Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Facing Domestic Violence

Facing Domestic Violence
There are images burned indelibly into my memory.
They elbow their way into consciousness at unsuspecting moments. They grip memory by the throat, throttling it until memory turns purple, until hazy black dots swim in front of its eyes and a scream tries to force its way out of the pit of my stomach, only to remain lodged there like a white-hot rock that won’t go down and cannot come up.

They are images of violence.  Click Here to Read More

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Monday, October 13, 2014

The Illusion of Faith As Certainty

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"Place no hope in the feeling of assurance, in spiritual comfort. You may well have to get along without this.

"Place no hope in the inspirational preachers of Christian sunshine, who are able to pick you up and set you back on your feet and make you feel good for three or four days—until you fold up and collapse into despair. 

"Self-confidence is a precious natural gift, a sign of health. But it is not the same thing as faith. 

"Faith is much deeper, and it must be deep enough to subsist when we are weak, when we are sick, when our self-confidence is gone, when our self-respect is gone. 

"I do not mean that faith only functions when we are otherwise in a state of collapse. But true faith must be able to go on even when everything else is taken away from us. Only a humble (person) is able to accept faith on these terms, so completely without reservation that (s)he is glad of it in its pure state, and welcomes it happily even when nothing else comes with it, and when everything else is taken away.” ― Thomas MertonNew Seeds of Contemplation

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Tuesday, September 2, 2014

With Apologies to Dr. Tyson

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I've often wondered what it is that enthralls so many people about the prospect of finding life elsewhere in the universe. It has always struck me as a kind of sickness very much akin to that which must have gripped early settlers in the Americas. Here in North America someone even gave this sickness a name and glorified it. They called it Manifest Destiny.

I mean, what is it that would cause us to justify the expenditure of so many billions of dollars when it has been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that human beings are the single biggest threat to life on our own planet?

It seems to me that anyone with any sense would be attempting to curb our appetite for interplanetary exploration.  

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Sunday, August 24, 2014

An Epic Worthy of Its Name: Review of Jaya, an Illustrated Retelling of the Mahabharata

Jaya: An Illustrated Retelling of the MahabharataJaya: An Illustrated Retelling of the Mahabharata by Devdutt Pattanaik
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Despite what GoodReads says, there is an audio version of Jaya by Devdutt Pattanaik and it is that version of the Pattanaik's illustrated retelling of the epic of India, the Mahabharata to which I listened.

These are the bona fides that Penguin India, the publisher, offers for this work:

"Devdutt Pattanaik seamlessly weaves into a single narrative plots from the Sanskrit classic as well as its many folk and regional variants, including the Pandavani of Chattisgarh, Gondhal of Maharashtra, Terukkuttu of Tamil Nadu, and Yakshagana of Karnataka. Richly illustrated with over 250 line drawings by the author, the 108 chapters abound with little-known details such as the names of the hundred Kauravas, the worship of Draupadi as a goddess in Tamil Nadu, the stories of Astika, Madhavi, Jaimini, Aravan and Barbareek, the Mahabharata version of the Shakuntalam and the Ramayana, and the dating of the war based on astronomical data."

Pattanaik is assisted in his narration by a group of voice actors who go collectively by the name of Dramanon, "an English language theater group that operates out of three cities in India: Manipal, Bangalore and Hyderabad."  The work done by these narrators was nonpareil, if you will allow me the conceit of using a word rarely employed.  It befits the work done by these narrators.  Careful listening was called for- Indian English has a much different inflection than what I am accustomed to- but it was well worth the extra attention. In fact, I would say that the extra effort to attend to the stories only enhanced my listening experience.

Audio chapters were brief, each fitted to the particular story featured. Direct narration was interspersed with explanatory sections that offered additional commentary on historical and narrative background, the larger narrative context for each story, divergent versions of particular stories, religious implications and literary connections.  I was impressed with the deftness with which commentary was both set off from and woven into the retelling without intruding into the larger story itself.  "Masterful" is a word that comes to mind when I think of the competence manifested in this dimension.

