knowing and unknowing, faith and doubt

Ever since I started to consider my place in the world and to think seriously about life on a deeper level, I’ve been drawn to spiritual practice and genuine, heartfelt expressions of faith. I was brought up in the Catholic tradition and, for a complex tangle of reasons—including personal shortcomings and real issues with Catholicism itself—I turned away. In college I began to examine philosophy and ways of thinking and living completely devoid of religious practice.

It wasn’t long before I was drawn to Buddhism, especially Zen Buddhist practice, for in it I found wisdom and a way of living based on an embrace of life in the here and now without the added weight of cloudy divine guidance. In practicing Buddhism, I came to know and trust there are no easy answers to be found anywhere for life’s big questions and the essence of life will likely always be shrouded in mystery on some level. In practicing and living, in grappling with the very serious, yet ultimately acceptable, presence of personal suffering, I came to trust in a deeper peace beyond anything superficial or selfish. In time I even began to see that my previous issues with Christianity were as much about my own immature expectations and understanding as they were about any genuine problems with the teaching itself. Out of a strong desire for reconciliation between my spiritual upbringing and a wish to understand the religion that surrounds me in this society, I began to explore Christianity again.

Through the help of patient and loving friends and Christian writers like Rob Bell and Thomas Merton who speak to my Buddhist-enhanced understanding, I began to see the depth of wisdom inherent in Christianity. It was in practicing Buddhism that I eventually realized how shut-off I had become to many Christian ways of thinking and in time reopen myself to those ideas. It hasn’t always been easy over the last few years to set aside my strong disgust with those I think are acting as the worst examples of Christian faith.

Groups that shout the loudest, often through bullhorns, and sicken me the most are hard to look beyond sometimes. It’s the repulsively fundamental groups that would rather beat us over the head for our sins in the hopes that we’ll repent instead of approach our inadequacies with loving-kindness that I’ve often been stuck on. Yet, in the end, I knew this corruption of faith was not the heart of Christianity.

I’ve been determined to seek and understand the loving heart of Christianity I sensed and hoped was there. An undeniable truth wells up from deep within me that says our world needs love and compassion far more than condemnation. A strong belief in the need to help others lovingly and peaceably has been my compass in guiding me through the often murky waters of faith for quite awhile. I know in my heart that I’ve gone astray when surrounded by people who think they are the keepers of the one true way and are in some way superior to outsiders. Fortunately, I’ve managed to find more loving, intelligent, supportive Christians than the abhorrent kind. For this I am grateful.

Along with a far-away friend, I began reading the Bible for myself about a year and a half ago. I was surprised and encouraged to see how readable it is, but at the same time I’ve been challenged and perplexed by much of what I’ve encountered, especially in various Old Testament books. I quickly realized how inadequate my understanding is of the early Judaism out of which these writings arose. For me, a sense of time and place is necessary in better understanding these books. I do hope to learn more about the culture, history, and even the language of these ancient people. Judaism’s ethos and its related teachings cannot be wholly separated and time-warped into today’s world without some modification.

Even though I can appreciate the idea of divine inspiration for the writers of these books, I cannot see these words as the completely infallible word of God. How could I accept what I pick up and read in the Bible as inerrant when I acknowledge how human hands have shaped and reshaped what is today’s Christian Bible? Translation and interpretation have been necessary components of keeping the Christian Bible relevant. A great deal of trust and faith in those Christians that have come before me is necessary if I am going to really appreciate the teachings of the Bible.

I see no problem in keeping all the faculties of my mind in play in making sense of God’s word as handed down—and molded—by generation after generation. I refuse to turn off my brain and just accept on some sort of blind faith that the Bible is God’s final and unequivocal word to be taken literally and without consideration, because, well, I do think God is still speaking to us. For me, written truth does not trump observable, real-world truth as revealed in nature or in everyday life itself.

Not long after taking up the semi-regular practice of Bible reading I began to realize that much of it did speak to me. A growing fondness for the Christian story began to develop and I was coming to see and understand Jesus like never before. Much of this is still in the works and I suppose that will always be the case as long as I am serious about the practice of Christianity. I also came to see that any sort of worthwhile Christian cannot exist in a vacuum. I wasn’t entirely in a vacuum as I had one very helpful far-away friend and a few others here and there who I could discuss such matters with, but I have not had a real-life, local community of Christians to share and worship with in a long time. So I understood the need for community, for church. I had taken up the reading of the Bible and even began to pray and attempt to explicitly commune with God on occasion, but I was lacking a person-to-person connection in my developing faith.

