95 (More) Theses

In memory of October 31, 1517.

Here are my theses to be nailed to the Cathedral door later this week.  Add yours, and we will build a new set of 95 Theses to guide a renewed Christian revolution.

Father

  1. God is the Incomprehensible One Who is Love.
  2. The Incomprehensible One is revealed in Scripture and experience.
  3. The Father’s power is the power of intimacy. He is so close to His creation that it is impossible to determine what is His and what is ours.
  4. Creation is a deep mystery. Genesis 1 is a liturgy of creation.  Genesis 2ff. is a set of poetic myths.  Scripture, poetry and liturgy are the means to approach the ‘Why?’ of creation.  Science is the appropriate method to uncover the How of creation.
  5. God is not a man. God is Father because He is the source of life.  If your father is not a source of life for you, God is Mother, Auntie and Nana.

Son

  1. Jesus was a Jew. God the Son is now a Jew.
  2. The Son was not a man before He was born in Bethlehem. The maleness of Jesus is a contingency, not a necessity.  His manhood was a way of taking on our sin more fully.
  3. The birth of Jesus was miraculous… and completely within the bounds of nature. Miracles are not magic.  We do not believe in magic.
  4. Mary was not a virgin. That would be medically impossible and a notion based on the mistranslation of the Hebrew Scriptures.  Mary’s virginity is best understood as a means of honoring the Holy Mother of God.
  5. The State and temporal powers put Jesus to death. We owe them nothing.  All of creation is God’s, including the State and temporal powers.  It is our calling to form the powers that be into mechanisms that provide for human flourishing.
  6. Jesus has freed us from sin and death by his crucifixion and resurrection. But belief in the historical life, death and resurrection of Jesus are not essential doctrines of the Christian faith.  For one thing, there is an appalling lack of data to support such beliefs.

Holy Spirit

  1. The Holy Spirit is our admission that we do not understand what or who God is.
  2. God’s Trinitarian being places Him beyond all human categories.
  3. Scripture is a place of encounter with God, not an inerrant record of historical and scientific data.
  4. The Book of Concord is a faithful interpretation of the Gospel. Each of us as faithful Christians is a faithful interpreter of the Gospel.  We are not sinless and we are not inerrant… and, so, neither is the Book of Concord.
  5. We are the One Body of Christ, but our unity is not doctrinal. That unity has never been a matter of theology or practice or law.  Paul, James and Peter battled over theology and the Law.  John writes about those who went out from us but were not of us.  Jesus’s own disciples were corrected by our Lord for trying to prevent those who heal in Jesus’s name, even when those healers did not follow Jesus.
  6. Each of us is Holy and each of us is sin.
  7. Sin is something we take as righteous and natural and necessary. Militarism and patriotism, social conservatism and racism and misogyny, gender essentialism and homophobia are social diseases.  They reject the imagination of the Spirit.
  8. The Body we long for is not the body we have now. “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.”  (1 John 3:2)
  9. The life we hope for will be unexpected and unimagined. We can taste the life everlasting now, in prayer and in love, in friendships and in family, in experience and in learning.
Advertisements

Thomas Keating and the Psychology of Centering Prayer

Father Thomas Keating has done wonderful work by making contemplative prayer a form of prayer for the laity.  His books make Centering Prayer simple and clear and systematic.  We do not have to search the often confusing history of mystical Christianity.  With Fr Keating’s work, we are able to enter an ongoing experience of the Incomprehensible One Who is Love immediately… if only we have the desire, which is the presence of the Holy Spirit in our hearts.

There is a great deal to celebrate in Fr Keating’s work.  My attention, though, has been drawn to certain failures of the Centering Prayer movement that threaten access to the contemplative life Fr Keating wants to help us live.  There are two major shortcomings I think we need to note here.  First, Fr Keating tries to modernize Centering Prayer by couching the practice in terms of Freudian psychology.  Secondly, Fr Keating’s work tries to distinguish Christian contemplation from other forms of mysticism such as Buddhist Zen meditation, painting a harmful picture of Christian exclusivism that needs to be grown out of if Christianity is to get beyond its deadly, destructive history.

In principle, there is no problem with using contemporary science to analyze spiritual practice.  Fr Keating, however, seems unaware that Freud’s school of psychology is wholly unscientific, a modern myth rejected by empirically-minded experts and refuted by research and philosophy.  For instance, in his book Open Mind, Open Heart, Fr Keating defines the concept of Unloading the Unconscious as follows: “The spontaneous release of previously unconscious material from early childhood in the form of primitive feelings or a barrage of images or commentaries; it may occur during the time of centering prayer and outside the time of prayer.”  To put it directly, there is no such unconscious material.  The unconscious is a figment of the Freudian imagination.  There are, to be sure, damaging memories and destructive habits, but the unconscious as conceived of by Freud does not exist.  Unconscious energies do not register on any meters.

