Tag Archives: Contemporary Religion

October 2017

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.

And this was only the beginning of the innocent suffering inflicted upon our first black president—falsely accused of not being a citizen, irrationally opposed by Republican leaders, assassination threats beyond the norm. And even all of Obama’s sufferings are less than the innocent suffering faced by every black inner city boy who is often instructed by his parents on how to avoid getting killed by the police or vigilantes walking home from school. “Black Lives Matter” is indeed a slogan that speaks to this innocent suffering.

There is no fault involved in being born black or brown or tan, so this is properly called “innocent suffering.” Women also face innocent suffering: their opportunities are still restricted compared with men of equal qualification; our culture also allows various dangers to their person (and life) that exceed those of most males. Innocent suffering is certainly endured by the poor: their pathway to success and prosperity is becoming more, not less, restricted. Gays, lesbians, and transgender citizens face innocent suffering of a most insidious form. Innocent suffering is likewise endured by the mentally ill. And we must not overlook the worshipers of a religion that is not typical in the general society. This list of innocent suffers goes on and on. Suffering of all sorts is unfairly distributed in every society, and this unfair distribution tells us much that we need to know in order to prioritize our fight for justice.

Yet, there is a problem with fully understanding the concept of “innocent suffering,” for all people suffer and no person is wholly innocent. If we view “innocence” from the perspective of not being estranged from our profound humanness, then in terms of this baseline, we are all guilty of being less than human. We are all on a journey either forward toward more authenticity of living, or on a journey backward toward more debauchery and other escapes of our essential being. “Innocent” is not the whole story about suffering.

Guilty of Despair

Innocent before some law can be fairly cut and dried. That is why we have courts and judges and juries—to figure out that sort of innocence or guilt. But on the more profound level of our being human, “guilt” means something far more basic than violation of a law. The deep refusal to live our real life is a guilt that we do not get away with, Reality catches up with us and casts us into some form of despair. We are all guilty of the suffering of despair.

Also, no one avoids the temporal sufferings of ordinary living. It is often true that suffering is about half of our lives. Pain and pleasure are both experienced by all of us. Success and frustration are both there in our lives. Both approval and disapproval come our way. Both beauty and ugliness happen to us. Our lives includes many “little deaths” to our living, as well as that final ending in total biological extinction.

And in addition to all these qualities of our temporality, we add suffering to our lives by our attitudes toward our temporal ups and downs. By clinging to these impermanent realities, we create a suffering that need not be. By hoping for things that can never happen, we create a suffering that need not haunt our lives. We can needlessly despair over anything, both our so-called “ups” as well as our so-called “downs.” Mostly we despair over our “downs”—over our loss of a mate we wanted but did not get, or had for a time and then lost—over a job we loved but cannot no longer perform—over a discovery about our own person of something we abhor. Despair is the most intolerable of all sufferings, yet most of us are trapped in some form of despair most of the time.

Despair is a suffering that Buddhist practices can assist us to heal—making us ready for the “accident” of liberation from our despair. Despair is a suffering that Christian practices also assist us to heal: this heritage calls this “accident of liberation” the “grace of God.” Grace is a happening that enables us to trust in Reality, a trust that leads to the consequences of freedom, hope, love, peace, and joy. These two religions and others have come into being because humans all face the need to heal from the sickness of despair. In spite of the fact that we all tend to avoid the whole topic of despair, we all need means of healing our despair — of getting loose from the trap of despair and finding release for our true human potentials.

And our despair is basically needless, for it is not built into the structure of the cosmos. Despair is an accomplishment of human beings. It is possible to give up hoping that our temporal lives will cease to be temporal and become lasting in the ways we wish to be “lasting.” However, that deep possibility of being reconciled with our real, authentic, essential lives is not so easy. Our despair is caused by attitudes that are deeply entrenched. If fact, most of the time we have no idea why we are in despair or what it might be that we are in despair over. Even when we do have some insight into the causes of our despair, we may still be strongly bound in clinging to whatever it is that is passing away. Such clinging makes us slaves, bound and groveling in some state of despair. And despair can be very dangerous, for it can seem to us so bad that we can choose not to live at all, rather that go on with the pain of our despair or even the humiliation of its admission and healing.

