Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Rami: Response to Mike's 4/28 Post

The first thing that strikes me in this teaching is its parallel in Luke. Replying to the question, "Lord, will only a few be saved?" Jesus says "Strive to enter through the narrow door, for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able." (Luke 13: 23-24). While you are right to preempt any notion that Jesus is saying only Christians can be saved (after all there was no Christianity when Jesus taught), he does seem to be saying that most of humanity will be damned.

Why is salvation so difficult? When I ponder this question I cannot come up with a satisfactory answer. At least not as long as I posit a God who consciously set up a system of salvation. Why would God make it so hard to find him? Why not make the gate to God as wide as possible? Doesn't God want us to come to him? This would be the message of the Prodigal Son, at least as I read the parable. Has Jesus changed his mind?

I can imagine a system of salvation in which people can opt out. If someone decides they prefer hell to heaven, fine. But why set it up so that most who desire heaven are denied entry?

In Pure Land Buddhism, Amida Buddha, the Buddha of Infinite Light, puts off his own salvation until he has facilitated the salvation of all sentient beings. All you have to do to get his help is call his name. Sure most people try to make it on their own, but when they finally realize they can't succeed they sincerely call for help, and Amida is there. This seems much more Christ-like than Jesus' notion that "the owner of the house [who I assume is God] has got up and shut the door" (Luke 13:25) leaving millions clamoring to get in. Where is the love and compassion in that?

It seems to me that a loving God would make finding Him easy, and that it is only us humans that imagine the way to be hard. Which leads me to Franz Kafka's parable of The Law. In this parable Kafka imagines a man who finds the gate to the Law (God) but fears to enter because the gate is guarded by a giant. The man spends his entire life trying to bribe the giant to let him in, but the giant never grants him entry. At the end of his life he asks the giant to explain why no one else has ever come to the gate. The giant explains that this gate was for him alone. No permission to enter was every needed. All he had to do was walk through it.

In other words, the narrow gate is the gate made just for you. It is narrow because only you can fit through it. It isn't narrow to keep people out, for each person has her own gate. The challenge is to find our gate and walk through it. What is our gate? It is this very moment; it is whatever life asks of us here and now. If we engage this moment loving God, neighbor, self, and stranger then we enter the gate. If we engage the moment with something other than love (and I would say compassion are justice are the two ways of love) then we do not enter the gate. The choice is ours.

In this way of understanding salvation, the way to God is universal. Each person has her or his own gate. There is no attempt to keep people out. True, you have to find your gate and walk through it, but it is right there in front of you. Walk on!

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Mike: Matthew 7:12-13

Matthew 7:12-13 reads as follows. "Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it." (NRSV)

Let's clear away one matter upfront. This passage is often used in American evangelical and fundamentalist circles to argue that Christianity is the only way to salvation. Matthew 7:12-13,taken in context, is not concerned with such a question. Instead, the passage fits neatly into a strand of Jewish tradition and also serves as the opening volley in a concluding challenge.

For example, when I read the passage I am reminded of Psalm 1: "Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers; but their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night." The idea of two ways, one leading to life and the other destruction, has deep, old roots. The Christian tradition absorbed the image, first from Jesus then through various reformulations, ranging from the Didache to The Pilgrim's Progress. It even crops up in The Lord of the Rings, when Galadriel warns Frodo that the quest walks on the sharp edge of a knife, in other words on a very narrow road.

The tradition assumes human choice. We decide which way to take. In my view, this is not so much a single decision as a series of decisions. We choose who to take seriously, who to believe and so set the course of our lives. Our choices shape us. Over time we become more and more nearly like that upon which we focus. That being so, Jesus' warning and promise is apt.

A related question arises: if our lives are shaped by the road we choose to walk, by that to which we pay attention, what is it we're called to take seriously? Context helps answer the question. The two of us have covered much of the content. It's summarized to a great extent in the golden rule. The Beatitudes and the Lord's Prayer contribute additional particulars. If I had to sum it up in a sentence, it would go something like this: "The way of life is to love God, neighbor and yourself well and take the consequences!" Based on our past interaction, I would guess you might prefer a phrase that employs terms such as justice and compassion.

