Friday, April 29, 2016

Sometimes I wonder why

Sometimes I check up on old posts to see how many views they get. Often I'm surprised that many people read them! Other times I wonder why more people didn't.

I'm re-posting a blog from 2015--really only 6 months ago or so--that not as many people as I had hoped had read.

Read it again, or for the first time. To me, it is one of the most significant things I've ever published here. I'd just like to get a wider readership and comments...please, comments....

Saturday, November 21, 2015

What is True? If anything?

I finished my latest class at OLLI at UConn in Waterbury on Friday. I did 10 90 minute sessions on the Gnostic Christian writings. The people in the class were amazing--on the edge of their seats, deeply engaged, full of questions. It was a great experience. For the connection question on Friday (I always have a connection question to get us in the room together--Connection before Content is one of the bywords of The Mastery Foundation, which I'm a part of) I asked "If I did this class again, what would you're advice to me be?"

And they were wondrous, giving me sound, specific advice that would make the class much better. How great is that?

Dealing with the so-called Gnostic Christians (they were really just 'Christians' that got left out of the Church in the 4th century and suppressed so well we didn't know what they believed until the 1940's when a treasure of their literature was found at Nag Hammadi, Egypt) brings up all sorts of questions about 'belief' and what that means.

I posted this next thing over two years ago. It's part of the writing I've done over the last 5 years about my career as a parish priest. It's time to post it again. It still rings true to me about the whole question of 'belief'.

The truth (as best I know it…)

The final belief is to believe in a fiction, which you know to be a fiction, there being nothing else. The exquisite truth is to know it is a fiction and that you believe in it willingly. --Wallace Stevens

