Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Jeb vs. Francis

My heart and prayers go out to Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
Today’s post was first published in The Huffington Post on Monday.

Just when I had concluded that Jeb Bush was the likely Republican nominee for president in 2016, he said something that dumbfounded me: 
I hope I’m not going to get castigated for saying this by my priest back home, but I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals or my pope. And I’d like to see what [the pope] says as it relates to climate change and how that connects to these broader, deeper issues before I pass judgment. But I think religion ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting in the political realm.  (New York Times, June 17, 2015) 
“Religion ought to be about making us better as people” means to me that it makes us better voters, better legislators, better elected officials—all devising better policies as political actors, thus “getting in the political realm.”

“I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals or my pope” (and presumably his priest) makes me wonder who Jeb’s spiritual advisors are, then, and if Jesus and his teachings even count in his views on public policy.

I’m not saying this is true of Jeb Bush, but many Christians see Jesus and the church simply as their “Get-out-of-hell-free” card in a game of spiritual Monopoly, and view religion as concerned with personal morals rather than economic realities. That’s why they easily claim their religious values when it comes to opposing women’s reproductive rights and same-sex marriage.

But Jesus and his followers proclaimed a gospel that has as much to do with economic concerns as spiritual realities. In truth, conversion anticipated care for “the least of these.” Jesus admonished the one percent to “sell what you have and give to the poor” and, in the Lord’s Prayer no less, just after being given our daily bread, we are to forgive our debtors as God overlooks our own indebtedness. And in his proclamation of God’s in-breaking government, Jesus fed and healed the multitudes as he offered them spiritual wisdom.

As to Pope Francis’s recent encyclical on the environment and the disproportionate effects of human-caused climate change on the poor—this is not just religion speaking, but mainstream science as well.

In Merchants of Doubt, Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway “reported that dubious tactics had been used over decades to cast doubt on scientific findings relating to subjects like acid rain, the ozone shield, tobacco smoke and climate change,” according to an article in The New York Times’ Science Times, “And most surprisingly in each case, the tactics were employed by the same group of people.” They followed the playbook of the tobacco industry in planting doubt about the conclusions of accepted scientific studies: 
The central players were serious scientists who had major career triumphs during the Cold War, but in subsequent years apparently came to equate environmentalism with socialism, and government regulation with tyranny. (New York Times, June 16, 2015) 
There may be a parallel in religion. That the encyclical was leaked before its planned release may suggest the work of similar “central players…who had career triumphs” who resent Pope Francis’s attempts at reform and wanted to embarrass him regarding his ability to manage the Vatican.

Political and religious conservatives claim the rights of religion in the marketplace of ideas and the public square. Why not support the same claim when religion and science come together to save the planet and its poor?

Readers are this blog’s only means of support. To donate, please click here or mail to Metropolitan Community Churches, P.O. Box 50488, Sarasota FL 34232 USA, designating “Progressive Christian Reflections” in the memo area of your check or money order.
Thank you!

Copyright © 2015 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.  

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Something Divinely Providential about Our Deaths

I think we got off on the wrong foot, believing that death came into the world because of sin. If there is something divinely providential about our lives, there must be something divinely providential about our deaths. In the language of the previous post, “The Universe in Your Soul,” the cosmos that begat life must have also begat death.

This insight, this revelation, came to me as clear as day while reading Julian of Norwich’s Revelations one morning. And it gave me great peace, and dare I say, bliss. I felt as I imagine C. S. Lewis’s wife did when she was “surprised by joy.”

Was it something Julian said? Probably, but not directly. The idea welled up in me as she described our yearning to see the face of God, though I don’t assume as she does that death provides that experience. Neither do I reject that hope. After all, if we can imagine an infinite multiverse, who knows what death may bring?

I believe that whatever death means, it is intended as providentially as our lives.  It is part of the natural order of things or the divine order of things, however one chooses to view it.

“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done” in death as in life. “In life and in death we belong to God.”

Because we resist death, and our deaths in particular, as part of life, we view death as a kind of failure rather than an accomplishment or completion. It is not only the medical profession that suffers this. Because long ago death was associated with sin, even those who don’t think much about sin may search obituaries for self-inflicted causes, even if it’s simply to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I wrote a sonnet to a friend in college that rather romantically compared our life cycle with that of alpine wildflowers, ending with the couplet:
And then someday we’ll lose compose
While out of us, another grows.
Even then I wanted to be buried straight into the ground, recycled, as it were, into the earth, and into other forms of life.

But recycling has other expressions. 

“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit,” Jesus said.

Having sold only two paintings in his lifetime, Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo, “Life is only a kind of sowing time; the harvest is not here.”

Echoing this, Henri Nouwen spoke of the “fruitfulness of our lives” that may only be realized after our brief lifespans.