This was my first interaction with the text of the Mahabharata, so I cannot comment on the faithfulness of this version to the original text. One reviewer on Goodreads states that Jaya did not give adequate attention and exposure to the individual tales leading up to the climactic conflict at Kurukshetra. I can say that at 11:49 hours of listening and as a beginner coming to this text for the first time, I was more than satisfied and challenged by the length and breadth of the stories.

The pace, intensity and epic vision of the narration progresses from one story to the next. Jaya begins with seemingly trivial stories that build upon one another layer by layer with a kind of symphonic effect so that when Jaya reaches its climax and begins the descent into more reflective passages, the very structure and rhythm of the tale serves to draw one into an experience of the grand doctrines and transcendant vision of time and eternity that lies at the heart of the Mahabharata.  It is a magnificent work that, at least for me, powerfully fulfilled the characteristic of all great literature- not merely to TELL the tale but to invite the listener into an experience of the timeless truths to which the story is a witness.

I was particularly moved by the Bhagavad Gita, or Krishna's song to Arjuna just before the battle of Kurukshetra, and by Yudistara's experiences at the end of the tale, when he learns one last profound lesson about himself and the nature of forgiveness.  I had read the Gita before, but out of context of the larger story and without benefit of Pattanaik's translation, the real depth and pathos of the song was lost on me.

As a Christian listening to a sacred text from another tradition, I found so much with which to identify here and from which to take encouragement for my journey with Christ.  I must say that at this age I am not inclined to quarrel with the differences that I found in this text and in my experience of Christ and the gospels.  There is plenty with which one could argue, if debate were the only purpose in reading. However, my effort in reading the sacred texts of other religious traditions was simply that of a person of faith who lives in a world that is increasingly challenging me to to adequately understand just what the experiences of so many other people of faith happen to be, if only to converse more intelligently with them.

However, what I find incredibly affirming- miraculous even- were powerfully presented themes like those of God's incarnating himself in the world to save the world and restore the balance of good; the importance of self sacrifice; the tragic consequences of sin as well as the profound power that love of others can have; the necessity of real devotion to righteousness as opposed to the destructiveness of obsessive preoccupation with rules and rituals; and the ultimate realization that one's life lies within the context of a greater wisdom that urges us toward constant self-examination and spiritual growth. 

All of these themes were highlighted with unusual force and intensity, in part perhaps because they were cradled within narrative settings that were unfamiliar to my North American Western Christian sensibilities. More to the point, though, I experienced the power of these stories because of their authentic witness to human experience and to our experiences of the divine. They testify to a phenomenon I learned in Divinity School to call by the term "general revelation," that is, the idea that God has made certain truths known to all human beings in every culture and across the span of history.  In my reading of Jaya, I found out just how powerful, insightful and deeply life-affirming general revelation can be.

I don't have any real criticisms of this book, only profound gratitude for the opportunity to have engaged and to have been engaged by its stories.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Burdens We Carry: Honoring Robin Williams

Photo Credit: Gary Kravit
I see so many people on FaceBook posting a heartfelt piece of wisdom that goes something like, "Treat everyone with kindness because you never know what burdens they are carrying." 

Today my respect and affection for Robin Williams shot way, way up. That a human being could carry the load he did for as long as he did with as much intelligence, humor and outright compassion as he managed is, at least for me, one more sign that the world is still full of miracles. It makes me regret the times when I have responded to my own troubles by looking for someone else to blame and making my world that much smaller and narrower and more tawdry. 

You never really know what burdens people are carrying but when you find out, you can stop for a moment and pay them the respect that they are due if, like Williams, they managed to share love and laughter with a world of other struggling people. Rest in Peace.

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Saturday, August 9, 2014

Defending the God Who Isn't There: David Bentley Hart on The Experience of God

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was one of the most exasperating books on the existence of God I have ever read. It was also one of the most enjoyable. My exasperation resulted from Hart's boringly repetitious variations on the assertion that his intellectual opponents are idiots and any minimally intelligent person will of course agree with him and the intellectual proofs that he endorses.

