Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Mike: Response to Rami's 3/31 Post

You know my love for classic science fiction, so you'll not be surprised that your take on God inevitably jogs my memory and calls to mind Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land. Heinlein probably did more than anyone else to introduce the idea of "Thou art God" and so is everyone and everything else to mainstream American culture. (And,yes, as you know I'm aware of the ancient roots of the perspective!)

Were I not Christian, I suspect I would adopt such a view.

That being said, I want to turn to your specific question: why I believe what I believe. You phrase my belief as "Jesus is God." That's good shorthand, but of course what I believe is a little more complicated. That being said, though, let's take up your question.

Experience drives my belief. For example, during my childhood the stories of Jesus which I read caught my imagination. I experienced God through Jesus. Looking back, I regard such experience as preparation.

An intense experience during my sophomore year in college strengthened my conviction. While minding my own business in my room, in fact while working on a paper, I suddenly felt myself in the presence of something far greater than myself. At first it felt as if a great weight lay over the entire room, including me. Then the weight lessened. I felt small, unworthy, more than a little frightened (think Isaiah 6:1ff). Then something changed. I felt known yet loved. I had never before felt that anyone knew me to my depths, and I had always believed no one could love me if they actually knew the real me. Now I found myself known and loved without condition, though all the help I might ever need to become more fully myself was offered freely. I relaxed, I let down my guard, I surrendered to the embrace of the presence. Subsequent experiences have not been as dramatic, but they have been real to me, reinforcing and informing the initial experience.

Afterwards, as I reflected on the experience I found my mind returning to the stories of Jesus, and I realized I saw in him the presence I had experienced. I think that's when I decided firmly and for myself the Incarnation had happened, was real. Obviously, all this can be written off as a typical young adulthood matter or as being solely conditioned by religious culture. In my own case, I think not. My inner skeptic is alive and well and always has been.

Jesus has proven to be the focal point or lens through which I continue to experience the presence, love and guidance of God. Its fair to say that experience drives my belief. The stories of Jesus help shape my response to experience, both in terms of my private life and my life in community.

Rami: Response to Mike's 3/30 Post

Nice to get back to this, Mike.

I’d like to take a moment and explore a bit more the place of our most fundamental disagreement: that Jesus is God. Actually I have no problem affirming this. Where we differ is that I would add to the affirmation “Jesus is God, saying, “and so are you.”

God, for me is reality in all its manifestations. When Jesus says, “I and the Father are one,” I say, “Mazal tov! You get it! You and God are one, and so is everything else.” If God is infinite there cannot be anything that is not God. I have no problem accepting Jesus as a fully awake and God-realized manifestation of the Divine, far beyond my meager knowing. I just take him as paradigmatic of what all humans can achieve and not, as Christians do, the one and only such manifestation.

Ok, so much for my theological stance. My question is, Why you believe what you believe?

My own conviction comes from an initial experience I had at age sixteen. Meditating on a lakeshore in Cape Cod during the summer of 1967 I suddenly knew the absolute nonduality of all things in, with, and as God. I was everything and everything was me, and there was only this One Thing which I call God. Subsequent experiences have reinforced this knowing, and I cannot deny it.

So, if you don’t mind, please tell me a bit more about your experience of Christ.
Where does your faith conviction come from? Did you have (and do you continue to have) a deep encounter with Jesus Christ? What was it like? In what way is Jesus a living presence for you?

Monday, March 30, 2009

Mike: Response to Rami's March 16 Post

Both Rami and I have been snowed under by a variety of engagements, but we're back now. Over the next few weeks, we hope to post regularly and work our way to the end of the Sermon on the Mount. That being said, I'll launch our writing spree by responding to Rami's previous post.

We're in agreement that Jesus argued against judgmentalism. I want to nuance the point a bit. In the passage, Jesus calls us to healthy self-awareness and humility. The more we become aware of our own sin (or whatever you prefer to call it), the better the chance we may not rush to pass judgment on others. We might even develop empathy and its companion virtue compassion.