Jesus challenges his listeners to take the matter seriously, as something of transcending importance. In subsequent verses, he will illustrate some of the challenges faced by those who do so: false teachers, false self-perceptions and the like.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Rami: Response to Mike's 4/21 Post

Mike you covered this well, so let me take a few detours.

Regarding the positive and negative versions of the text, Judaism has both. While Hillel states the Golden Rule in the negative, Leviticus 19:18 is positive, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” as is Rabbi Elazar ben Arach, “Let your neighbor’s honor be as dear to you as your own” (Avot 2:15). These are just two examples, but the idea is simple enough, those who make much of the positive and negative forms of the commandment are probably making too much of them.

* * *

We have been following the Gospel According to Matthew in which Jesus concludes his version of the Golden Rule with “for this is the law and the prophets." It is interesting to me that Luke’s version drops any reference to the Law and the Prophets. Since Matthew is the older gospel I assume Luke was aware of the original, but left it off since his largely gentile audience had no connection to Torah and Prophets.

From a Jewish perspective, it is the older version that is more compelling and challgneing. Matthew’s version parallels the older saying of Rabbi Hillel, “That which is hateful to you do not do to another. This is the whole of the Torah. Go and study it” (Shabbat 31a). What interests me is not so much the positive or negative articulations of the Golden Rule, but the claim that both Hillel and Jesus make that ethics is the whole of the Torah and the Prophets.

Given the overwhelming amount of text devoted to ritual, holy days, and other nonethical material in the Hebrew Bible, it is quite radical to argue, as these two great sages do, that God’s instruction (the proper translation of torah) can be encapsulated in this single call for justice and compassion. And yet that is what they have done, and rightly so.

This is what matters: doing justly, loving mercy, walking humbly with God (Micah 6:8). Hillel and Jesus are affirming this prophetic challenge to priests and priestcraft ancient and modern. How did the religion of Hillel and Jesus get highkacked by legalists and theologians? What would it take to reclaim the true message of Torah and Prophets? What would Judaism and Christianity be like if Jews and Christians actually followed the teachings of these sages rather than the myriad rabbis and theologians who try to complicate matters?

Mike: Matthew 7:12

The "Golden Rule" reads: "In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets." (Matthew 7:12)(NRSV)

Versions of the golden rule abound. No doubt you can share examples from several cultures. In the ancient Roman world, negative versions may be found in Tobit, Philo and Hillel. Jesus offers a positive version.

The negative versions seem to me to be akin to the old medical dictum: "Do no harm." That is, they call us to avoid hurting others. The rule of thumb becomes: "Don't do anything to someone else you would not want them to do to you." I admire the insight into human nature which lies in back of such formulations. Most of us, I suspect, have little trouble envisioning what others might do to harm us. Identifying and refraining from such actions provides the makings of a workable social order (assuming, of course, that we are healthy people in most respects).

Such a dictum finds particular expressions in the Ten Commandments ("Don't murder, etc) and the prophets (don't misuse the justice system to steal from the poor, etc.).
In short, the negative formulations of the golden rule, if applied, serve to regulate destructive human behavior.

Looking back, I find I've made use of the negative formulation in my personal life. To make a long story short, I grew up in a home dominated by an alcoholic father. A good bit of the first three decades of my life was shaped by a core idea: "Don't do to anyone else what my father did to me." Frankly, the commitment sufficed for a long time, though I must confess it was not sufficient for the long run.

Which leads me back to the positive, or as I prefer proactive, formulation Jesus offered. Taken seriously, it forces us to ask a hard question: "Just what would I really want others to do for me?" Some of us may well be inclined to say, "Nothing." In more nearly sane moments, though, I think we realize that's not so.

Assuming we are reasonably healthy persons, and taking into account "the law and the prophets" plus Jesus, I suggest most of us want at least the following from others. be taken seriously, to be treated as if we matter be "kept company" when life crashes in be accorded opportunities to discover and use our gifts be given opportunity to help others be treated with dignity regardless of economics, health, race, gender or age be offered friendship

Obviously, the list may be applied at the personal level. I think it provides a reasonable guideline at the societal level as well.

I do not regard the list as complete, and I'm keenly aware that such a list is conditioned by our living in relative economic security. A person in dire circumstances might well make a different list and include items such as food, clothing, shelter and the like. Still, having studied and experienced a variety of human cultures, I think the first list captures some of our deepest yearnings.