Now we come, at long last, to the part that could get me defrocked, even a humble retired priest like myself. I actually don't “believe” much of anything besides what Wallace Stevens, of all people, wrote. The whole Christian enterprise, as it were, is a 'fiction' to me, albeit a 'fiction' I believe in willingly, passionately and profoundly.
A joke would be in order. This is the best theological joke I ever heard besides the one about the Pope and the Jewish tailor back in the distant past which I will tell you presently. This joke is about Pope John XXIII--”the last good Pope”, I call him, (Until Francis) and the seminal Protestant theologian of the 20th century, Paul Tillich.
One day a Cardinal answers the phone in the Pope's residence. John XXIII is writing a letter but overhears the troubled, almost hysterical one side of the call.
No, that can't be true! ...It is impossible!...I can't believe it!...Of course I will tell his Holiness immediately....”
The Pope looks up and asks the Cardinal, who is ashen and shaking,”bad news I suppose....”
Your Holiness,” the Cardinal begins, “that was our archaeologist in the Holy Land. He called to tell me they have discovered Jesus' body.”
The Pope finishes his letter and gathers his thoughts.
There can be no mistake, I take it?” he asked.
No, you Holiness, it is the body of our Lord.”
John XXIII takes a deep breath. Then he speaks, “We must make this information public. We cannot cover up the most disturbing discovery of this or any other time. But before I make an announcement, I must call Paul Tillich....”
{Tillich, just by way of information, was the theologian who referred to God as “the Ground of Being”. A rather ontological and obscure way of referring to the Deity. Tillich's wittier students used to joke that Jesus must be 'a Chip off the ol' Block of Being.'}
The phone rings in Chicago. Paul Tillich is understandably surprised to be called by the Pope, but they greet each other with respect and the Pope says, “Dr. Tillich, I needed to tell you, the most respected Protestant theologian, that our archaeologists in the Holy Land have found our Savior's body. There is no mistake and I will announce it to the faithful of the world. I just wanted you to know beforehand.”
There is an inordinate pause. The Pope thinks the connection has been lost.
Professor Tillich...?” he says.
Tillich finally responds, “My God, he really lived....”
I do some teaching about Mary Magdalene, because after The Da Vinci Code was published people had interest in the whole history and I did some serious research into the era and the legends of Mary Magdalene. I tell that joke before introducing the Gospel of Mary of Magdala because anyone in the room who has only a church-taught concept of the early church risks being shocked and having their 'belief' knocked off its moorings by what we are going to discuss.
I tell the people, “if you are not shocked and offended by that joke, we can continue....But if it seems too irreverent, you still have time to leave.”
The Gospel of Mary of Magdala and all the other gospels that didn't make the cut by the boys at Nicaea, throw a monkey wrench into the narrow and dogmatic way the 'church' teaches us about the earliest church. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John aren't the only stories around and certainly aren't 'the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth' by a long shot. This whole Christianity thing is a little suspect given the alternative options to what is doctrine and dogma for the modern church we have made 'orthodox'. Had the 'heresies'--Gnostic and otherwise—prevailed instead of the Nicene model of Christianity, how different the church would have been! I think it is problematic for a lot of Christians to reflect on and ponder that possibility.
My basic problem with all this is that I'm not sure what people mean when they say 'do you believe' this or that. As I understand it, the Greek word translated “believe”--pistevo, from the noun pistis—means something like 'to trust in', 'to rely on', 'to cling to'--or as I once heard it described: 'to live as if'.
That doesn't seem to be in the same hemisphere as what most Christians mean when they ask: “do you BELIEVE Jesus is your Lord and Savior?” (Well, of course, a lot of Christians never say anything like that—but whatever 'believe' means in that context is had more to do with 'knowing it is True' than trusting in, relying on, clinging to and 'living as if' it were true.) And most of what gets paraded out as “Christian Belief” asks us to, in a real sense, 'intellectually assent' to the Virgin Birth, for example. That 'assent', it seems to me, means thinking that if only there had been a camcorder around, we be able to actually see the Red Sea parting, Lazarus coming forth and Jesus walking on the waters.
Trusting, relying and clinging don't come from the intellect. The realities 'trust' refers to can't be proven or seen. 'Relying on' and 'clinging to” are, ironically enough, given this discussion, the 'art' to belief's 'science'. Take the Creationist debate (as Heni Youngman would say...”Please...”). There is a lot more artfulness in a God who works through the Laws of Nature than one who worked six days and was finished. The people who object most strenuously to the Theory of Evolution want to replace evolution, which is and always has always been 'theoretical', with something writ in stone, hard, factual...well, what I'd call 'scientific'. When someone says they believe in the story of Creation 'in the Bible', I always ask, “which one?” A lot of people who 'believe in' Creationism, don't seem to realize the story in Genesis 1 is a lot different from the story in Genesis 2. I can't get my mind around why it matters so much 'which is True'--Evolution or Creationism. What gets thrown around as capital T Truth causes a lot of mischief. Like Aryans being being a superior race—that, many people saw as True, true enough to try to exterminate whole ethnic groups.
Truth will get you in a world of hurting. Fiction, on the other hand, isn't anything to either kill or die for.
There's a story about the Pope and the Jewish tailor that comes in handy here. It's a story usually told with signs and hand movements, but I'll try my best to describe those in words.
A new Pope had been elected to replace the dead one, and the Cardinals who were the Pope's advisers, told him, “Your Holiness, your first act as Pontiff must be to expel the Jews from Rome.”
The new Pope was startled by the suggestion. “Why should I do that?” he asked.
Because,” he was told, “a new Pope always expels the Jews from Rome.”
But he was not convinced. “I must have a conversation with one of the Jewish leaders,” he said, “before I exile a whole community.”
The Cardinals objected, but the Pope was firm...and what the Pope is firm about happens....
The message was sent to the Jewish Community that the Pope wanted to interview one of the leaders before determining whether to rid Rome of the Jews. None of the rabbis wanted to go—what good could come of it? But there was a tailor named Jacob who volunteered and was taken to the Pope's rooms in the Vatican.
Since they shared no common language, the Pope conducted his interview in sign language.
The Pope held up one finger and Jacob held up two.
The Pope made a large rotating motion with his arms and hands. Jacob pointed to the floor.
The Pope took an apple from a table and showed it to Jacob. The tailor took a piece of matzo from his pocket and showed it to the Pope.
The Pope dismissed the tailor with a message, translated by one of the Cardinals, that the Jews could stay in Rome.
The astonished Cardinals asked the Pope why he gave the Jews permission to stay.
The Tailor is an orthodox Christian,” he told them.
They all cried out, asking how the Pope could make such a outlandish statement.
Well,” the Pope said, holding up one finger, “I said, 'there is One God', but the Tailor replied by holding up two fingers: 'but there is the Son and the Holy Spirit as well.”
The Pope made his broad motion for the Cardinals. “I told him God was 'omnipotent', everywhere and he correctly replied, by pointing at the floor, 'God is also imminent, present in our midst'....
Finally,” the Pope told them, “I asked, 'is the earth round like an apple as the heretics claim?' And the Jew replied, demonstrating with their unleavened bread, 'No, the earth is flat as the Church teaches.'”
The Cardinals were all stunned.
Back in the Jewish ghetto, Jacob told his people to stop packing, that they were staying. “But how,” they all asked, “did such a thing happen?”
Jacob shook his head. “I'm not sure,” he said.
But what happened between you?” they clambered to know.
It was very odd,” the Tailor told them.
First the Pope said, 'I'm going to poke you in the eye' and I told him, 'I'll poke you in both eyes'.
Then he motioned that all the Jews should get out of Rome and I told him, 'we're staying right here'.”
And that was it?” they asked, incredulous.
No,” Jacob said, “then we showed each other our lunches....”