Going beyond the philosophical and scientific critique of Freud’s model of the mind, experience teaches that Fr Keating’s claim that contemplative exercises risk a flood of “primitive feelings or a barrage of images or commentaries” is pretty clearly false.  The gentle practice of meditation and contemplation is healing and lays down a solid and stable foundation for a psychologically and spiritually healthy life.  Letting go of attachments and assumptions clears the mind and allows it to drink in reality without worry or the distorted values we usually assume in daily life.  There are often enough difficult lessons along the way.  We are fallen, after all.  As the mind clears, we see sometimes painful truths.  But there is no risk to anyone who wants to sit and pray.  There is no need for special retreats, a spiritual director or an analyst to help us sort through our unconscious detritus.  The only thing we need to begin is the desire that is poured into our hearts.

Fr Keating’s Christian exclusivism is much more alarming than his reliance on Freudian psychology.  By way of example, look at this passage from Open Mind, Open Heart: “Noticing one’s breathing can also serve as a sacred symbol of one’s consent to God’s presence and action within.  In this case, one does not follow one’s breathing physically as is done in Eastern techniques of meditation, but simply observes it.  In centering prayer the purpose is not simply to let go of all thoughts but to deepen our contact with the Divine Indwelling.  The intentionality of faith is fundamental.”  It is a truly strange set of remarks, perplexing because Fr Keating is, in fact, familiar with Eastern practices.  Observing and following the breath are identical techniques.  Fr Keating is making a distinction without a difference for the sake of preserving what he sees as the “Christian essence” of Centering Prayer.

The attempt to paint Eastern meditation as simply a matter of letting go of thoughts is equally troubling.  In Zen, for instance, all of the eightfold path and the paramitas flow out of the practice of sitting.  Meditation is not a mere relaxation technique.  It is the source of life, exactly as it is for the Christian.  Furthermore, Fr Keating’s remark that the distinguishing characteristic of Christian contemplation is faith and seeking “to deepen our contact with the Divine Indwelling” blindly ignores the need for the difficult work of careful translation between the religious vocabularies of different holy traditions.  Of course a Buddhist will not describe her practice in terms of the Divine Indwelling or as flowing from the theological virtue of faith.  That is because she uses her own language and her own experience and her own tradition to make sense of the spirit… or emptiness, or whatever concept she finds appropriate and useful.  Attending lovingly to our sisters and brothers is the only way to escape the deep and enduring hate of our long history.

Religion is scarred by narrow-minded theologians and the smallness of politics and the ugliness of self-righteousness.  Yet, I believe, it is too precious to leave to rot in sin.  We must be careful not to lapse into the religious hypocrisy Jesus condemned, for the sake of our own health and the well-being of our friends and neighbors.  Contemplation is a gift.  If the Spirit has given you desire, follow the Spirit.

A Citizen Soldier Stands Against the President

Is it time to take to the bunker yet? I do not think so.  Though, things are getting quite scary.  As a soldier and a citizen and a Christian, the President of the United States of America is an enemy of the people.  Not the press, not the Democrats, and not the Muslims of the world.  The President daily signs death warrants for soldiers he does not care a scrap for nor gives more than an afterthought over dinner.  The President has chosen his own power and prestige over truth and the good of the American people.  And it is our own President who incites violence (in violation of his own claimed faith) at home and around the world against Muslims, compared to the uncountable hundreds of thousands of Muslims who have taken up arms in our defense in Iraq and Afghanistan and around the world… not to mention here at home in the USA.

As someone who risked his life daily for the American people, I resent the fact that the President has portrayed the US institutions of truth, science and the press, as enemies of the people, institutions without virtually any monetary reward and little notoriety who do their virtuous work in silence.  I deplore the fact that the President has deliberately undermined the Department of Justice and the FBI, organizations which have worked for decades and for over a century to work against the current of politics and protect every American’s rights.  And finally, I despise our President for putting his own politics above the integrity of our electoral system.  There is overwhelming evidence that members of his advisory team and cabinet were beholden to the Russians, and President Trump can do nothing but refuse to talk about the matter or lie.  He would rather repeat a lie than dig up the truth, a play fit only for the Mein Kampf.