Jesus' formulation pushes his followers to be proactive toward others, to intentionally offer such gifts to one another. In his worldview, behavior restrictions are fine but not enough. From my perspective, he has much in common with several of the prophets at this point.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Rami: Response to Mike's 4/16 Post

I was pleasantly surprised to hear that you agree with my notion that spiritual practices are designed to lead us to surrender. I don’t believe we can surrender, for that is still an act of will, but I do believe that we can be surrendered, and this is the great goal of authentic spiritual practice.

I also appreciate your taking this even further. The great discovery one experiences when surrendered to God is that we are loved just as we are. This is the parable of the Prodigal Son. The fallacy of religion is to think that we need to bring the Kingdom of God in the future, when in fact all we need do is live it here and now.

I still have trouble with God granting or denying my requests, however. First of all, if God agrees that what I desire is good, why doesn’t God just give it to me in the first place? And if what I desire is wrong, why entertain the request at all? And then there is the problem of God playing the role of parent or potentate. In the first case we are reduced to children, in the second to serfs. I’m not happy with either.

While I continue to share my life with my dad, and ask his advice, I don’t ask him for things, nor do I want him to tell me what to do. I want his love, his respect, his pride, and if this is what I want from my earthly father, all the more it is what I want of my heavenly Father. It just seems too anthropomorphic for my tastes.

As I have said many times, God for me is reality: all that was, is, and will be. Reality is creative and open to change, indeed reality is change, and so I am not fated to do one thing or another. I don’t ask reality for anything (though I can and do thank it for everything). Rather I engage what is to the best of my ability and then move on to engage what is next. The quality of my interaction in this moment will influence (though not control) the quality of the next moment, and religion at its best teaches me how to live out of the highest qualities—justice, compassion, and humility.

On to the Golden Rule?

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Mike: Response to Rami's 4/15 Post

Taking up your first observation, I am not sure if the passage sounds Pauline or if we hear it as Pauline because we know Paul. I think, for example, that Augustine read the gospels through the lens of Paul. I am certain Martin Luther and Calvin did so, along with many of their theological descendents. I prefer to try to reverse the order and read Paul in light of the gospel accounts. All of this is only slightly related to the main thrust of your point! I simply could not resist taking the detour.

As to your idea that Jesus, like other spiritual genuiuses, sets out a plan of salvation designed to fail, so that we might be driven or led to surrender the ego, etc.--it parallels a long-standing approach adopted by Christians of various stripes. In the tradition I refer to, the core idea is that both the Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount taken seriously teach us we cannot achieve God's standard of perfection. Ideally, the realization delivers us from pride (i.e. ego gone amuck, ego in charge, etc.)and we turn to God to do the transformative work only God can do.

I tend to adopt the insight, but I think to stop there is a mistake. Once we begin to surrender our ego (or self-righteousness, to use Pauline and Christian language)and depend upon God, we find God has loved us all along. The way to God and life with God has been blocked by our own ego. Freed of "the need to transform ourselves," as you put it, we become free to live into transformation. Changing metaphors, we become free to be as children for whom watching, learning from, and imitating a parent is both natural and a form of healthy play. For us, the Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount become not an end but the ethos of our home, an ethos we take with us into any external environment.

With regard to the second point, I did not mean to imply that God always responds but never in the way we like. Even if that were my position, I'm not sure it would amount to a cop-out, but it surely would be bleak, akin to the old Norse resignation to fate. That is not my position.

Instead, I believe God may grant or deny what we request, in accordance with his wisdom and within "the rules" of the created world. Children ask for many things, all of which they want in a given moment. Being the parent of two, I know this is so, not simply in theory but in practice. That's why the analogy Jesus used speaks so strongly to me. My intentional responses to such requests have included silence, explanation, denial of the request, granting the request, granting a modified version of the request, requiring something of the child he or she did not expect or especially want, explaining why the request was impossible to fulfill, and delay of the request. In each case, though, I responded as I thought best and possible. Let's face it: I had a much larger frame of reference than my child and a greater responsibility as well. I tend to think God plays a similar role with regard to us.

