When Total Obedience is Perfect Freedom

Realism means obedience to reality. Such obedience entails giving up building mind-castles of false realities to take the place of Reality with a capital “R.” This capitalization assumes that there IS a really real Reality that is not made up by human beings. However the capitalized word “Reality” is capable of misunderstandings. For some it can mean a second realm that stands over-against the ordinary realm of existence. If we are inclined to a more down-to-Earth view of Reality, it can mean those parts of our experience that are pleasant, excluding those parts that are unpleasant, horrific, challenging, grim, or perhaps boring.

But the “total obedience” I want to describe is a devotion to the mysterious all-powerful encounter that includes everything that happens to us in every event we face. Such realism means taking in what is actually happening to each of us and to us as societies. This includes possibilities as well as limitations. It includes the consequences of human choices as well as the processes of nature over which humans have no control. It includes the horrific as well as the glorious. In addition to our everyday content, the Reality we actually face includes the Abyss of No-thing-ness from which each thing, including our own lives, have come and to which each thing, including our own lives,will return. Reality also includes the Every-thing-ness of that Expansive Sea of Mystery within which each identifiable thing exists for now. Reality includes the Awesome Otherness that we encounter as well as the Awe that the Awesome occasions in our inner being.

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Power

Many authors today have often contrasted the power-to do things for people with power-over other people. Indeed, there is deep contrast between the use of our power in service of others and the use of our power to gain status for our selves or as a means of oppressing others for our own benefit and sense of worth.

Nevertheless, power-over is not in itself evil. Parents have power-over their children. This benefits the children, if such power is well used. Our political leaders (however they are selected) are granted power-over a wide scope of citizen life. Such political power can also be used in service of the citizenry, and such power can be misused very badly.

Power is an important factor in all social actions. As Paul Tillich spelled out in one of his most creative books, there is no Justice without Power and there is no Justice building Power or empowered Justice without Love (Tillich, Paul; Love, Power, and Justice).

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The Good Shepherd Lives

Here is a much mistreated passage from the Fourth Gospel about shepherds and sheep.

I have come that human beings may have life and may have it is all its fullness. I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hireling, when he sees the wolf coming, abandons the sheep and runs away, because he is no shepherd and the sheep are not his. John 10 :10-12

Those who give sermons on the good shepherd often assume that this ancient image applies to a contemporary pastor who tells his flock what they should believe and how they should act. Such a view also assumes that most people are sheep in the sense of being gullible, go-along, authority-addicted dumbbells.

I do not believe this was the meaning intended by the original author of these verses. The original shepherd image was grounded in the experience of noticing highly dedicated persons working on a hillside with a flock of sheep, providing them grass and water and protecting them from wolves. Being a follower of Jesus means being such a leader.

So where can we actually experience this Good Shepherd in our lives today? Let me answer this with a fictitious story—a story made out of my own experiences. In my story, Sally McGillicutty teaches an adult class in the Sunflower room of the Umpity Ump Christian Church. Sally trusts the Ultimate Message that the Infinite Silence we meet in every event of our lives loves Sally and every other person (and creature) on this planet or any other planet. Because of her trust in that Eternal Wholeness that is faced by Sally and by us, Sally is thereby an embodiment of the Ultimate Message from Eternity.

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Giving Back our Gifts

The traditional model of Christian sainthood goes all the way back to Abraham. Actually, it goes all the way back to the stories of Abraham and Sarah. The fragment of historical truth beneath those stories refers to ancient migrations from what is now Iraq to Palestine—events that happened centuries before these biblical stories were written down.

Central within the Abraham and Sarah stories is a story about Abraham’s journey to the top of a mountain to sacrifice Isaac—his only son, the son miraculously given to him and Sarah in their advanced age. In this strange story, Abraham is giving back the gift of Isaac, who was Abraham’s only evidence for a promise made to Abraham by the Giver of Isaac—a promise to make the descendants of Abraham and Sarah as numerous as the sands on the sea shore.

Centuries after the Exodus from Egypt, when these stories were being widely told, written, and read, this promise to Abraham was still not realized. The Hebraic people who claimed Abraham as their forefather were not yet numerous. Today, we might assume that all the Jewish people, all the Christian people, and all the Islamic people are somehow descendants of Abraham. If so, then Abraham’s descendants are indeed in the billions. All these people are not biological descendants, but they are at least people who remember Abraham and Sarah and Hagar. Only a few of these billions, however, embody Abraham’s model of sainthood.

Why should we honor the Abraham stories or his model of sainthood? These stories are fiction after all, and rather gross fiction as well. And especially, why all the fuss over this strange story about human sacrifice? Why did a fully sane and renowned 19th century philosopher and theologian, Søren Kierkegaard, write a whole book about this story?

This essay will be much simpler than Kiekegaard’s book. I am going to reflect on one idea: “Giving back to Reality all that Reality has given to us.”

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The Depth of Christian Social Ethics

All social ethics takes place in a context of history. Christian social ethics is no different: as Christians we do not have a set of principles that apply to every generation of history. The ethics of Leviticus and the ethics of Deuteronomy were shaped for those times in history. The same applies to the ethics of Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Luther, and H. Richard Niebuhr. Time moves on and social ethics moves on with the times.