As for the role of Holy Spirit in "log removal," I appreciate your point. From my perspective Holy Spirit (Spirit of God, etc.)most often works through others to help us see the log in our own eye. Such a community of friends and advisors keeps us honest. If we listen only to the voice within ourselves, it's all too easy to deceive ourselves. In fact, we have to move beyond our circle of friends and learn to listen well to those with whom we disagree. This provides a safeguard against the kind of "group think" which too often characterizes human communities.

Regarding Jesus, I suspect our faith perspectives place us on different pages. Seeing Jesus through the eyes of the Christian faith, I believe him uniquely qualified to judge others on the basis of their deeds. It seems to me he consistently does so. If I accept the premise of the Incarnation and all it implies, then Jesus has the right and wisdom to judge, forgive sins, and all the rest. In short, Rami, I doubt we will come to agreement on this particular point.

Thanks for the way in which you nuanced my statement: "we're no longer out to remake the world and others in our own image." I strongly agree with your statements. That being said, I want to clarify my own point. When we live without awareness of the log in our own eye or in denial of the image of God within us, we tend to try to shrink the world to fit us comfortably. A racist wants to remake the world into a racist world, and so it goes. The greatest danger we pose to the world and one another rises from this kind of tendency. Your comments point to the opposite side of the coin: the hope we may offer the world insofar as we reclaim the image of God and live accordingly.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Rami: Response to Mike's 3/9 Post

I agree that we should not take Jesus’ blanket prohibition against making judgments literally. Otherwise Jesus is being illogical, for simply to place not judging above judging is a judgment. So I understand Jesus to be arguing against becoming judgmental.

Jesus’ teaching should be compared to those of his rabbinic colleagues. The rabbis taught, “Judge all people by their deeds,” (Pirke Avot I:6). Judging a people according to the quality of their actions provides a sound foundation for good judgment, and avoids playing God and trying to judge a person’s heart. The rabbis also taught, “Those who judge according to deeds will in turn be judged according to deeds,” (Shabbat, 127b). While the rabbis believe “God desires the heart,” (Sefer Hasidim, 5-6) it is the quality of one’s actions that determines one’s fate because actions are controllable while feelings or thoughts arise of their own accord. Lastly we can see parallels to Jesus’ log and speck analogy in the rabbinic teaching, “Those who condemn others see in them their own faults,” (Kiddushin, 70a).

One question I would raise regarding these teachings of Jesus is whether or not he himself lived up to them. Clearly he did not. Jesus not only judges, he is often judgmental. To cite only one example, Jesus regularly calls people hypocrites. The word occurs only once in the entire Hebrew Bible (Psalm 26:4 NRSV) and twelve times in the Gospel According to Matthew (6:2; 6:5; 6:16; 15:7; 22:18; 23:13; 23:15; 23:23; 23:25; 23:27; 23:29; and 24:51 NRSV)! I have no problem forgiving Jesus his log, and in fact it makes him all the more human and accessible, but it is still important to note that he himself had work.

Regarding personal log removal, I think I understand what you are saying about the Holy Spirit, though I prefer to place my faith in trusted friends and a good therapist. When it comes to helping me see the log in my own eye, I suspect that the Holy Spirit is often my ego in Holy Spirit clothing excusing the log and exaggerating the other person’s speck.

My last comment speaks to your notion that “we're no longer out to remake the world and others into our own image!” I know what you mean, and I don’t disagree, but in the interest of creative dialogue let me suggest that when we realize our true image, meaning God in whose image we are made, we are indeed out to remake the world in our/God's image. The entire Jewish enterprise is one of tikkun hanefesh tikkun haolam, reclaiming the image of God in our souls that we might remake the world in that image as well, applying justice and compassion as best we can on every level of human interaction (personal, interpersonal, and transpersonal), as well as in our interactions with other species and nature as a whole.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Mike: Matthew 7:1-5

"Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor's eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye, while the log is in your own eye?' You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor's eye." (Matthew 7:1-5)

What kind of judgment does Jesus have in mind? Our answer determines our response to the passage. For example, when we say someone has good judgment, we usually mean he or she possesses discernment, whether when dealing with decisions or with others. They make wise decisions. If Jesus is calling us to refrain from discernment and decision-making, we have a problem, don't we?