The story of Job can be interpreted along the lines outlined in the preceding paragraph. In that case, both Job and his "friends" have much to learn, though Job is farther along than any of his friends and asks much tougher questions. His questions are so good, they provoke a divine answer! We, of course, are starting to grapple with theodicy. My hunch is the subject would require a book of its own.

A minor point of clarification before I end: The "nonsense" I had in mind is any version of "name it and claim it" theology. This particular passage is one of the classic prooftexts for what I can only regard as theological nonsense.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Rami: Response to Mike's 4/14 Post

This teaching of Jesus is right out of the Hebrew Scriptures. Asking hearkens back to Deuteronomy 32:7, “Ask your father, and he will show you;” and Psalm 2:8, “Ask of me, and I will give you.” Seeking suggests Proverbs 8:17, “And those who seek me diligently shall find me;” and Jeremiah 29:13, “And you shall seek me and find me.” Knocking may be unique to Jesus, though he may have the passage in Song of Songs that says, “It is the voice of my beloved that knocks saying, open to me” (5:2). So there is nothing in the teaching itself that is startling to Jewish ears.

Your notion that Jesus offers us this teaching to calm our fears that the program of action prescribed in the Sermon is impossible to live up to, however, is intriguing.

First, I am struck at how Pauline it sounds. Paul saw the Torah (or Law as he insists on mistranslating the Hebrew for “instruction”) as an impossible burden designed to condemn rather than save. For him faith in Jesus was the antidote to damnation under the law. Now I hear you saying that asking, seeking, and knocking are the antidote to the impossibility of living up to Jesus’ Way set forth in the Sermon on the Mount. This may not be what you meant, but before you correct my misunderstanding, consider for a moment that you may be on to something.

My reading of Jesus suggests that he is imagining people on the edge of total despair who franticly cry out, grasp, and tear rather than respectfully ask, calmly search, or politely knock. I think that Jesus, like other spiritual geniuses, sets forth a plan of salvation (enlightenment, God-realization, etc) that is designed to fail. Why? Because we cannot transform ourselves. The very ego that needs transforming is the ego that is asked to make the transformation. It cannot be done. The ego must be surrendered by our failure so that God can transform us through grace.

Paul was right about the commandments—they are designed to condemn, for only the condemned are ready to be transformed by God. His mistake was to offer the condemned another escape from the reality of condemnation.

Just as you cannot meditate yourself into enlightenment, or earn your way into heaven through the mitzvot (commandments) of the Torah, so you cannot get to heaven through the Sermon on the Mount. What you can do in all these systems is exhaust yoiur ego, and bring yourself to the point of absolute despair. Here you have no choice but to cry, grasp, and claw at Heaven’s door just as a drown man cries, grasps, and flails. And then God changes everything. To me Jesus is saying, “When you finally realize you can’t walk the path to Heaven, storm the gate! God will let you in. He doesn’t care how you get to Him, just come home, come in!”

This is similar to Kafka’s parable of The Law. A man spends his entire life waiting to be invited into the Gate of the Law (salvation) only to find at the moment of his death that there is no invitation, this gate was for him alone to walk through. He just lacked the desperation needed for him to do it.

Of course all this may be another example of the nonsense written about this section of Matthew, but it speaks to me. Nonsense always does.

Your second point is also interesting, but no less troubling for me. To say that God always responds to our beseeching, but not in the way we like, seems like a cop-out to me. All I hear is that life happens regardless of what I want and don’t want. I have no problem with the theology. I believe God when he says he creates light and dark, good and evil (Isaiah 45:7). But if I ask for a bike and God sends me cancer, what’s the point? If I didn’t ask for the bike, would God not have sent me cancer? Did my asking for what I want trigger God to send me what I need?

Ascribing reality to God’s will adds nothing to my experience, unless I assume that God always acts for my good, something that Job and I cannot accept.

This is not a problem unique to Christianity, of course. The ancient rabbis also believed in that “whatever God does is entirely good,” (Berachot 60b); and that “God never deals harshly with his creatures,” (Avodah Zarah 3a). So you are in good company, but I’m not among them. I find Job’s God more accurate and comforting: God does what God wants, and human ideas of good and evil have nothing to do with it. What I have to learn is how to live gracefully without knowing which is coming my way next.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Mike: Matthew 7:7-11

"Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, adn the door will be opened foryou. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you the, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!" (Matthew 7:7-11) (NRSV)

Let's start with the literary context. Jesus has challenged his followers on many fronts throughout the sermon. Even a partial list is daunting: the Beatitudes, taming the heart as well as behavior, loving enemies, meaningful prayer, laying aside materialism, discernment versus judgementalism, and the like. It seems to me that any sane person might well have asked himself or herself: "Where will I find strength and wisdom enough to begin and follow such a life's path?"