Most often we find ways of burying our feelings of despair in some form of drunkenness or debauchery or busyness. Even our most noble living may provide a way of escaping a full experience of our despair-dominated lives. But such escapes from despair do not last. Eventually we become exhausted, numb, burned-out, and thereby brought home to an even deeper awareness of our despair.

Most tragic of all, we are capable of taking on a very advanced attitude toward despair—the notion that despair is all there is to living a human life. We can simply resign ourselves to despair and thereby embody some sort of firm hatred toward human living that our despair reveals, making ourselves into a demonic force that lacks all genuine love for others or even love for ourselves—a spirit that hates the cosmos for being the cosmos, and that hates the cosmos for working in the ways the cosmos does in fact work. Such despair-sick lives take on a sort of purpose, the purpose of hating reality and evangelizing others to hate life along with us. This horrid state can endure as a sort of grim fun, until we get tired of it. We know that we can always kill ourselves when we want to quit this weird project of hate. We need not be so surprised when people actually do kill themselves and take a bunch of others with them.

Seeing clearly these consequences to which despair may lead, let us ask further about the possibility of healing despair. Paul Tillich has given us a formula for noticing this path of transformation. First, we look our despair in the face and acknowledge that we are the cause of it, that we are guilty of despair. Second, we notice that the cosmic truth of Final Reality is an acceptance of us—an acceptance of us just as we are, in spite of our self-inflicted despair. This cosmic acceptance offers to us a fresh start for our lives. And third, all we have to do right now is simply accept that fact that we are accepted. Transformation follows. However grim our despair has been, we can be and therefore act differently. We can be reconciled in our overall attitude toward everything.

“Everything” Includes
all Sorts of Suffering

There is suffering that is simply our finitude—the impermanence of every aspect of our lives—our bodies, our health, our peers, our thoughts, our feelings, our lives. This suffering of impermanence is neither innocent nor guilty: it just is. It is just part of our lives to which can be reconciled or needlessly fight against.

Policing Despair

The social role of policing might better be called protecting, for that is the positive meaning of police action, protecting us from the consequence of our despairing neighbors and protecting our neighbors from a despairing “me.” The Declaration of Independence referred to the task of policing with the poetry “domestic tranquility.” We have often developed antagonism toward policing, because we have experienced despairing police officers who are causing innocent suffering. Nevertheless, the true role of policing is to protect us, not cause us more suffering.

The laws of state power and their enforcement do not heal despair, but law enforcement can restrain the despairing from the consequences of their despair upon the rest of us. In love for ourselves and others, we can experience the call to restrain “evil,” where “evil” is defined by just law and by common-sense moral custom. We can restrain such defined “evil” along with promoting the accompanying works of love that have to do with assisting the despairing to be aware of their despair and to find the path of forgiveness that leads toward being healed of despair.

Such healing and such restraint of evil do not contradict each other: these two forms of love support each other. Healing the despairing provides society with persons who do the tasks of justice. And the application of justice can be a tutor to the despairing about their despair, which is the first step toward healing their despair.

Such a balanced understanding of the works of love protects us from seeing ourselves as guiltless avengers at war with the guilty criminals. We all despair. And we all need just applications of law to restrain us. A police officer confronts the delicate task of restraining the consequences of despair, while also noticing the humanity of the people they restrain, a humanity that always includes a potential for humanness, no matter how evil and dangerous that human may still be.

It is not a contradiction that we need to restrain criminal persons as well as treat them with the respect they deserve. Criminals deserve respect in line with the simple fact of their being born into the common life we share with them. The suffering that policing must cause a criminal is a suffering that is needed because of the sickness of despair in that criminal. No permission need be granted to the police to heap innocent suffering on the criminals they care for and protect the rest of us from.