Maybe I am exaggerating our situation, but I do not think I am.  There is not anywhere left for the Republican regime left to run except to crime.  This is not an evenly divided system between right and left.  The right has clearly gone off the rails.  They have their own networks of black ops that regularly and consistently distort the truth in a demonstrable and refutable manner.  They have constructed legislation behind closed doors without hearings.  If our Constitutional Republic can survive Trump’s assault intact, it will be a miracle.  We can only match this assault with an army of spirit-warriors.  Satyagraha is our weapon.  Only by peace, mercy and the truth will we find a foundation for a true government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

May our Republic survive by the way of love.  Amen.

 

A First Reading of Steven D Paulson’s “Lutheran Theology”

Right now I am working my way through Lutheran Theology (Bloomsbury, 2011) by Steven D Paulson, professor of Systematic Theology at Luther Seminary in Saint Paul, MN.  As a new member of the ELCA, I find the work frightening.  (Stay tuned.  I have only just begun my work on Paulson’s book, so there is surely more to come from a project that spans so much of Christian thinking.)  Paulson is at pains to maintain the old, contorted language of a faith that sought to distinguish the value of faith and works.  The context of that distinction is all important.  Indulgences and penitential manuals and politics had corrupted the understanding (and practice) of the order of justification.  In order to restore that order, Luther and the Lutheran reformers took some bold steps to overthrow a legalistic vision of love.  This resulted in some theology that ignored the perfectly acceptable place of Christian love as the crowning theological virtue.  In fact, left on its own, Luther’s theology seemed to run contrary to James on living faith and Paul on the preeminence of love.  The Lutheran claim that faith is primary in the Christian life and that, as Paulson has it, with her restored vision, the theologian of the cross can name evil as it is, is a position that is simply dead.  “You believe God is one; you do well.  Even the demons believe – and shudder.” (James 2:19)  Restored vision is not a product of faith alone, but faith working through hope and love.  The holy life of the Christian is not a product of faith, as James tells us, but of faith working through love.  All of Christian history testifies against the notion that faith alone is justifying or in any way gives rise to the good works that Paulson calls the fruits of faith.  Only by blindly holding to a worn out and discredited theological vocabulary can Paulson maintain his vision of Lutheran theology.

Luther’s stand was a necessary move for reform.  Paulson’s position is a retreat from reform into an impoverished dogmatism.  Paulson fails to grasp the points of the reformers stances and places his own idea of how a system of Lutheran theology ought to hang together above demanding a new clarity and hewing to a commitment to real love.  The ecumenical movement can save us from this horror.  Agreements between Catholics and Lutherans ought to free us from this sort of dogmatic contortionism that bastardizes language and ignores history.

The understanding that is coming out of our ecumenical work is permission enough to adopt new language… as if we needed permission.  We are Lutherans!  Founders of the Reformation!  As Christians, we Lutherans believe that God is love.  Love is fundamental to reality, not faith, truth or being.  Theology has had the pyramid of faith, hope and love on its head for too long.  (Catholic theology did it too; it just added more elements to the articles of faith.)  Faith alone is dead faith.  Understanding that we are in an era that demands a revision of our theological language to take seriously the tragedy of the cross that scars the world, that is a mission for a true Church of the Reformation.

Beyond the Threat of a Faithful Democracy

The idea that the United States is a nation of faith can at last be given up as a lie.  Trump represents neither faith nor works.  He has disproven any attempts to depict him as faithful to the truth.  There really can be only one non-ironic interpretation of Trump.  A power-monger plain and simple, he is willing to sell the American presidency to Vladimir Putin for pennies on the dollar, so long as Trump receives the position.

Given that it has been scientifically demonstrated that democracy tends toward suboptimal decision making, we have been begging for an end-time reckoning for some time.  American democratic politics have dragged us into a number of wars and military conflicts for which neither sound moral nor economic reasoning can be laid down.  In fact, a vast number of Americans apparently think medieval mercantilism and free market capitalism are interchangeable.  The medieval mercantilist strategy may prove beneficial for a businessman, but is clearly an inefficient, immoral and unscientific means of lifting the economy and distributing goods and services.

So how are we to confront democracy and mercantilist economics? Off the cuff, I would recommend saddling mercantilists with fines and punishments appropriate to the political system they are trying to undermine: where there is capital punishment, let them be executed; where there is leniency, let us be lenient.  (Why adopt such a rule? Because where the politics grow more harsh and conservative, the more dangerous grows the military, economic, and political weight.  The less dangerous the hold on power, the more likely power is to yield beneficial consequences.)  But these things should not be decided off the cuff.

What is clearly needed is deep, intellectual reflection on the structures of power and economics.  (Ann Coulter and Glenn Beck, if they recognized their inadequacy for such a task, would elect to sit out the debate.  Given the Dunning-Kruger effect, we will always have them with us.)  Despite a lot of crying, much of it from the more extreme left wing of literary theory and their ilk, there really is a great deal of factual knowledge on how to organize an economic system so as to benefit a great majority of the people.  And it starts with a good intellectual grounding in free market economics.  Nobel prize winners in economics such as Paul Krugman have shown us the way, to both reveal the obscene and pursue the praiseworthy.