Matthew 7:7-11 addresses the matter. Jesus once again calls his followers to rely upon God. He uses active language: ask, seek, and knock. One may ask, seek and knock via prayer, but also through study, reflection, and conversation. Seeking God's way is not a passive affair!

Lots of nonense has been written over the years regarding the phrase "and it will be given you." Given the fact that Jesus did not always receive what he prayed for, we cannot accept the idea that we shall receive whatever we request. I prefer to link the phrases "will be given," "will find," and "opened to you." Here I think Jesus practiced parallelism, stacking similar phrases atop one another in order to drive home his point: God is prepared to give you what you most or really need.

That's the point of Jesus' language about human parents and their children. If a human parent (assuming a "normal" relationship) can be trusted to try and give good things to his or her children, surely God can be trusted to do so and to get it right.

My experience (and that of others) is of a God who often does not answer the question I ask but instead another question. God frequently does not give me what I seek but something else instead. As for doors, God most often does not open the one I want opened but instead leads me through another. It can be quite frustrating. Here's the thing, though: Such experiences reshape us, given time and acceptance, from self-centered urchins into adults more willing and able to flex, give of ourselves, appreciate others, and walk in faith.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Rami: Response to Mike's 4/7 Post

I am good! And the advantage I have over you is ignorance. You have spent your life studying these teachings and 2000 years worth of Christian commentary on them, while I once read a book about that. But this is America, and here ignorance trumps scholarship almost every time, so on to the next text.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Mike: Response to Rami's 4/7 Post

You're good!I especially appreciate the way in which you pull together several scripture passages which present similar challenges. Let's stipulate that you clearly cover one of the standard interpretations. As you know well, it's an option articulated by a number of Christian interpreters.

Jesus certainly was not always polite. He could be, and often was, blunt. In addition, I would add he strikes me as having been a realist with regard to human nature in practice--some will listen and accept, others will not--so what's a disciple to do? We've already discussed our differences over judgement/discernment and judgmental.

Both of us know "dogs" and "swine" are not to be taken literally but instead as powerful metaphors. Whatever Jesus might have in mind, neither term was complimentary in his culture. Both of us are aware of the debates over the place of "the gentile mission" in Jesus' mind. We differ over how this passage might apply to the matter. You focus on the question of Jesus' attitude toward gentiles; I focus on the passage's possible application to the work of those who took Christianity to the gentiles and some first century Jews. Strange and interesting, isn't it, how the two of us look at the same words yet ask different questions of them?

Several factors seem to me to be in play and to fuel our different responses to the passage. The first relates to how each of us chooses to deal with the "rough" aspect of the passage. Let's face it. I sometimes take understatement past all reasonable limits. When I briefly wrote of the passage's harshness and the like, I automatically "felt" as if I had said a great deal. What you took to be an effort to "clean up" the passage did not feel that way to me. That's a mistake on my part, by the way. I assumed too much on the part of potential readers and should have taken more space to unpack the terms.

Second, it's probably impossible for me not to interpet a scripture passage without taking into account most of 20 centuries of interpretive work in the Christian community(ies). The long tradition no doubt affects me in ways of which I both aware and unaware. One feature of that tradition is a tendency to apply scripture passages to one's own slice of life--hence, the pastoral life story.

Third, it seems to me both of us may be reacting to Christian sterotypes of Jesus we encounter. We've discussed one or more of these in recent posts. In this particular case, I deal often with people who believe Jesus (or a disciple of Jesus)could never "move on" from anyone in order to deal with someone else more open to Jesus' teachings or potential lordship--hence my tendency to read and apply the proverb the way I did in my posting.

Reading back over the preceding paragraphs, plus your post, I have no difficulty understanding why so many trees have had to die that endless commentaries might be written!