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The Flight From Freedom

Freedom is a component of our essential nature along with trust of Realty and care for self and neighbor. Yet we flee from this freedom, just as we distrust Reality and neglect care for ourselves and others. Flight from freedom is an estrangement from realism.

The Primal Merging with Freedom

When we have been blessed to see beyond our self images, personality structures, and social conditioning, we discover our intentionality, our initiative, our freedom to act beyond those self-inflicted boundaries. Too easily, we tell ourselves that we can’t do what we can do. The truth is we don’t know what we can do. We think we are determined where we are not. For example, if I am by habit a shy person, I can still discover my freedom to risk myself in gregarious contact with others. If I am by habit a boisterous person, I can still discover my freedom to calm down into being sensitive to others. Personality impulses exist, but so does freedom, unless we have squelched it.

Our essential freedom does not control the future—almost always he future comes to us as a surprise. Our freedom is not absolute control, but a participant in options. And this freedom is a gift—a gift that must to be received and enacted by us. Freedom is our profound initiative to make a difference in what the future turns out to be. Our free initiatives mingle with massive forces beyond our control to form a future that is both a surprise to us and a result of our initiatives.

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The Revelation of Moses

What happened to those slaves that Moses led out of Egypt?  Why do we remember an event that is centuries more than 3000 years old.  Furthermore, this event is now covered with layers of story, myth, and interpretations to the extent that any scientifically historical accuracy about what factually happened is obscured in all the fuss that has been made about this event.  Let us suppose that the following bare-bones approximation of the outward historical facts, gives us an impression of what we need to guess in order to begin understandings why this event was revelatory—yes, revelatory of the nature of every event that has ever happened or ever will happen.

Here is my guess:  An unusually aware, sensitive, and perhaps educated member of the Hebraic slave community was moved to lead a significant number of his Hebraic companions out of a severely hierarchical Egyptian society into the wilderness where a new vision of law-writing was established that was based on a vision that the Mysterious Realty allows free action to change the course of history.  This was a huge shift in life interpretation for these Egyptian enculturated slaves—so huge that it took Moses and others 40 years, so the story goes, to wash Egypt out of this people and prepare them to fight for a more promising place on Earth for their revelation and their emerging peoplehood.

A more personally rooted story-time rendering of this transformative event begins with how a man named Moses got so angry over a member of his people being mistreated by an Egyptian soldier that he killed that solder, and then had to flee to the out-back into a life in hiding.  Then one day, so the story goes, Moses came upon a bush that was blazing with a strange type of fire.  Temporal bushes burn up, but this bush was not being consumed.  It remained the same old bush in spite of this strange conflagration. This was surely a bit of Moses’ poetry for a very real inner happening to Moses himself.   His own “who-he-thought-he-was” was being burned up, yet he was not consumed.

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Perpetual Revolution

in our use of the word “God”

My mentor for 20 years Joe Mathews was a graduate student and long-term friend of H. Richard Niebuhr. “Perpetual revolution” is a phrase and an emphasis that Mathews took from Niebuhr and passed on to me. This phrase was applied to all social structures, but especially to the perpetual revolution in religious forms.

One of Mathews’ favorite spins was about how Spirit cries out, “Give me form,” and how the form that we give to Spirit can never contain the Spirit that cried out for form.  In this same way, what Niebuhr called “radical monotheism” is a perpetual revolution. Such monotheism is “radical” all the way back to Moses and all the way forward to any radical new edition of Christianity.

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Interreligious Relations

ISIS-type Muslims and KKK-type Christians hate one another. They also hate Jews and any other group that seems to reject or despise their particular religious fanaticism. And a whole lot of Jews, Christians, and Muslims are laking in the awareness that these three religious, when true to their origins, have more in common than they differ.

The differences between these three religions are important, and their historical battles in previous centuries were seriousness conflicts that smoked out deep truths and social benefits for the future of our species. But today, the overriding imperative is to honor our common humanity. This honoring includes making allies among the true followers of the Exodus revelation of realism, the Jesus as Messiah revelation of realism, and the Mohammedan revelation of realism. We can picture this companionship as three different spirit explorers staring into same deep pit of Mystery—each one telling us in a different language what they see. Like blind persons touching different parts of the same elephant, these and other vital religious heritages present different pathways to the same overwhelming, inexhaustible Mystery.

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Innocent Suffering

Several Christian theologians, including H. Richard Niebuhr, have used the term “innocent suffering” to provide us with clues to our ethical priorities. What do we mean by this term?

For example, it is certainly true that African American persons in the United States confront an up-hill slope compared to their white brothers and sisters. To even be a candidate for the office of president, Barack Obama had to be qualified way beyond the norm for this job. Though we might not support some of Obama’s policies, we had in him a superbly qualified person: a law scholar; a public speaker of Abraham Lincoln class (many of whose speeches will be remembered for centuries); a talented comedian seldom seen in public office; a person of self control, obvious sanity, and sincere intent to be a positive influence. Had he had any of the flaws or weaknesses of Donald Trump, he would never have been elected Senator, much less President. Can we imagine the response of voters, had Obama said things about women that Trump apparently got away with (at least with millions of voters)? A white man in our culture often avoids sufferings that a black person will almost certainly experience.

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