Police work is an honest and needed profession—no less so than nurse or teacher. Each profession has its characteristic temptations. Our police need to be trained to watch out for their own need to be powerful over others, or to hate those it is safe in this culture to hate. This need for a seeming softness of spirit in our police does not contradict the need for our police to be clear, careful, and firm with the destructive consequences of the despairing. We can be thankful for our police as well as for our therapeutic and religious ministries that are aimed at making us ready for the healing of our despair.

For more reflections on these and other slippery topics see our web site:

http://www.realisticliving.org/

Deep River Crossing

Called to a Next Christianity

Deep river
My home is over Jordan
Deep river, Lord,
I want to cross over into campground

These opening lines to an African American church-song illustrates the depth of Christian awareness that is hidden in many of those old songs. This “deep river” is an allusion to the cross—understood as an inward death to all our temporal idols. And “campground” is an allusion to the resurrection—to the authenticity that is experienced on the other side this “deep-river crossing.” Few church goers, black or white, have probed the depth of this understanding of the cross and the resurrection. Few of us actually view the resurrection as the hidden side of the cross, or see both cross and resurrection as possible experiences in the depths of our own human authenticity.

Oh don’t you want to go
to that Gospel feast
that promised land
where all is peace.

The death/resurrection crossing is a feast, good news, a promised land of living in peace with the WAY IT IS essentially for all human beings everywhere, no matter what their grim or privileged circumstances. These deep meanings of the Christian revelation are missing in most of the living that goes on in the world today. Why is that so? That will be the question of this essay.

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Time?

In both contemporary physics and contemporary religious writings “time” remains a mysterious topic. Nothing is more obvious than time to an elder who has watched babies grow into adults. “How time flies!” is almost an automatic exclamation. Nevertheless, in both our scientific quest for truth and in our interior or contemplative quest for truth, “What is time?” arises as an unusually profound topic.

Contemplative Time

When we look within our own conscious being, we see ourselves living in an ongoing quality we call “now.” Time seems to flow through this now. The past is just a memory taking place now as content in our memory banks. And the future is only an anticipation, taking place now in our guesses about future nows that have yet to “happen.” In our experiences of contemplation or art participation or solitary brooding, “now” continues to be our core experience of time

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Washed of Your Era

It was in those days that Jesus arrived from the Galilean village of Nazareth and was baptized by John in the Jordan. All at once, as he came up out of the water, he saw the heavens split open, and the Spirit coming down upon him like a dove. A voice came out of Heaven, saying, “You are my dearly-beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased!  Mark 1:9-11

Faced with such writings almost 2000 years old, biblical interpretation today requires a bit more work than simply reading the stories. It is important to know that most of these biblical stories are not scientific history, but it is needful to do a bit of scientific history to find what these stories meant to their authors. But such history is only the beginning. Here are my four steps for interpreting a passage of biblical writing.

1. Scientific History: What do we know about when and where this text was written, who wrote it, and what probable meanings were being given to the specific words used by this time-bound story teller?
2. Literary Analysis: Was this a poem, a teaching, a fictional story, a historical legend, a theological myth, etc.?
3. Metaphorical Translation: Interpreting any transcendent, two-layer, story-talk with our contemporary, existential, one-layer, transparency language.
4. “Word-of-God” Suggestions: What might this passage be saying to us today about the living of our authentic lives and about the power of these Christian symbols for our own depth living?

Continue reading Washed of Your Era

New Testament Living

How does a viable and vital next Christianity need to be grounded in the originating revelation witnessed to in the New Testament texts? In our contemporary culture we honor or we need to honor both the scientific and the contemplative approaches to truth. How does this affect Biblical interpretation? Following is a four-point summary of the biblical interpretation methods I am promoting.