This brings me to an important distinction I want to make which has a profound bearing on “believing”.
Here's the distinction: Something Happens AND then, We Say Something About What Happened. That's the distinction.

(I'll pause a moment while you think about that and say, either out loud or to yourself: “Well, duh, of course there is a difference between What Happens and What We Say About It....So...?”)
Here's the “So”: What Happened in that story about the Pope and the Tailor is that two men stood in the room, made gestures to each other and then showed each other a piece of fruit and a piece of bread. That's all the Cardinals saw. That's What Happened. But then the Pope interpreted “What Happened” as the Tailor passing a complicated theological test and the Tailor interpreted “What Happened” as cowering the leader of world-wide Christianity into allowing the Jews to remain in Rome.
See what I mean yet?
For the Pope and the Tailor both, What Happened became “what they said about it.” There was NO distinction between the pantomime they carried out and their interpretations. For both of them “What Happened” became “what they said about it.” The event and the interpretations collapsed into each other so completely that each walked away from the moment of their encounter 'believing' it WAS what they “said about it”.
As far as I can tell, “belief”--at least the 'final belief' Wallace Stevens suggested exists purely only through of the distinction between the event and whatever it is we say about the event. Lose the distinction and what we call 'belief' is hopelessly muddled in the collapse of the events into the interpretations.
Another story: The popular cosmologist, Carl Sagan was giving a lecture in an auditorium about the nature of the Universe. During the question and answer period, a little old lady stood up, fairly shaking with anger and said, “Dr. Sagan, you might believe what you said about the Universe, but I know different. The earth isn't floating out in some vast, endless space. The earth is resting on the back of an enormous tortoise.”
Sagan, used to nay-sayers, courteously asked the woman, “well, Madam, what does the tortoise rest on?”
She harrumphed and responded, “an even more enormous tortoise!”
Sagan paused a moment and then asked, “and what does that one rest on?”
The woman snorted at his ignorance. “Dr. Sagan,” she said with pride, “don't traffic with me. It's tortoises all the way down!”
Here's what I think, so far as 'belief' goes, it is 'interpretation' all the way down.
Something happens—a child born in a city named Bethlehem under less than optimum circumstances over 2000 years ago. That certainly happened. In spite of the joke about Paul Tillich, there seems to be ample evidence from all that is know and agreed on, that a child named Jesus was born. That is the event. That is What Happened. The rest, all the rest, beloved, is what people have over 20 centuries Said About that birth. The miraculous insemination, the understanding of poor Joseph, the difficulty of the journey, the angels and the shepherds, the star and the Magi, the scientifically difficult assertion that Jesus' mother was 'ever Virgin', the barn and the creatures therein, even the little kid with his drum. Let's make a distinction between What Happened and What Was Said About It, painful as that distinction may be. Let's begin, at least, with this: the miracle and wonder of a birth—any birth. That, in and of itself, is worthy of pondering and acknowledging. A child was born. A son was given.
Birth is an event, a 'what happened' that should, standing alone, be cause for celebration and gratitude and not a few tears of joy. However, people have literally lost their lives over their disagreement with or even questioning “What Has Been Said” about that particular birth on that particular night in that particular year in that particular place to  those particular parents. C. H. Dodd, a great New Testament scholar from the early to mid-part of the 20th Century, called the whole thing “the scandal of particularity”.
Dodd, it seems to me, understood the distinction between What Happened and What Was Said About It. He thought that “Universal Salvation” wrapped in the particularity of a moment, an event so odd, would be thought of as a 'fiction' by a multitude of people. He was correct. Ogden Nash went further back into the fiction when he wrote:
How odd of God,
To choose the Jews.