Despite my doubts and remaining confusion regarding Christianity, I started to look for a church I could handle. I hadn’t gone to any church regularly since I was a teenager and was obligated to do so by my parents. In my initial search online I found the UCC (United Church of Christ) and their local church, Peace United Church of Christ. In examining the UCC website I was immediately attracted to their emphasis on the positive and healing aspects of the Christian teaching, especially the good news of the love God has for everyone. The whole message was wrapped in a welcoming, open to anyone package. Their method of worship was supposedly guided by scripture, yet serious thinking and continual reexamination of faith was part of their practice. It all looked wonderful on the screen and so I decided to check the local church out in person.

Sarah and I visited Peace United for the first time at the end of January and were immediately welcomed and introduced to the church by warm, friendly people. Actually, even before walking in the door I was impressed by a sign hanging outside that read “Our faith is over 2000 years old, our thinking is not!” Yes, that’s the type of Christian approach I was hoping to find! The place felt right, as right as Christianity has felt for me in a building in a long time. The service was familiar to my Catholic background, yet not as bogged down with ritual. The hymns were traditional, beautifully backed by organ and choir, albeit difficult for a non-singer like myself to keep up with— yet I have fun trying to sing. We’ve attended services there a number of times since that first Sunday and each time I’ve been impressed with the pastor’s sermons and the relevance of his messages to this life, messages that are culled from the same Scriptures I am now grappling with. I’ve been continually encouraged by the warm, genuinely faithful people that I’ve encountered at the church and I can see myself looking to them for support.

My original idea in looking for a church had me visiting several, but after going to Peace United over the last few months, I no longer think it’s necessary. If I’ve found a church home on the first try, why keep looking? This could be it.

I still struggle with Christianity. I am not beyond doubt. I have difficulty with probably a lot of the same ideas countless other people have had, I don’t think I’m special. Yet it’s all quite confounding sometimes and nearly paralyzing. How do I know in my heart that an actual practice of what’s become Christianity is what God wants for me? How is God even speaking to me in my life now? I’m trying to listen, are my ears not working properly? Why can’t he give me a clear shout out like so many times in the stories of the Old Testament. I know that’s a bit selfish and perhaps immature to wish for, but…

Problem is, Christianity insists there is an all-knowing, all-seeing creative God behind everything. And yet we sit here as human beings separated from him by what seems like an impossibly large gulf at times. Our faith is supposed to bridge that gap, but is Christianity as it has come to me now what God really has in mind for us in living a realized life in this world? Seems to me we as human beings still have a lot of work to do in that regard, in making Christianity what it needs to be.

I am trying to open myself to God, often not really knowing how. In getting back to prayer, even prayers of petition which I’ve often struggled with, I’ve taken to asking God for understanding as it’s begun to make sense to me that I should use the voice I have to ask for help. Sure, an all-knowing God would know my heart’s desire, but who am I to expect him to do the work of reading my mind? Am I so lazy and self-centered that I can’t call out to him? I don’t want to be. I am asking you, dear God, for your help in clarifying my way forward.

I have no problem believing and trusting in a creative force/being that is at the source of all existence. When I look at the world and its tendency towards chaos and destruction I also see and am greatly encouraged by our capacity for love and the undeniable ability we have to awaken to truth on a deeper level. Our willingness to love each other despite all the ugliness that comes with being alive in this world is profound and incredibly awe-inspiring to me. Yet I struggle envisioning God through a human conceptual framework. Seems to me God has to be so much larger than anything my mind can even begin to comprehend or even as often described in the Bible. Sure, I understand the idea of being made in his image, but still, that’s just an image of his ineffable nature.

So God sent Jesus as the ultimate sacrificial expression of love to ultimately bring his misguided world of creative beings back into line with his true way. It’s all so heavy and complex, so layered and nuanced, so mysterious and mind-boggling. Yet the more I learn about the Christian story and the life of Jesus, the more intrigued and even grateful I become. It’s quite a story! I’ve never failed to be inspired by the life of Jesus. It’s what’s often come after Jesus and supposedly in his name that’s bothered me. When I remind myself that everything labeled as “Christian” isn’t necessarily connected to God then I am able go on with less hesitancy.