(1) Scientific History: What do we know about when and where a text was written, who wrote it, and what probable meanings were being given to the specific words used by this time-bound story teller?

(2) Literary Analysis: Was this a poem, a teaching, a fictional story, a historical legend, a theological myth, etc.?

(3) Metaphorical Translation: Interpreting any transcendent, two-layer, story-talk with our contemporary, existential, one-layer, transparency language.

(4) “Word-of-God” Suggestions: What might this passage be saying to us today about the living of our authentic lives and about the power of these Christian symbols for our own depth living?

Continue reading New Testament Living

My Contemporary Theologizing

Perhaps I owe the readers of these e-mails (which are also Realistic Living blog posts) some information on who I am as a Christian theologizer. I am certainly not a great scholastic— a theologian in the company of Rudolf Bultmann, whom I consider to be the most important Christian biblical scholar and theologian of the last two centuries. I also include Paul Tillich, H. Richard Niebuhr, and Dietrich Bonhoefer in my smallest circle of great recent Christian theologians. All four of these scholarly luminaries lean strongly toward what Tillich calls the “Protestant principle”—by which he means the perpetual critique of all religious and cultural assertions. These four theologians are also “catholic” thinkers in the sense of fully honoring the whole history of Christian expression. I am especially indebted to Paul Tillich and H. R. Niebuhr for my love of history and my perspective on church history.

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The Darkest Day of the Year and the Virgin Birth

Medieval Christianity wrapped almost everything in a Christian ritual: birth, adulthood, vocation, marriage, death, the first day of the week, the seasons of the year, even the hours of the day.

The original Christmas rituals wrapped the darkest day of the year with the birth of a tiny light in this very dark season of Advent judgement—a single candle, a new star in the midnight sky, a tiny babe born in extreme poverty, an intrusion of something dangerous to the dark powers of degraded government. Even this inconspicuous tiny beginning of hope, the powers of darkness sought to kill.

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Prayer Always Works

Jesus spent many long hours in prayer–whole nights, 40 days in the wilderness preparing for his life mission. He probably spent hours every day in prayer. He was a busy man. Why was he spending all this time in prayer? And what was he doing with all this prayer time? Certainly, Jesus was not doing the sort of long-winded praying for which he criticized the religious leadership of his time. In his teachings, he clearly recommends solitude and sincerity.

In the opening verses of the 11th chapter of Luke’s Gospel, we find the disciples noticing that Jesus spends much time in prayer. One day, after he finishes praying, they ask him to teach them to pray. Jesus, according to Luke, gives his disciples a brief set of terse sentences we call “the Lord’s Prayer.” Then Luke continues the subject of prayer with Jesus teling his disciples a story about a man who goes to his friend in the middle of the night to get three loaves of bread for his suprise guests. The friend is already in bed and won’t get up. Jesus says that if this man persists, his friend will get up and give him everything he needs.

Jesus applies this story to the subject of prayer, “And so I tell you, ask and it will be given you, search and you will find, knock and the door will be opened to you. The one who asks will always receive; the one who is searching will always find, and the door is opened to the person who knocks.” (Luke 11:9,10) These verses seem to contradict about half of what we experience in our real lives. We have all asked for things we never received. We have all done some passionate seeking without finding. And we have all done some knocking on doors that never opened.

Some interpreters of these verses have suggested that our problem is poor praying. If we were to pray correctly, we would receive what we are praying for. But such interpreters have never satisfied me; nor have they convinced me that this is what Jesus really meant. In the 14th chapter of Mark, we see Jesus himself praying all night not to have to drink the cup of crucifixion. As part of his prayer, he notes that all things are possible to God. Yet he apparently knew that God might not give him his request, for he concludes his prayer, “Yet it is not what I want, but what you want.” (Mark 14:36)

So what does it mean to say that the person who asks always receives? An answer to this question can be found in the verses that follow the verses about always receiving:

“Some of you are parents, and if your child asks you for some fish, would you give that child a snake instead, or if the child asks for you for an egg, would you give that child the present of a scorpion? So if you, for all your evil, know how to give good things to your children, how much more likely is it that your Heavenly (Parent) will give The Holy Spirit to those who ask (Him/Her)!” (Luke 11:11-13)

God gives the Holy Spirit! What a curious thing to say. The verse seem to imply that if we ask God for some fish or an egg, God will give us The Holy Spirit! And this gift is a “good thing.” The Holy Spirit is a better gift than fish or egg or whatever specific things we asked for.