Insofar as I can tell, that's not what Jesus has in mind. Instead, he speaks of the all too human tendency to label others negatively. We too often think we can categorize others as wrong or right, good or bad, and the like. Frankly, we may subject ourselves to the same kind of self-evaluation. Theologically speaking, the Christian tradition generally teaches only God can rightly judge the heart of a human and that only God has the "right" and wisdom to do so. When we judge, we in effect try to take God's place. We cannot bear such a burden well, so inevitably we wind up hurting others and ourselves.

More subtly, such judgment may mask our desire and need to control our environment. We want to keep others "in their place," deprive them of power, or eliminate them as "players." We're afraid of certain aspects of ourselves, so we project our dark side on others and attack it. We judge because it makes us feel safe, though in reality the practice puts us in grave danger of alienation from God, others and even ourselves.

Discernment generally engenders humility and compassion. Judgment, on the other hand, breeds pride, disdain and violence.

How might we remove the log in our own eye? I think we need help. In my religious tradition, we believe Holy Spirit undertakes to help us see the log and remove it. As you might expect, this is not a one-time event but an ongoing process. Personally, I've found it helpful to meditate on scriptures such as Matthew 7:1-5, read how others have identified and dealt with the matter, and listen to a handful of close friends who sometimes know me better than I know myself.

I must say the reward of pursuing discernment while dropping judgment is considerable. Our need to win, be right, dominate, and determine who is in or out diminishes. We indeed become able to be more honest about our own dark side, which in turn enables us to more readily accept and enjoy our gifts. As humility grows, we relax. After all, we're no longer out to remake the world and others into our own image! Instead, we learn how to appreciate the individuality of others. Our task is redefined. Now we seek to discern and nurture the gifts of others. We also learn how to enjoy others and be enriched by what they bring to the table.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Rami: Response to Mike's 3/3 Post

I admire your synthesis of these passages, Mike, but I’m going to take the more traditional approach and comment on various teachings as they come up.

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume. This reminds me, as it would Jesus’ audience, of Ecclesiastes who teaches that everything “under the sun” (Jesus’ “on earth”) is hevel, transient as morning dew (a much more accurate translation that the conventional “vanity” or “futility”). Ecclesiastes says, “The lover of money will not be satisfied with money; nor the lover of wealth, with gain. This also is impermanent” (Ecclesiastes 5:10). Everything on earth is in the process of dying. Nothing is permanent, and so trying to overcome our fear of mortality with things always fails.

I especially like the line, For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. We treasure that which we imagine will save us from the fate of all life—death. Some of us imagine that this treasure is on earth, others that it is in heaven. I am not much of a believer in heavens and hells, nor do I think there is any way to escape my own transience. Jesus, unlike Ecclesiastes, seems to hold out hope for a better world in heaven. I tend to side with Ecclesiastes taking comfort in living life as best I can without clinging to anything or anyone.

If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness. To me Jesus is saying this: Use your eyes to pierce the fa├žade of permanence; see, as Ecclesiastes saw, that all is hevel havalim, transient and insubstantial as breath. Then you will be free from clinging, from storing up treasure. But do not think treasure is material only. Ideas, too, can blind the eye and leave us in darkness. Wrong thinking is more subtle than material wealth for it leads to mistaking error for truth, and darkness for light. Take no refuge in thoughts or things, but only in the unknowable God alone. Taking refuge in the Unknowable you hold to nothing. When you are free of material and spiritual clinging you are at last in the kingdom of God.

You cannot serve God and wealth. It didn’t take long for the followers of Jesus to forget this teaching. By equating wealth with God they deftly finessed Jesus and established a church whose wealth is the envy of even the super rich. But this is not unique to any one religion. I read all sacred texts and teaching and ask, Who does this teaching benefit? Jesus’ teachings, like those of the other Hebrew prophets, most often benefit the poor and powerless, and because they do I believe they are from God. Texts and teachings that sanction the accumulation of wealth and power in the hands of the few are most likely the product of those hands as well.