I hate it when militant atheists try to shovel horse manure on that basis and hate it even more when theists like Hart do the same.  It is embarrassing in the extreme to have that old canard trotted out. Reasonable, highly intelligent individuals have taken positions on both sides of the God debate for millenia--- literally millenia.  To say that only idiots believe or don't believe has been proven beyond doubt to be the most brainless assertion that anyone can attempt to foist upon his or her fellow human beings.

However, when Hart is not succumbing to fits of hubris he provides incisive critique of the God debate in general- namely that neither side can be accused of actually talking about God at all.  Militant atheists continually trot out some variation of the bearded man in the sky as their definition of God and proceed to flail away at a God that is, by definition, NOT God at all and one that only cursory examination of the best arguments for the existence of God proves to be, well, nonexistent.  Fundamentalist apologists in the meantime, obediently fling themselves into the fray to defend a God that does not exist.  Hart's clarification of the classical statements by each of the great theistic traditions rescues the conversation and reminds us of what the best arguments for God have been asserting all along.

Hart develops his thesis by examining three basic arguments for the existence of God as he restates the philosophical and theological explanations of God as ground and source of all being (in whom we live and move and have our being), not as a demiurge or being like other created beings, but as the source of being itself. He then addresses the phenomenon of consciousness to point to the fact that reductionist materialist assertions about human existence as well as the existence of God fail to adequately account for the most ubiquitous experience that we know, namely consciousness.  Lastly he appeals to the experience of bliss- not in a narrow hedonistic sense of the word but more in the line of Aristotle's concept of eudaimonia- the highest order of satisfaction and functioning available to human beings- to point to the transcendent nature of human experience as it relates to the ground and source of all that we are- namely, God.  You'll have to read Hart's book to decide for yourself whether he makes these arguments in as compelling a fashion as I believe he did.

What Hart does NOT do in the Experience of God is to either prove the existence of God or give attention to the validity of Christianity as the unique and final revelation of God's activity among human beings.

Insofar as proving the existence of God I enthusiastically agree with Hart's approach because attempts to "prove" God exists all lead to the same spiritual dead end.  For Christians the definitive statement is this- "The just shall live by faith (Romans 1:17)."  Alvin Plantinga develops much more fully the ideas of "warrants" for belief in God- roughly that belief in God is an imminently plausible and justifiable (as well as justifying) concept and that faith is a special category of knowing available to all human beings.

The closest Hart comes to connecting his arguments for belief in God to his practice of the Christian faith is to point to the scientific validity of personal experience as a category of knowing (see above for my reference to Plantinga's argument for this category of knowing).   By extension Hart points to the contemplative experience of God as one means of confirming God's existence in one's life.
I have to admit that I did not really pay attention to this last until I read the sharp critique offered by Jerry A. Coyne in The National Review. To paraphrase the critic's objection, Hart seems to be challenging the critic to engage in arduous testing and diligent personal experimentation to prove God's existence. 
". . . . he declares that we can’t fully absorb his arguments until we fall on our knees and make ourselves open to a God we don’t accept—and for a long time, too." 
If God really exists, Coyne complains, why do we have to work so hard to "find" him?

I "found" myself reacting to his complaint with the following questions, "You mean you see it as unreasonable to ask you to apply the same disciplined and persistent inquiry that Edison did to the development of electricity? Or perhaps the same self-sacrifice displayed by Curie in her research on radiation? Or Salk, Einstein, Hawking, and on and on and on?  It seems that scientific diligence and dedication is, at least for this one critic, extended to anything BUT the question of God.  THAT question must have an easy answer that requires no discipline or dedication to understand, and if it cannot be known so easily, then the experiences of those millions of individuals who have engaged that kind of effort must be completely invalid.

Hart's book is not going to convince many committed atheists to become theists but my good hope is that it may challenge theists to apply greater discipline to their thinking about God and to their efforts to realize God's presence in their lives.

The very best preaching and theological teaching I've heard over my lifetime has pointed to the same human tendency among those of us who think of ourselves as faithful.  What we often revere is something much less than the God who is calling us to live in dedicated and humble relationship to that One in whom we live and move and have our being.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Untamed God

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Caveat Lector, dear companion. I have the feeling that you are either about to take the ride with me or you’ll be bailing out of this essay pretty quickly. I wouldn’t blame you if you did the latter, because I am going to write some things that I don’t really understand myself. I just need to put them down to see what I think about them. If I am lucky you may stick around to help me think things through.