But my point is simple. It is not only alright, it is most likely a piece of 'salvation' to believe in a fiction, so long as you can acknowledge, without losing faith, that it is a fiction and you believe in it willingly.
After all, what is there to 'believe' in but fiction. The danger comes when people forget it is a 'fiction' and construe it as a Fact. That is the stuff of “separate but equal”, gender bias, religious persecution, drowning of witches, lynchings, inquisitions, Red Baiting, ethnic cleansing, Holy Wars, Holocausts.
Don't forget, I'm an English major. I've read all the literary criticism anyone should ever read and I know there is “no agreement” on Interpretation of Fiction. Ask a dozen so-called experts about Joyce or Hemingway or Dickens or Shakespeare or Chaucer or Beowulf and you'll get a remarkably wide variety of interpretations. It truly is 'interpretation all the way down'. Imagine poor St. Paul, how he has been 'interpreted' over the centuries to defend slavery, suppression of women, hatred of homosexuals.... Paul, I believe, would be both astonished and horrified to know that his writing (what happened with his words) was so twisted and perverted and used for more than one evil. He was just 'making stuff up' to tell these troublesome churches he had founded and left behind. He was creating a body of 'fiction' for them to 'believe' in willingly. And for all the centuries “what happened” in Corinth became what the interpreters of Paul SAID it was. The 'distinction' was lost. 'What happened' BECAME 'what we said about it.”
People who believe in a fiction willingly don't have an issue with the fictions other people believe in. And here's where the 'distinction' I suggested comes in powerfully--'believers' of whatever ilk, believe in the collapse of What Happened with What We Said About it. That's what they believe in and they also believe 'what they believe in' is capital-T-True, to the exclusion of what everyone else believes in. So we have a planet full of people believing 'their fiction' is True while everyone else's fiction is, well...a fiction.
How much better off would the planet be if everyone who 'believed' distinguished between What Happened and the conversation their particular community has been having over the centuries about What Happened. Sometimes, when I'm talking with someone, I'll make an aside and say, “well, that's a different conversation.” What if, people of faith, 'religious' people of all brands, when confronted with the Truth other people believed in, said, “well, that's a different conversation,” rather than saying, “They are Wrong and I am Right!” Can you begin to see the betterment of the planet from that kind of distinction? What each of us believes in isn't THE TRUTH. What each of us believe in is a conversation about What Happened. And our conversation about What Happened isn't any more True or False than the conversations people of other persuasions are having about What Happened for them.