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life. Or as the immortal Alfred E. Newman says, “What? Me worry?” Worry adds nothing to life. On the contrary, it distracts us from living it. Living without worry isn’t living with the bliss of ignorance, for as Jesus says, tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today's trouble is enough for today. Trouble and suffering are as natural to life as tranquility and joy. When we worry about these things (having too much of the former and not enough of the latter) we distract ourselves from dealing with the troubles and enjoying the pleasantness that is before us right now. Worry takes us out the present, and Jesus, like Ecclesiastes, is challenging us to live in the present (though not for it).

Living without worry allows us to engage life fully and righteously, doing what is right because it is right and not because we imagine it will earn us some reward in the great by and by. The kingdom of God, as I understand it, is not heaven but this earth and this very life lived with justice, compassion, and humility (Micah 6:8).

Jesus, I believe, anticipated the coming of God’s kingdom on earth in the lifetime of his followers. When it failed to come these very same followers put it off into the future. When the future too proved too soon they projected it into the afterlife where it can never be too early or too late. Unfortunately, removing the kingdom from this world allowed the teachers of the kingdom to store up treasures in this world, deliberately misrepresenting darkness as light, and exploiting the fears of people in the name of God.

For me the challenge of Jesus is not faith but action. Striving first for the kingdom of God and his righteouness means living this moment with an open mind, an open heart, and an open hand. This I believe is what Jesus modeled, and this is what we must try to do in our own lives as well.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Mike: Matthew 6:19-34

While most commentators divide Matthew 6:19-34 into at least four sections (19-21;22-23;24; 25-34), I tend to think they should be treated as a whole.

"Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

"The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy,your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness.

"No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.

"Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do your worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you--you of little faith? Therefore, do not worry, saying, 'What will we eat?' or 'What will we drink?' or 'What will we wear?' For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteouness, and all these things will be given you as well.

"So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today's trouble is enough for today." (Matthew 6:19-34) (NRSV)

The core thesis comes late in the passage: "But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you as well." To be frank, this is the central thrust of the entire Sermon on the Mount. Paraphrased, it might go something like this: "Devote yourself solely to God; all other things will then find their proper place."

Such a perspective clears one vision, so to speak. We see clearly the source of our life (God), our family (all others), our home (the creation), and our direction (love). Any lesser perspective clouds our vision and leaves us to walk in gathering darkness.

In such darkness we fixate on trying to secure our security (storing up treasures, whether of gold, expertise, reputation, etc.). We fail to see how all such treasures are prone to decay or loss, indeed that loss is inevitable. In effect, we wind up trying to walk two paths at the same time, serve two very different masters at the same time (God or our own anxiety). As Jesus says, such a double-visioned approach to life does not work. In the end, we opt for one option or the other.

Like any good teacher or preacher, Jesus illustrates his point with particular examples, hence his injunctions not to worry about food, drink, clothing and the like. Such worry turns out to be futile and betrays a nagging tendency to trust in ourselves (or other providers) rather than in God. More importantly, indulging such worries pull us toward dependence on "wealth." We find the allure of its promise of independence from dependence on God or others too much to resist, and we give it our worship. And both of us know what our traditions have to say about idolatry!

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Rami: Response to Mike's 2/27 Post

No argument from me, Mike. Oh, I take it back. Of there is an argument from me. What would a rabbi be without an argument?

I’m just wondering about the idea that spiritual discipline is a means toward a desirable end. I used to think that my meditation and chanting practices would get me something or take me somewhere. But I no longer think that. No I am not sure that there is anywhere to go or anything to be gotten. God is in, with, and as all things so where is there to go or what is there to get? Now I meditate and chant for the sheer pleasure of doing so.

In Judaism we call this Torah lishma, Torah for its own sake. This is considered the highest form of practice: no aim, no reward, no expectations, just rejoicing in the presence of God, the Shekhina, through study, prayer, contemplation, and chanting. Works for me.

On to the next verse?