Rami: Response to Mike's 4/6 Post

I agree, Mike, that Matthew 7:6 is a proverb, but that only begs the question: who were the dogs and the swine. Nobody literally tosses holy objects to dogs or throws pearls to pigs, so Jesus doesn’t mean for us to take him literally. It seems to me that the “dogs” and “swine” are either Jews who reject Jesus and his teaching, or Gentiles in general. So much for “do not judge” (Matthew 7:1).

The first reading is on par with Jesus calling his rabbinic opponents “hypocrites” and “children of hell” (Matthew 23: 13-15). It might not be much of a stretch to imagine Jesus calling them dogs and pigs as well.

If we don’t want to stretch at all, we can look to Matthew 15:26 where Jesus uses similar language to refer to Canaanites. The Canaanite woman beseeches Jesus to heal her daughter, but Jesus at first refuses. His rationale is that he has come to teach the lost sheep of Israel, and that “it is not fair to takes the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (Matthew 15:26).

Here the “children” refer to the Jews, the food is the teaching of Jesus, and the dogs are the Canaanites.

The Canaanite woman understands Jesus is talking about her and her people, and says “even dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s plates” (Matthew 15:27). Jesus is impressed with her faith and does heal her daughter. This does not spark a change of heart in Jesus, however, and he instructs his apostles to refrain from entering gentile cities (Matthew 10:5), again suggesting that Jesus’ mission is to the Jews and the Jews alone.

Jesus’ reference to “swine” is more problematic. He never calls anyone “swine” or uses pigs in a parable. He does cast demons into swine (Matthew 8:32), but I doubt Jesus is admonishing us from casting his teachings to the demon possessed. So “swine” escapes me.

In any case, I understand the need to clean this up a bit, but I don’t think Jesus was talking about the five percent of the people who take up ninety-five percent of a pastor’s time. Jesus wasn’t always polite, and I think we have to allow him his biases and judgments. Just imagine how much pressure that would take off those who try to live up to his example.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Mike: Matthew 7:6

Matthew 7:6 (NRSV)reads: "Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you."

What might we make of this neglected brief statement, sandwiched as it is between Matthew 7:1-5 and Matthew 7:7-11, classic, oft-cited passages?

The passage sounds like a proverb, and it certainly is so structured. If so, I think it best to treat it as a kind of wisdom saying. The sayings found in the book of Proverbs often sound jarring to Christian ears. For the most part, they lay out tactics for a stable, productive life. There is little "high sounding" about a proverb. Some, in fact, come across as harsh. In the context of first century Judaism, I suspect the terms "dog" and "swine" did so.

When I treat Matthew 7:6 as a kind of proverb, I interpret it as a necessary corrective to a tendency often found in Christians. I call it the "argue with a fence post mentality." It's characterized by a inability or unwillingness to recognize when someone simply is not open to the Christian way. Wise Christians drop the subject and move on. Many Christians, though, insist on forcefeeding their version of the gospel to the reluctant, closed or openly hostile person. The results are never good, either for the Christian or the person they've cornered.

In like fashion, Jesus counsels his followers to be gentle as a dove and wise as a fox. He tells them not to spend their time with villages immune to his message but to move on to another village.

Put positively, Jesus' point is this: Invest your time and message with those who will receive it, that is listen carefully and respond. Note, he does not promise such persons will always accept what you have to offer, but they will display an willingness to listen and interact.

This kind of wisdom finds its way into pastoral ministry. Many years ago, a well-known pastor often told young ministers: "Don't allow five percent of the people to take up ninty-five percent of your time." He meant we were to focus our time and energy on those receptive to our ministry, rather than burn up time trying help those who refused help. For the most part, I've found his insight on target.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Rami: Response to Mike's 4/3 Post

You refined my thoughts quite nicely, Like, thanks.

I am multi-lingual to be sure. Sometimes I wonder if I am not my own private Tower of Babel. i think we are able to find such richness in our conversations on and off the Internet because we share so many languages. While this may not be rare among peoples of faith, admitting it seems to be. So many people find being bi-lingual dangerous, let alone multi-lingual. I find the more languages of faith I know the richer my understanding of Reality becomes.

I also agree with your final comment that the experience of God Presence is a gift. Contemplative practices can prime the pump and help make us receptive to the gifts of the Spirit, but in the end it is always a matter of grace.