I'm belaboring this because I know fair well that most 'believers' believe they believe in The Truth rather than a fiction.
It's all fiction. It's all 'made up'. It's all a conversation about What Happened.
This isn't just a Christian problem, although Christians have done most of the damage along the way be believing that what they believe is TRUE. We've seen in recent years the same failure to distinguish between the event and the conversation by Muslims. But since I am a Christian—since I believe willingly and passionately in the Christian Fiction—let me not go pointing fingers at anyone who is having a conversation different than the one I'm having about Jesus. It seems to me that the conversation about Jesus is simply about a different conversation than the conversation about Buddha or the one about Mohammad or the one about Moses or the one about the Earth Goddess or the one about the remarkably varied gods of Hindus or about the tribal gods of people in Africa or the gods of Native Americans, the Aborigines people of Australia or the odd gods of the Norse or the Greeks or the Irish or the British, for that matter, from the distant past.
I would hazard to say that all those conversations are about the same Force, the same Being, the same Event: but that would be imposing my 'fictional believe' on the beliefs and conversations of others, so I shouldn't hazard that opinion.
There's been a lot of hatefulness and mischief because of the various 'conversations' of the different Christian denominations. And within each denomination, there is invariably more than one conversation. In my particular 'tribe'--the Anglicans—there are a whole host of competing conversations and each conversation-group believes their conversation is the True one. The two major conversations across the spectrum of the Christian Church are 'the Orthodox conversation' and 'the Progressive conversation'. We used to call them Conservative and Liberal before those words became so politicized. And before that, in the Episcopal Church, we had the “High Church” and “Low Church” and “Broad Church” conversations—though, the truth be known, none of the 'conversations' were civil enough to deserve being called 'conversation' at all. Mostly it is about who can talk the loudest and the longest. In the church, just as in personal relationships, most of what we call 'listening to each other' is really just letting the other talk while you plan what to say next.
Here's a final story to illustrate a creative way of dealing with the reality that competing conversations are just talking about different fictions.
Centuries ago a new Bishop came to northern Scotland. He was told of a group of monks who lived on a distant island who hadn't been visited by a bishop for several decades. So the Bishop decided he should pay them a visit.
When his ship arrived, he was greeted with great joy by the little community. The Bishop said to the monks, after the introductions, “Let's say the Our Father together....” He started praying but the monks were simply looking at each other in confusion.
We don't know that prayer,” the monks told him.
The Bishop was horrified and decided to test them further.
What are the four gospels?” he asked.
Mark, I think,” said one monk.
Another answered, “isn't John one, your grace?”
But beyond that they could not go.
Exasperated that they knew the Creed no better than the Lord's Prayer, the Bishop ordered them to get the Mass book and he would preside at the Eucharist for them.
After much searching of the chapel, the Missal could not be found.
The Bishop spent the day trying to teach them the Creed and Lord's Prayer, rehearsing them on the books of the Bible and, after sending back to the ship for his personal Missal, sharing the sacrament with the little group.
He told them he would be back in three months and during that time they needed to learn all he had told them to study. When he returned he would decide whether they could continue to be a monestary or not.
The Bishop's ship was several hundred yards off the coast when one of the sailors called to him and pointed toward land. The Bishop and all the crew were astonished to see the whole group of monks running across the waves toward them.
When they arrived, the Bishop stood on the deck of the ship and the monks stood on the water.
Your Grace,” one of them said. “We've already mixed up the words of that lovely prayer. Can you tell it to us one more time?”
The Bishop stared at them for a long time. “Never-mind about anything I told you,” he said, “just go back and keeping doing whatever it is you've been doing.”

Would that the Church were so wise as that long-ago bishop.... 

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some ponderings by an aging white man who is an Episcopal priest in Connecticut. Now retired but still working and still wondering what it all means...all of it.