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.
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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 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.