I am trying to learn how to have a real relationship with Jesus, how to model my life after his and in a way make his life my own. Yet, what character in the history of the world is as massive and has bigger sandals to fill than Jesus!? He’s the so-called Son of God for crying out loud! And yet I can see how we’re all sons of God. Hello, Jesus, I want to know you. Please help me to be like you too. Furthermore, I’m a pragmatist and feel that as long as I’m a human being I’ll be somewhat constrained by my humanness. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try for the seemingly impossible, right?

All this thinking of God and what it means for me now to live a life in pursuit of his way does not have to be contrary to present reality. Good thing, because if what God was asking me for was contrary to life in a real sense then I’d have to ask, “What gives, God?” I mean, the God of the Bible asks for our deepest commitment, but as of yet he hasn’t asked me to strip naked and run down the street singing “Hallelujah”. Nor have I been called to lash out at sinners and demand their repentance. Picking up a bullhorn and blasting others or going clinically bonkers are not in the cards for me.

Ultimate reality remains in balance with ordinary, everyday life despite our feeling of dissatisfaction. Regardless my wish to know the mind of God and to understand the deepest truths of existence, life goes on as it is, just as it is— as ordinary and profound as ever before. Mundane and scared are two sides of the same unified reality.

I will continue to rake leaves and prepare food, the need to pay attention to everyday activity will not go away in this life. Despite our obligations there is freedom and comfort in knowing all is as it should be, momentarily balanced on the head of pin in this time and place on the way to something entirely new in the next. The hard work of taking care of our lives and each other goes on without an end in sight. There will always be more to do and yet we can be filled with the trust available to us from the great unknown. This is the tenuous and wondrous life of a human being!

Recently at Peace United the opportunity has come up to become a member of the church. I think in writing and thinking about all this today I have decided to become a member, although I will continue to think and pray on it for a couple more days. I am definitely pleased with all I’ve experienced at the church and I know that if I am going to deepen my Christian understanding and faith, I have to continue forward with the help of others in that faith. All the questions that beset me now will not be answered today, but in time with God’s grace and the love and support available to me at church and elsewhere, perhaps my way will be clarified. Maybe one day I will really know what it means to be a disciple of Christ.

Christian Contemplation and the Resurrection

I’m continuing to examine and think about Christian contemplative practice with Thomas Merton’s help, still reading The Inner Experience. Recently a friend started reading it as well and I went back several chapters to reread and remind myself of what’s there. We’ve started to discuss some of it, which I thoroughly enjoy. Some pieces have been grabbing me that hadn’t before, like the following passage on the importance of the Resurrection to the Christian contemplative tradition:

It may perhaps not be clear at first sight what this belief in the Resurrection might have to do with contemplation. But in fact the Resurrection and Ascension of Christ, the New Adam, completely restored human nature to its spiritual condition and made possible the divination of every man coming into the world. This meant that in each one of us the inner self was now able to be awakened and transformed by the action of the Holy Spirit, and this awakening would not only enable us to discover our true identity “in Christ,” but would also make the living and Risen Savior present in us. Hence the importance of the Divinity of Christ—for it is as God-Man that He is risen from the dead and as God-Man that He is capable of living and acting in us all by His Spirit, so that in Him we are not only our true personal selves, but are also one Mystical Person, one Christ. And thus each one of us is endowed with the creative liberty of the Son of God. Each one of us, in some sense, is able to be completely transformed into the likeness of Christ, to become, as He is, divinely human, and thus to share His spiritual authority and charismatic power in the world. (p. 38)

I find the idea of God as Christ and the Holy Spirit somehow living in us and able to be made to thrive through the application of faith and contemplative practice much more compelling than what I’ve often encountered in Christianity— the idea of Jesus as some other than present reality power/being we have to chase, mainly through doctrinal assertion, while totally rejecting all we are on a personal level. Granted, Merton would also have us go beyond those aspects of self that are inextricably tied to delusion/sin. Me too, I mean, we’re complex beings filled with a great capacity to love and heal while at the same time being able to destroy all that is good. No doubt some wise discernment is necessary here. We certainly have to learn to go past what is rooted in selfishness. I have to believe though, due to my experience and greatest hopes, that beneath it all we are somehow tied to and called to God. To what level we are actually tied to God remains debatable and fascinating to me.