In one of her letters of spiritual direction, Evelyn Underhill wrote, “No one, not even the greatest saint, is irreplaceable. It is a greater act of trust and love to give your work into fresh hands…”

Finally, it takes an artist like Van Gogh seeing death as if for the first time to observe: 
It certainly is a strange phenomenon that all the artists, poets, musicians, painters, are unfortunate in material things…  That brings up again the eternal question: is the whole of life visible to us, or isn’t it rather that this side [of] death we see one hemisphere only? 
Painters—to take them only—dead and buried, speak to the next generation or to several succeeding generations through their work.
Is that all, or is there more besides? In a painter’s life death is not perhaps the hardest thing there is.
For my own part, I declare I know nothing whatever about it, but to look at the stars always makes me dream, as simply as I dream over the black dots of a map representing towns and villages. Why, I ask myself, should the shining dots of the sky not be as accessible as the black dots on the map of France? If we take the train to get to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to reach a star. One thing undoubtedly true in this reasoning is this, that while we are alive we cannot get to a star, any more than when we are dead we can take the train. 
So it seems to me possible that cholera, gravel, phthisis and cancer are the celestial means of locomotion, just as steamboats, omnibuses and railways are the terrestrial means. To die quietly of old age would be to go there on foot. 
My preference would be to go there on foot, but regardless of how I get there, I hope to trust the benevolent providence of God and the universe. They’ve been doing life and death much, much longer and better than I have.

Readers are this blog’s only means of support. To donate, please click here or mail to Metropolitan Community Churches, P.O. Box 50488, Sarasota FL 34232 USA, designating “Progressive Christian Reflections” in the memo area of your check or money order.
Thank you!

Copyright © 2015 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.  

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Universe in Your Soul

With a title like “The Universe in Your Soul” you might think I’ve gone New Age or motivational, but this idea came to me while reading the medieval Christian recluse Julian of Norwich, whose “Showings” or “Revelations” (the first book written in English by a woman) I’ve been contemplating for several months during my morning prayers. She writes: 
And then our Lord opened my spiritual eye and showed me my soul in the midst of my inner self. I saw my soul as large as if it were an endless world… 
Translator Father John-Julian, OJN offers other versions and translations of her Middle English as possibilities for “endless world,” but concludes that “Julian is trying to convey the idea of limitless space within her soul.” Julian views the soul as both body and spirit, much as the ancient Hebrews and first Christians did, and that God is “the means by which our sensuality and our essence are held together.”

When she speaks of her soul, she means our souls as well. That captures my imagination. It occurs to me that our souls are the progeny of a universe expanding not only beyond itself, but also within ourselves—not only outwardly, but inwardly.

Being, life itself, is how the universe is reaching beyond matter and gasses, energy and dark matter, to comprehend itself, to communicate, and to contemplate the wonder of it all. (Scientific contemplation is helping us also understand how “lively” matter is, even before life emerges.)

For Julian, this is not just humanity, but all living things. And, she observes, it’s in this “being” that God is to be found, making me think of Paul Tillich’s notion of God as “the Ground of Being.”

She has a high view of human beings, in sharp contrast to “the typical medieval stance (or the Puritan and Calvinist attitudes),” to quote her translator. She observes: 
For I saw in the same showing that if the blessed Trinity could have made [humanity’s] soul any better, any more beautiful, any nobler than it was made, [God] would not have been wholly pleased with the creation of [the human] soul. 
And that’s why God chooses to dwell in our souls. I flash on Etty Hillesum’s understanding of God as her “deepest and richest” self—in the words of 12-Step, our “higher power.”

For Julian, “the Fall” is a human stumbling into a hole, requiring compassion and help getting out. As I’ve written in a previous post, she doesn’t believe that God blames us for sin, but feels empathy for the trouble and suffering it causes us. Sin is “nothing” and “unnatural” for us, making me think of Karl Barth’s notion of sin as “the impossible possibility.”

And she embraces the “felix culpa,” the “fortunate sin” that makes possible the Incarnation as well as our individual realizations of vulnerability, though I prefer Hildegard of Bingen’s notion that the Incarnation was intended from the beginning; indeed, I would say the Incarnation is a teaching moment to reveal God’s incarnation in all life.

And our “dearworthy Mother” Jesus, “if we fall, quickly…raises us by [a] loving embracing and merciful touching.”

God knows we could all use more “merciful touching”! Julian writes: 
As truly as God is our Father, so truly God is our Mother. 
And what [God] showed in all the showings… particularly in those sweet words where [God] says: … 
“I am the supreme goodness of all manner of things.
I am what causes thee to love.
I am what cause thee to yearn.
It is I: the endless fulfilling of all true desires.”
We do not invite so much as observe the presence of God, Jesus, and the Spirit in our souls, central to our interior “endless world and…blessed kingdom.”