Is this the way that prayer works? No matter what we ask for, God gives something better. God sends the Holy Spirit! Let me stretch this metaphor out a bit: The divine prayer-answering order-house works very simply: it only has one product, all packaged and ready to go. No matter what you order, you get this same package, the Holy Spirit. This makes things easy for the prayer-answering order house. You pray for a new car. God sends the Holy Spirit. You pray for better health. God sends the Holy Spirit. You pray for a lover. God sends the Holy Spirit. You pray for a workable, planetary social order. God sends the Holy Spirit.

Continue reading Prayer Always Works

Spirit Penetration

In the stories of Matthew, Mark, and Luke we see Jesus engaging persons whose personality habit is to think that he or she knows what is good and what is evil.  Some come to Jesus complaining about what he does on the Sabbath day.  Jesus penetrates their personality with sayings like, “The Sabbath was made for human beings, not human beings for the Sabbath.”  Or they express their shock and revulsion that Jesus is eating meals with tax collectors, riffraff, and other Jewish lawbreakers.  Jesus says to them, “It is the sick, not the well, who have need of a doctor.” 

One of the best stories about penetrating a moralistic personality is the story in which Jesus is having a meal and a discussion with a Pharisee who invited him for a visit and apparently has a modicum of interest in Jesus and his wisdom.  While they are there at the table, a woman comes in and begins washing Jesus’ feet with her tears and drying them with her hair.  The Pharisee recognizes her as a woman of the streets who has probably made her living providing bodily comforts to the male population.  He is repulsed that Jesus is permitting such a woman to touch him.  Jesus recognizes the Pharisee’s feelings and asks to speak to him.  The Pharisee consents, and Jesus tells a story about two men who owe another man a debt.  One of them owes a big debt and the other a small debt.  The lender forgives them both.  Jesus asks the Pharisee, “Which one do you suppose will love the lender the most?”  The Pharisee gives the obvious answer that it is the one who owes the most.  Then Jesus points out that this woman whose sins are very great is showing great love.  He also points out that nothing comparable is being shown him by the Pharisee.  Then Jesus makes this penetrating remark, “Her great love proves that her many sins have been forgiven; where little has been forgiven, little love is shown.” (Luke 7:47)  The Pharisee is left to ponder whether his harshness toward the woman and his lack of love for Jesus indicates layers in his own life that need forgiveness.

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Mono-devotionality

The word “monotheism” has experienced some disrepute among recent theologians and secular philosophers.  Nevertheless, H. Richard Niebuhr gave this old term “monotheism” some new life in his breakthrough book Radical Monotheism and Western Culture.

Too often overlooked is Niebuhr’s insight that the word “God” in biblical writings does not point to “a being,” but to “a devotion”—that the word “theism” or “God” is a devotional word, like the word “sweetheart.”  Niebuhr holds that the Hebraic Scriptures and the New Testament, as well as Augustine, Luther, and thousands of others use the word “God” to mean a devotion to a source of meaning for our lives.   Luther was very explicit about this: “Whatever your heart clings to . . . and relies upon, that is properly termed your God.”

So, if we view the syllable “theo” in the word “theology” to mean a devotion rather than a being, then “theology” might be termed “devotionology.”  “Monotheism” becomes “mono-devotionality.  “Polytheism” becomes “poly-devotionality.  And “henotheism” becomes “heno-devotionality.”

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