing I thought of it as a metaphor, or my whole world would have collapsed, like that tribe in Eliade’s book that died out after their totem was broken. Joseph Campbell warned that we get into trouble when we mistake our spiritual metaphors for the real thing. 

During my morning prayers  I’ve been reading Viktor Frankl’s classic, Man’s Search for Meaning, the famed psychiatrist’s account of his time held in Nazi concentration camps. Friday I happened onto a passage in which he describes a woman aware she is about to die, but cheerful anyway. “I am grateful that fate has hit me so hard,” she told him, “In my former life I was spoiled and did not take spiritual accomplishments seriously.” Pointing to a tree outside, of which she could only see a branch with two blossoms, she confided, “This tree here is the only friend I have in my loneliness. I often talk to this tree.” Fearing she was delirious, Frankl asked if it ever spoke back. “Yes. It said to me, ‘I am here—I am here—I am life, eternal life.’” 

In my prayers that morning, I thanked God for this woman, for her life, for her wisdom, and that she too had a tree to lean on. 


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Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The God Who Removes Obstacles

Copyright © 2012 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite.

Thank you, G. B., for making the first donation to this ministry! Others may do so by clicking on the “donate” link on either my blog or web site or by mail to MCC, P.O. Box 50488, Sarasota FL 34232, designating in the memo are, “For Progressive Christian Reflections.” Readers are the sole support of this ministry. Thank you! –Chris

The night after writing last week’s post about a dream, I had another. This time I found myself in the office of the church I last served, empty of my things save for a few "sacramentals" I had mistakenly left behind. I gathered these few items, but the only one I remembered after awaking was Ganesha, the elephant-headed Hindu god who is known variously as the Remover of Obstacles, the deity (deva in Sanskrit) of intellect, wisdom, and literature. With his gift for ironic humor, my Mormon nephew gave it to me one year for Christmas, and for years it sat atop my computer in hopes it would remove any technological obstacles I might encounter.  Perhaps at some unconscious level I had hoped it might remove obstacles in the church I served.

I like that the “Remover of Obstacles” is also the deity of literature.  As I wrote in my journal for the spiritual formation class I described last week, “Jesus is my liberator. But writing is my salvation.” Not just my writing, of course, but the writing of others as well, from ancient scriptures to contemporary storytellers. Writing may help us transcend obstacles, whether religious, political, historical, cultural, personal, or material. As such, writing may serve as a deeply spiritual medium. Not always, of course. Perhaps not most of the time.

When I served as a reporter and then news editor of a gay newsmagazine, I despaired that I would no longer be involved in spiritual matters as I had when employed by a church or writing my first few books. But what I discovered was that many if not most of the stories we covered were about spiritual warfare: religion attacking LGBT rights in the culture and excluding our spirituality in the church, refusing to welcome and celebrate our membership and ministries and marriages. Again, writing might come to the spiritual rescue.

In the interests of full disclosure, my dream may have been prompted by finally getting around to reading my Yale Div School classmate Barbara Brown Taylor’s memoir, Leaving Church. She adroitly describes the conflicting demands on every pastor, not the least of which is the spiritual warfare among those who follow the Prince of Peace. And almost offhandedly, she offers this bit of spiritual wisdom: “Church is not a stopping place but a starting place for discerning God’s presence in the world.”

Religion becomes a “stopping place”—an obstacle—when it thinks of itself more highly than it ought. That’s one of the things from which Jesus—our own “Remover of Obstacles”—tried to free us.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Elusive Text

Copyright © 2012 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite.

During a six-day immersion course on Christian spirituality offered by the Spiritual Formation Program at Columbia seminary in Decatur, Georgia, last week, I had a significant dream. I found myself in a large and beautiful sanctuary, uplifted by a white vaulted ceiling and warmed by deep brown paneling and pews. I was to read a poem folded in a sheet of paper inserted in a book as the text for a sermon someone else was to preach. When I came to the pulpit, I opened the book and the folded sheet but could not find the poem.

I spent five minutes searching while the congregation grew restless with the silence. The text was familiar to me, I knew, so I tried to remember phrases. Unsuccessful, I gave hints to the congregation, hoping they could help me remember, as it was also familiar to them. But they could not help. As I came out of the dream, I tried in vain to remember the poem’s words or phrases, theme or gist. I knew it was familiar also to my waking self.

Regular readers of my books and blog know that I have such dreams. For a similar one you might check out my post, “A Theory of Everything.” I invite readers to comment on possible interpretations of this particular dream.

The context of the dream might help. On my own all of my life I have carefully read books on spirituality and attended similarly-themed lectures, workshops, retreats, and pilgrimages, not to mention college courses, divinity school, and countless worship services of various kinds. Many of my own books and this very blog are intended to encourage prayer, reflection, and meditation.

But I wanted to see what a course on Christian spirituality might be like. I read the required texts, then listened to various instructors describe Old Testament and New Testament spiritualities, then desert, monastic, post-Reformation, and contemporary spiritualities. We worshiped and journaled, walked a labyrinth, spent time in silence and spiritual practices. We also met in small groups and with a spiritual friend.

It turned out to be a healing experience for me. I felt like I was dipping my toe in baptismal waters again after some discouraging church experiences. Spiritual community does work when ALL are engaged, as were the participants, facilitators, and instructors of this course.

At the closing worship, overcome by emotion, I almost could not sing the final phrase of “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling”: “lost in wonder, love, and praise.” It reminded me of a United Methodist pastor who, ousted from his denomination, once poignantly confided that it had been a very long time since he had been, in Charles Wesley’s words, “lost in wonder, love, and praise.”

Maybe the elusive text does not consist of words, but of feelings.