seeing Jesus in a new light, part I

I’ve been reading a lot of Thomas Merton’s writing lately, currently I’m on The Inner Experience: Notes on Contemplation. Remarkable book so far. I want to talk about what I’ve read already that is helping me to appreciate Jesus more than I ever have. To do that, I first need to include an enormous excerpt that tells the story of Christianity in terms I can relate to surprisingly well:

The story of Adam’s fall from paradise says, in symbolic terms, that man was created as a contemplative. The fall from Paradise was a fall from unity. The Platonizing Greek Fathers even taught that the division of humanity into two sexes was a result of the Fall. St. Augustine, in a more cautious and psychological application of the narrative, says that in the Fall Adam, man’s interior and spiritual self, his contemplative self, was led astray by Eve, his exterior, material, and practical self, his active self. Man fell from the unity of contemplative vision into the multiplicity, complication, and distraction of an active, worldly existence.

Since he was now dependent entirely on exterior and contingent things, he became an exile in a world of objects, each one capable of deluding and enslaving him. Centered no longer in God and in his inmost, spiritual self, man now had to see and be aware of himself as if he were his own god. He had to study himself as a kind of pseudo-object, from which he was estranged. And to compensate for the labors and frustrations of this estrangement, he must try to admire, assert, and gratify himself at the expense of others like himself. Hence the complex and painful network of loves and hatreds, desires and fears, lies and excuses in which we are all held captive. In such a condition, man’s mind is enslaved by an inexorable concern with all that is exterior, transient, illusory, and trivial. And carried away by his pursuit of alien shadows and forms, he can no longer see his own true inner “face,” or recognize his identity in the spirit and in God, for that identity is secret, invisible, and incommunicable. But man has lost the courage and faith without which he cannot be content to be “unseen.” He is pitifully dependent on self-observation and self-assertion. That is to say, he is utterly exiled from God and from his own true self, for neither in God nor in our inmost self can there be any aggressive self-assertion: there is only the plain presence of love and of truth.

So man is exiled from God and from his inmost self. He is tempted to seek God, and happiness, outside himself: a flight that takes him further and further away from reality. In the end, he has to dwell in the “region of unlikeness”—having lost his inner resemblance to God in losing his freedom to enter his own home, which is the sanctuary of God.

But man must return to Paradise. He must recover himself, salvage his dignity, recollect his lost wits, return to his true identity. There is only one way in which this could be done, says the Gospel of Christ. God Himself must come, like the woman in the parable seeking the lost groat. God Himself must become Man, in order that, in the Man-God, man might be able to lose himself as man and find himself as God. God Himself must die on the Cross, leaving man a pattern and a proof of His infinite love. And man, communing with God in the death and resurrection of Christ, must die the spiritual death in which his exterior self is destroyed and his inner self rises from death by faith and lives again “unto God.” He must taste eternal life, which is “to know the Father, the one true God, and Jesus Christ whom He has sent.” (the note here reads: This is Merton’s paraphrase of John 17:3.)

The Christian life is a return to the Father, the Source, the Ground of all existence, through the Son, the Splendor and the Image of the Father, in the Holy Spirit, the Love of the Father and the Son. And this return is only possible by detachment and “death” in the exterior self, so that the inner self, purified and renewed, can fulfill its function as the image of the Divine Trinity.

Christianity is life and wisdom in Christ. It is a return to the father in Christ. It is a return to the infinite abyss of pure reality in which our own reality is grounded, and in which we exist. It is a return to the source of all meaning and all truth. It is a return to the inmost springs of life and joy. It is a rediscovery of paradise within our own spirit by self-forgetfulness. And, because of our oneness with Christ, it is the recognition of ourselves as sons of the Father. It is the recognition of ourselves as other Christs. It is the awareness of strength and love imparted to us by the miraculous presence of the Nameless and Hidden One Whom we call the Holy Spirit.