And, as if all of this were not enough, Julian asserts: 
It is God’s will that I see myself just as much bound to [God] in love as if [God] had done all that [God] has done just for me. 
And thus should every soul think in regard to [God’s] Love: that is to say, the love of God creates in us such a unity that when it is truly understood, no [one] can separate [oneself] from any other. 
As I contemplate this insight of an “endless world,” this universe inside me, I am struck with awe and a sense of tremendous responsibility. A recent study indicates that awe is directly related to an ability to care for others. A current book, The Spiritual Child by Lisa Miller, argues “that spiritual awareness is innate and that it is an important component in human development,” in the words of columnist David Brooks.

This further insight from Julian I find transforming the more I consider it: 
And thus I understand truly that our soul can never have rest in things that are beneath itself. 
Reminiscent, as John-Julian observes, of Augustine’s famous saying that “our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you, O God.” It makes me consider all the things with which I occupy my life that are “beneath” my soul. 
And the soul that thus contemplates [this delightful sight] makes itself to be like [God] who is contemplated, and ones itself in rest and peace by [God’s] grace. 
Even for those who may not believe in God, contemplating the universe within that is the culmination of a billions-year-old universe may inspire awe and make us sensible to the value of our lives and the lives of others. 

Copyright © 2015 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved. 

Readers are this blog’s only means of support. To donate, please click here or mail to Metropolitan Community Churches, P.O. Box 50488, Sarasota FL 34232 USA, designating “Progressive Christian Reflections” in the memo area of your check or money order. 
Thank you!

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Misplaced Devotion?

Our nearly sixteen-year-old dog, Hobbes, has been going through a rough patch of aging for the past two months. I know she will die, just as I will, but the process is fraught with stress and uncertainty, save the final outcome. She refuses her normal food, prompting Wade and me to improvise meals that are inviting yet bland enough not to upset her system. Her intestinal discomfort and its manifestations have led to disruption of our daytime schedules and our night’s sleep, as well as requiring energy in cleaning up everything from bedding to floors, so all three of us are very fatigued.

We have become practicing if not exactly believing Buddhists: Hobbes moves very slowly these days, mindfully taking each step, as in a walking meditation. Wade and I mindfully attend every morsel of food she either takes or rejects, as well as being mindful of her other bodily functions or lack thereof.

An ultrasound has revealed a mass on the liver, probably cancer, but she is too old to safely survive surgery (assuming we could afford it). The morning I write this, she steadfastly refuses even to taste her freshly cooked morning meal.

That’s the background of sitting down for our morning prayers (Hobbes likes to join me on the deck.) and reading more of Julian of Norwich’s contemplation of Jesus and God.  I will soon have a post finished that does Julian justice, but today I became the rebellious reformer. Today it felt like her devotion is misplaced: Jesus does not need us to contemplate him, nor does God or the Trinity. There are people and species and ecosystems in my New York Times who are the ones in real need of our devotion. Them and our poor dog, which I immediately feel guilty comparing.

So I pulled out my John Leith, Introduction to the Reformed Tradition. I know, he  wasn’t exactly a progressive in most people’s eyes, but he seems more progressive than most conservatives these days. I wanted to remind myself of the Reformers’ reservations about contemplation.

Thomas Aquinas asserted, “[A human being's] ultimate felicity consists only in the contemplation of God.”

But Calvinist theologian H. Richard Niebuhr wrote: 
To call the vision [a human being’s] greatest good is to make contemplation, however prepared for by activity and however issuing in action, the final end of life; to put the sovereignty of God in the first place is to make obedient activity superior to contemplation, however much of theoria is necessary to action. The principle of vision suggests that the perfection of the object seen is loved above all else; the principle of the kingdom indicates that the reality and power of the being commanding obedience are primarily regarded. 
In other words, “Faith without works is dead.” Or, more bluntly, do we contemplate our navels and do nothing to help the world?

Julian, however, might take issue with this view of contemplation. Her idea seems to be that we become what we contemplate, that we are “oned” with God, a transformation that leads us to compassionate action. Such action then is not mere obedience; rather, it comes as a heartfelt expression of who we are, oned with God. Talk about at-one-ment!

I can’t see how compassion comes from obedience; it must come from transformation in the presence of absolute, all-embracing love.

Hobbes and Wade and I are cases in point: we have tamed and transformed the beast in one another by our love, loyalty, and actions. That’s what spiritual community is all about.

“What the world needs now…” is contemplation of the God of love.

I’ll be in New York City this weekend, June 5-7 at Fort Washington Collegiate Church leading two Saturday workshops, “Sex & the Body of Christ,” and “Coming Out as Sacrament,” and preaching on “Your Will Be Done” from the Lord’s Prayer during the 10:45 Sunday morning worship. For details, click here.

Copyright © 2015 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved. 

Please support this blog ministry by clicking here or mailing to Metropolitan Community Churches, P.O. Box 50488, Sarasota FL 34232 USA, designating “Progressive Christian Reflections” in the memo area of your check or money order. Thank you!