What I have been pondering, certainly not for the first time, is a subject that I have come to think of as the persistent and highly misunderstood form of inter-species communication that occurs anytime a human being makes a connection with God. I am convinced that what we THINK is happening when we commune with the Divine is almost certainly not what is, in fact, happening.

The first idea with which I have wrestled for quite some time has to do with our persistent human tendency to make everything that is not human over into our own image, a habit sometimes referred to as anthropomorphizing. We believers in God hear a lot about it from our atheist and agnostic friends, and frankly I am sure that they are mostly right in this regard. Put another way, I think that particular criticism actually reflects an unmistakable and oft-repeated biblical criticism of bad religion.
"For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways," declares the LORD. "For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts (are higher) than your thoughts.” Isaiah 55:8, 9
Too many times we attempt to make God over into a comfortable and only comforting caricature of the Divine. I have come to believe that this tenacious habit is in reality a sign of my doubt and disbelief, not a symptom of faith, because while God is certainly personal, God cannot be construed by any stretch of biblical authority to be human.

The first sign of this is that as Creator, God claims complete responsibility for the universe in which we live.

28 “Hath the rain a father? Or who hath begotten the drops of dew?
29 Out of whose womb came the ice? And the hoary frost of heaven, who hath engendered it?
30 The waters are hid as with a stone, and the face of the deep is frozen.
31 “Canst thou bind the sweet influences of Pleiades, or loose the bands of Orion?
32 Canst thou bring forth Mazzaroth in his season? Or canst thou guide Arcturus with his sons?
33 Knowest thou the ordinances of heaven? Canst thou set the dominion thereof over the earth?
34 “Canst thou lift up thy voice to the clouds, that abundance of waters may cover thee?
35 Canst thou send lightnings that they may go and say unto thee, ‘Here we are’?
36 Who hath put wisdom in the inward parts, or who hath given understanding to the heart?
37 Who can number the clouds by wisdom? Or who can stay the bottles of heaven,
38 when the dust groweth into hardness, and the clods cleave fast together? Job 38:28-38
All of the phenomena named above are forces of nature. They are manifestations of creation that cannot be controlled by human beings. They are not lullabies that reassure us of God’s gentle demeanor, but harbingers of the untamed God, who is not subject to human desires and who does not pander to human emotion.

This is not to say that God does not love us but that the God who loves us is of such immensity of power and purpose that we will not in this lifetime understand the Almighty. God’s discourse with Job stands to remind every would-be believer that genuine faith takes into account ALL of the deeds of the Almighty, not merely those which give us warm and fuzzy feelings. The decay side of existence, including its corrosive, destructive and dismembering realities, is also an expression of the Divine character.

OK, well, that is enough for today. I’ll come back later this week to attempt one or two more ideas that seem to follow on from those I have stated above.

In the meantime, what is your reaction to what I’ve written thus far? Leave a comment

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Saturday, December 14, 2013

We Have Not Seen Mandela . . . One Last Tribute to Madiba

A South African chain store has laid on one of the most touching tributes to Nelson Mandela seen in the past week – and it was in the form of a flash mob.
Woolworths teamed up with the Soweto Gospel Choir, who posed as shoppers and store workers at the Parkview store in Johannesburg.

The choir then began an "impromtu" rendition of Asimbonanga [We have not seen him], singing:

Asimbonanga [we have not seen him]
Asimbonang' uMandela thina [we have not seen Mandela]
Laph'ekhona [in the place where he is]
Laph'ehleli khona [in the place where he is kept]

Asimbonang 'umfowethu thina [we have not seen our brother]
Laph'ekhona [in the place where he is]
Laph'wafela khona [in the place where he died]
Sithi: Hey, wena [We say: hey, you]
Hey, wena nawe [Hey, you and you]
Siyofika nini la' siyakhona [when will we arrive at our destination]
The song was written during Mandela's incarceration as a call for his freedom.