There’s a couple issues to overlook: first is the idea from the Adam and Eve story that woman is in any way responsible for our problems. This is old news and the story predates Christianity. Eve’s faults are clearly not what’s being emphasized in the first paragraph nor is blame being placed on her. A few pages later Merton goes on to talk about how our estranged self, our limited self (our human aspect) is not in itself evil or completely separate from the divine. So, easy resolution there (at least in my mind tonight). Secondly, Merton continually uses “man” and various alterations instead of “person” or “humanity”. Merton wrote the pieces that eventually became this book in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, with final revisions in 1968. Understandably, he was not able to escape the linguistic shortcomings of his time.

The section I quoted comes after three chapters in which Merton thoroughly describes the differences between the inner self (i.e. the self of contemplation) and the exterior, limited self. Here’s an interesting paragraph that fleshes a little of that out:

But the exterior “I,” the “I” of projects, of temporal finalities, the “I” that manipulates objects in order to take possession of them, is alien from the hidden, interior “I” who has no projects and seeks to accomplish nothing, even contemplation. He seeks only to be, and to move (for he is dynamic) according to the secret laws of Being itself and according to the promptings of a Superior Freedom (that is, of God), rather than to plan and to achieve according to his own desires.

Right on, Thomas. Buddhas of past, present, and future bow to you.

Anyway, back to the earlier, humongous excerpt. What I find fascinating is the compelling explication of the human condition, a telling of our shared circumstance that is not only congruent with my understanding of the fallacy of self (which has come about through my life experience and study/practice of Buddhism), but is also told through a Christian theologic framework and even elucidated with Scripture! This is a big deal to me, because in my years as a practicing Christian I was rarely, if ever, told the story of the religion in much more than the most simplistic terms. I suppose I heard what most kids hear— we’re sinners and need to repent, Jesus/God is the answer and I need to accept that fact if I ever want to even dream of salvation. The problem was, nobody ever properly explained Jesus and the potential relationship we could have with Him in a way that was very compelling.

To be fair, I suppose I wasn’t looking for depth in my faith at the time and I was yet to realize the limitations of my self that were still very much in development. I had to come to know in my own life, in a real way, “the complex and painful network of loves and hatreds, desires and fears, lies and excuses in which we are all held captive.” I’ve learned a thing or two about all that in my 31+ years.

I’ve also come to know something deeper, an interior life that is part of, yet somehow distinct from, the usual life of the world. It wasn’t long after leaving home and having to face life on my own that I got a taste of my limitations and gradually came to know interconnection with something much, much larger than what I used to consider my self. A wisdom began to develop from within that is incredibly hard to explain— there was an undeniable awareness of the vastness of being, rooted in the depths of this very existence. Once again, the story of Christianity from my childhood didn’t seem to talk much about any of this, even if it really was. And again, I admit, I really wasn’t ready to hear much of it before I left home.

I’ve known I dig Thomas Merton for awhile with his understanding and approach to a spiritual/religious life. He’s always seemed to talk about much more than belief. Belief to me often has come across as superficial and, unfortunately, it often is for many people. Belief is only helpful when validated by the reality of life and connected to a practice that actualizes what is often stuck in the intellectual plane. What I see in Merton’s story of Christianity is the imperative to live out the awakened life as revealed by Jesus, not because of some pie in the sky reward (Heaven, as I misunderstood it in my younger years), but because the consequences of our continued sin (delusion) are not only undeniably horrible, but already apparent in everyday life and the misunderstanding of who and what we really are!

Christianity is life and wisdom in Christ. It is a return to the father in Christ. It is a return to the infinite abyss of pure reality in which our own reality is grounded, and in which we exist. It is a return to the source of all meaning and all truth. It is a return to the inmost springs of life and joy. It is a rediscovery of paradise within our own spirit by self-forgetfulness. And, because of our oneness with Christ, it is the recognition of ourselves as sons of the Father.

What I want to say to that is, YES! Or perhaps more appropriately, HALLELUJAH! This is honestly the first time in quite awhile time that a Christian piece of writing has resounded so strongly within me. I’m fascinated by the parallels with Buddhism. From what I’ve read so far, Merton seems to be talking about a genuine path of awakening in the model of Jesus, a Jesus I can certainly get behind. Now the question becomes how exactly to realize this awakening, how do we live a life of contemplation according to the example of Jesus?

I look forward to what the rest of the book has to say.