Next text?

Friday, April 3, 2009

Mike: Response to Rami's 4/3 Post

I think we understand one another, at least insofar as is possible via words on a screen. That being said, I want to add a few more words to our conversation.

First, I appreciate your points about what it means to be Jewish and the room afforded you within the tradition. For what it may be worth, Christian mystics often make room for a wide range of ways in which to experience God and articulate the experience. Thomas Merton, for example, comes to mind. Systematic theologians have more trouble doing so, not least because they (as a group)major on precision and distinctions. Experience does not lend itself to such treatment.

Second, you speak of testing matters in light of experience and reason. We're on common ground here. Within the limits of a single blog post, it sounds as if you refer only to your personal experience and reason. I'm fairly certain that is not the case, but that's for you to say. As for me, I try to pay attention to a mix of things: personal experience and reason, the experience and reason of others as found in their stories and in general human history, the experience and reflection of the church over the centuries (this includes but is not limited to the scriptures), modern science, the arts, and the like. Again, my hunch is that our approaches are similiar, though we might weight various elements differently.

Third, naturally we try to make sense of such experiences by calling upon the language(s) we know. You say this is Judaism for you. Actually, though, wouldn't it be more accurate to say that it is Judaism, one or more other world religions (or philosophies), modern science, and the arts? You are multi-lingual, so to speak. So am I. In both our cases, we try to distinquish between the language(s) we use and the reality we're attempting to describe. What I have learned for myself is that Jesus best describes the presence and its implications for me, insofar as I comprehend.

One quibble. I appreciate your perspective when you write: "Religion is vital when it preserves the event story as a reminder of what each of us can discover for ourselves." We agree, I think, that we can discover a good bit for ourselves. In the case of the particular experience I described, though, I have no sense that I had set out to find or discover anything. Instead, I should say it was given me.

Rami: Response to Mike's 3/31 Post

Thank you so much for sharing this, Mike. You raise at least two issues on which I would like to comment.

First is your assertion that “Were I not Christian, I suspect I would adopt such a view.” The view in question is my understanding of God as the source and substance of all reality, and Jesus as paradigmatic of the God-realized human that each us can become.

If I were to say this in the context of my own life, I would say, “Were I not Jewish, I suspect I would adopt such a view.” But I am Jewish, and I do affirm this view! I do not affirm it because I am a Jew. I affirm it because every fiber of my being tells me it is true. If Judaism insisted on something different, I would have to be something different. I manage to stay within the Jewish fold for two reasons. First, because being a Jew is a matter of birth and/or tribal membership, and there is no one theology that defines us as a people. And second, because the Jewish mystics do allow for just such a theology.

I place truth, as best as I can perceive it, above theology. That is to say a thing is true for me not because the Bible says it is true, but because my experience and reason tells me so. The Bible may affirm what I know to be true, but it isn’t the source of that truth. For example, I believe it is true that we should love our neighbors as ourselves. I believe it not because God says it (Leviticus 19:18), but because when tested against my experience I find it to be true. God also says we should avoid mixing linen and flax in our clothing, but I do not find this compelling at all, and do not worry about it. But God says both things. If one is true because God said it, the other can be no less true, seeing as how it comes from the same source. The fact that I pick and choose among God’s teachings makes it clear that I place my own sense of right and wrong above God’s as presented in the Hebrew Bible.

Regarding your experience in college, I have no doubt that you were both working on a paper and touched by the presence of God. What is interesting to me is that this Presence wasn’t identified as Jesus until later. This, I think, is the norm among most of us who have had similar experiences. This Presence is Nameless, beyond religion and theological niceties. This Presence crushes (Muhammad, too, felt the Presence of Allah as a crushing weight) and loves. But it isn’t Jesus, or Yahweh, or Allah, or Krishna, or any of the thousands of names we humans invent for the Ineffable. It just is.

When the experience passes and we try to make sense of it we draw upon the language with which we are the most comfortable. For you that language is Christianity. For me it is Judaism. For others the language might be Buddhism, or Islam, or art, literature, or science. The key is to distinguish the ineffable experience from the words we use to describe it.

Religion goes wrong is when it mistakes the word for the event. Religion is vital when it preserves the event story as a reminder of what each of us can discover for ourselves.