The structures of power are more difficult to discern, as, in large part, political science is not altogether scientific.  (Nor, for that matter, is Business anything more than bad psychology.  The two disciplines go hand-in-hand.)  There is good work being done on optimizing decision making in groups that can show us the way.  And, of course, there is a solid foundation of material from economics.  How to fuse the optimization of group decision making with our economic needs as a people (that is, as a race or a nation rather than a political caste or party) may be murky, but it is not beyond imagining.

To move forward, though, requires breaking the hold of powerbrokers, and that, I am afraid, means breaking some arms.

Throw over the tables of the money changers…

Or remain cowards in your corners.

Holiness and the Real Human

The Pharisees of the gospels are stereotypes made to ease the dirty business of judgment.  The truth is more likely that when Jesus overturned the tables of the temple, Jesus was marked as a crank, seen as crossing the line of propriety if not morality, and taken as more than a little self-righteous.  We do not behave in vacuums.  Acting outside the boundaries is not recognized as an innovation, but, interpreted in light of the boundaries, is recognized as violence.  The hermeneutic by which our behavior is read is the norm of behavior.  Reformation and revolution can never be recognized outright as the need of the time.  The Pharisees will be our natural measure of holiness.

Of course, this is a difficult and dangerous lesson to learn.  It is difficult to learn because we resist change as the psychologically and sociologically conservative species that we are.  The lesson is dangerous because it makes it seem impossible that we will recognize the limits of authentic and beneficial movements for change, thus rejecting self-serving and possibly deadly calls for revolution.  There is a wariness because we cannot formulate a new law to govern behavior in the face of a truly open society.  But the Gospel call is for love, and not for law.  Paul even goes so far as to reject the legitimacy of the law after the resurrection.  (Understand that how you will.)  As Aleister Crowley wrote not so long ago, “Love is the law, love under will.”

And that is really as much guidance as there may be with regard to love, at least as far as I can see.  Reflections on love should not end.  Views may shift and mutate.  But love is the guide in my worldview…  beyond all good and evil.

Humans are relatively predictable, we act in light of pretty clear material interests even if those interests are not clear to us, when we are fortunate enough to have such settled interests.  We act out of fear of the out-group to protect interests, when we have no material interests worth mentioning, and a hundred other heuristic shortcuts lead to mistakes that govern our behavior.  War and politics are just the highest level expressions of those psychological and sociological mistakes, possibly preventable but definitely predictable.  Good and evil is molded by this evolution of moral vision.  Only love escapes the rule that says the Pharisee is the holy man, only a love that sees with the vision of the other and pours itself out.  This all but guarantees that we will see love as a violence to the domain of holiness.  May we have the courage of the vision of love.

A Holistic Approach to Miracles

My odd article “Against Santa Claus” is flawed, horrendously flawed.  I think.  (Let me never be dogmatic or unchanging in my thinking.  I have been wrong too many times, often due to staking out such immovable opinions.)  Miracles are not the drawing close of the divine to the human.  There is no God but man (or a man.  Choose your scripture.)  This seems to be as close as we get.  The holy is within the ordinary.

As I incensed my little chapel this morning, I was drawn to sit in zazen and seek the holy, which is Nothing.   As Aleister Crowley long ago pointed out, our methods are techniques made to produce specific effects.  Incense and meditation are practically guaranteed to evoke the holy.  A Pure Vision, as far as I can tell, is the Holy evoked within the ordinary.  No miracles, no siddhis.  Just a quiet gaze at the ground.

Evidence is against the miraculous.  To assert otherwise is to lie.  No one has yet brought to me a miracle, a magical power or a siddhi that can stand up to the demand for evidence.  The argument usually follows that faith demands a lack of evidence.  This seems to be a misunderstanding of faith.  Hebrews 11:1 defines Christian faith: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  But what sort of conviction can we have apart from evidence? What assurance do we have in a mere belief that flies in the face of all of history? At best they are irrational positions.  Hebrews doesn’t demand such foolishness.  My spiritual experience leads me to my convictions.  And my convictions lead me to my spiritual experience.  There is a virtuous circle here, indeed.  But that is not a denial of experience.  Rather, we interpret our experience.  And experience our interpretations.

Santa Claus is still a lie.  But the bigger lie is the one that teaches children to wish harder rather than to work smarter to achieve their ends.

Life is miraculous.  Don’t turn the depths of creation into a lie.